By: Barbara Bedway
In a year when New York Times financial reporter Diana Henriques won multiple awards and became a Pulitzer finalist for her investigative series on insurance companies selling misleading policies to the military, a plausible headline for her personal story could have been: “Appalachian Girl Makes Good.”
Henriques fell in love with journalism as a youth at The Roanoke (Va.) Times and World News (now The Roanoke Times), as part of a program to expose teens to various jobs in the adult world. One day her advisor set her up in the newsroom at a huge oak desk with an old manual typewriter in its well, and she happily went to work: “There were wonderful sounds?pneumatic tubes carrying copy back and forth to the print guys, bells ringing insistently on the Telex machines when stories were filed. When my mother picked me up that day, I told her, ‘I love this.’ I guess I never looked back,” she laughs.
Henriques worked on her high school and college papers, acutely aware there were few female reporters in the 1970s to serve as role models. (She cites Flora Lewis at the Times, UPI’s Helen Thomas, and TV’s Nancy Dickerson.) After graduating Phi Beta Kappa from George Washington University in 1969, she worked as a local and state government reporter for the Asbury Park (N.J.) Press, and as a copy editor for the Palo Alto (Calif.) Times. But she found her niche while working for The Times in Trenton, N.J, where an anonymous tip led her to uncover a scandal involving the state’s housing finance agency. It required that she understand the municipal bond market, so she immersed herself in the arcane language of bond documents.
“I discovered earlier in my career that I loved document reporting; it leveled the playing field for young female reporters competing with male reporters who had access to people I didn’t have,” she explains. “But any story involving a document, I looked at twice.” Her stories on the housing authority and the state’s prison medical system were catalysts for criminal prosecutions and statewide reforms.
The intersection between government and Wall Street continued to intrigue her, as she covered the Street for The Philadelphia Inquirer and handled news and feature assignments at Barron’s. By the time she joined The New York Times in 1989, business had become an exciting, multifaceted beat. Henriques shared an award in 1999 for coverage of the near-collapse of Longterm Capital Management, a hedge fund. After the September 11 attacks, her financial expertise was invaluable as she worked with Metro reporter David Barstow to cover how billions of dollars in charity and victim assistance was being managed.
But in her lengthy career as a financial journalist ? which includes authoring numerous books, among them The White Sharks of Wall Street: Thomas Mellon Evans and the Original Corporate Raiders and Fidelity’s World: The Secret Life and Public Power of the Mutual Fund Giant ? Henriques had yet to encounter the rarefied world she calls “Planet Military.” Her series on how financial firms, often employing former military officers, lure soldiers into purchasing costly, confusing, and utterly unsuitable insurance and other financial products, required her to enter into that self-contained world and win the trust of people inherently hostile toward the media, especially the supposedly liberal New York Times. It was an experience, she says, that moved her “way past” her comfort zone.
“I’ve become more appreciative of the gulf that separates the civilian and military worlds,” she says. “Yet many of them were willing to trust me enough to share information or point me in the direction of information, which ran counter to their culture. They took a leap of faith and came to feel I could help, that the New York Times could help, if it were to expose what was happening. They were incredibly brave.”
Her series, which has won the $25,000 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting, the George Polk Award for military reporting, and the Worth Bingham Prize for investigative reporting in the public interest (and was a Pulitzer near-miss), also began with an anonymous tip.
“The best stories always start with a tip,” she says, clearly relishing the investigative process. She did every interview in the series herself, and combed through voluminous court records.
Henriques is passionate about the need for all journalists to acquire business literacy no matter their beat, “because business has escaped all its natural boundaries ? it’s part of the news on science, culture, higher education, and sports. What is sports but a compendium of largely for-profit businesses? Somebody owns those teams, and you’re covering them, and if you don’t have an understanding of how business works, you’ll miss the complete picture. It’s hard to find a beat now not driven to some degree by the marketplace, except religion.” She was drafted by the Times to teach a mini-seminar called “Business Literacy for the Nonbusiness Journalist,” and frequently lectures at the American Press Institute and other press centers.
She continues to receive letters and e-mail about the series, many from people who say they had similar experiences being sold inappropriate policies at least as far back as the Vietnam War. Congress is considering several bills to address some of the abuses she uncovered, and the Department of Defense is re-examining its rules. Some state regulators are conducting their own investigations of the abuses.
“Never had I had anything to equal that response, of all the hot-button issues I’ve covered,” Henriques says. She is sanguine that this reporting experience might lead to a better working relationship between the press and the military: “I’ve learned so much about covering Planet Military. I allow myself to hope that Planet Military can learn a little from the Fourth Estate. We can help. A free press armed with the truth can sometimes make things a little better.”