Making News

By Sharon L.Crenson

Wharton alumni trade business careers for headlines and bylines

David A. Vise, W’82, WG’83, must hold the record for fastest return on his Wharton education. The summer after his freshman year, he parlayed his classroom studies and two semesters worth of reading The New York Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer business sections into an internship at The Tennessean newspaper in Nashville. It came with an astonishing amount of responsibility.

Up until then, The Tennessean’s business coverage was limited to one page in the Sunday paper. But the city was headed for a boom. Its population grew from 455,651 in 1980 to 488,374 in 1990 and 569,891 in 2000, according to the U.S. Census.

Vise, still in his late teens, convinced The Tennessean’s top editor that readers were ripe for the breadth and depth of a full-fledged business section. “He looked at me and said, ‘We’re going to start it a week from Sunday, and you are the staff,'” Vise recalls. “Suddenly, I’m 19 years old, and I’m sitting down with CEOs and CFOs.”

Vise, now a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter with The Washington Post, is among a number of people in the media industry whose resumes include degrees from Wharton. Others include Bill Keller, AMP’00, executive editor of The New York Times; Margaret Popper, WG’89, business writer for Bloomberg News; Mort Zuckerman, WG’61, owner of U.S. News & World Report; John Daniszewski, W’79, an international reporter for the Los Angeles Times; and Cenk Uygur, W’92, host of the nationally syndicated radio show “The Young Turks.” Following are the stories of Vise, Uygur, Daniszewski, and Popper, whose vastly different career paths all began with a Wharton business education.

Vise, W’82, WG’83

After his breakthrough at The Tennessean, Vise spent another summer there, then two at The Washington Post, all while getting his Wharton bachelor’s and MBA in five years. A year working in mergers for Goldman Sachs rounded out his education by giving Vise the opportunity to view the business world from the inside. Answering the office phone late one evening, he found himself talking to a Saudi Arabian official interested in arranging the purchase of Getty Oil. Vise says he looked around for “someone who had gray hair” to field the call, only to discover—at age 24—that it was up to him.

But after just a year, Vise did something many would consider shocking. He left Goldman Sachs to return to journalism. During a job interview at the Post, then-Managing Editor Howard Simon actually leaned across the table with a paternalistic look and said: “Do your mother and father know you’re here?”

That was 1984. Corporate mergers and acquisitions were soaring. Junk bonds were on the rise. By the late part of the decade, Vise was working in the Post business department when he teamed up with a features writer-turned Wall Street correspondent in the Post’s New York office. The two coordinated daily and long-term coverage on the intricate link of business, politics and regulation between the two East Cost metropolises.

After the stock market crash of October 1987, Vise and his partner, Steve Coll, took on the daunting task of explaining what went wrong. They latched on to the idea of using former Security and Exchanges Commissioner John Shad’s tenure as the vehicle. In four stories published in 1990, Vise and Coll detailed Shad’s professional style and goals, his battle to stop big investment firms from being prosecuted for the misdeeds of individual brokers, and a deal he struck to put the Commodities Futures Trading Commission in charge of regulating stock index futures. The series won the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory journalism.

“After thousands of hours of interviews, review of thousands of pages of documents, and much solid advise from our editors, we put the series together, but only after a memorable all-night editing session,” Vise and Coll wrote in their introduction to the stories for a book containing the 1990 Pulitzer articles. “When the series appeared in the newspaper, the era at the SEC and on Wall Street that had inspired our collaboration was nearly over. There was a new President, George Bush, who talked about moderating the excesses that had gone before him.”

The stories about Shad were not complimentary, but Shad’s reaction says something interesting about Vise’s work. The former SEC chief, who is now deceased, remained an important source for Vise’s work on a book called Eagle on the Street.

“I think that it’s not the way he would have written it, but he respected it,” Vise said of Shad’s reaction to the series.

After the Pulitzer, Vise went on to write about the Washington, DC, financial crisis of the 1990s, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Justice Department. The latter assignment spurred another book, this one called The Bureau and the Mole, about former FBI agent Robert Philip Hanssen’s life as a double agent selling U.S. secrets to the Russians.

Hanssen was arrested in February of 2001 after he left a garbage bag filled with U.S. intelligence in a Virginia park. In exchange, he was to pick up $50,000 in cash left by his Russian contacts.

He had been doing it for years. As far back as 1990, Hanssen’s brother-in-law and fellow FBI agent Mark Wauck had reported to superiors that he suspected Hanssen was spying for the Russians, in part because he spent far beyond his salary and had thousands of dollars in cash hidden in his home.

Vise’s book not only charts Hanssen’s career and treachery, but also serves as a partial professional biography of former FBI Director Louis Freeh.

Even with all this, Vise found time along the way to author a book about the University of Maryland’s basketball team and remain active with both Wharton and Penn. He interviews potential candidates for admission and makes regular trips back to campus for basketball games attended by friends and family. He married college sweetheart Lori Vise, W’82, and together they have three children.

“The best thing about going to Wharton for me was I met my wife. Wharton was a great matchmaker,” he says.

Cenk Uygur, W’92, Couldn’t Stand Finance, Couldn’t Get Enough of Controversy

Cenk Uygur likes to joke that he earned “a nice business degree” from Wharton and “a nice law degree” from Columbia University, then took those diplomas and crumpled them up.

It’s not quite true. Much to his surprise—he never actually wanted to be a businessman or a lawyer—his Wharton entrepreneurial management and political science studies play a big part in his job as a radio talk show host. But he uses them in a most unusual way.

Uygur co-hosts “The Young Turks” on Sirius Satellite Radio, a show that covers current events from politics to pop culture under the motto, “We don’t make the news, we make the news sexy.” Think of a cross between Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” and a left-leaning Rush Limbaugh. (If the Comedy Central reference escapes you, you’re probably too grown up to be part of Uygur’s target audience. The network’s show featuring Jon Stewart is something like the irreverent take on the news seen on “Saturday Night Live” news anchor skits.)

Uygur’s family left their native Turkey when he was 8 years old and settled in northern New Jersey. A “D” in high school calculus almost kept him out of Wharton. A Penn recruiter went so far as to tell him he should look elsewhere. But Uygur’s heart was set, not so much because he had formulated his own dream of Wharton, but because his father wanted him to attend.

Uygur formulated a circuitous plan: concentrate on getting into Penn, then transfer into Wharton. It worked.

Once he was in, however, Uygur’s drive fell short of that most hyper-motivated Wharton students exude. He wrote columns for The Daily Pennsylvanian and harbored a vague idea that he might someday jump from business into politics. Then came the job interviews.

“When we had to start interviewing, I was like ‘Wow, so I’m supposed to take one of these jobs. But I’m not sure I want one of these jobs,'” he recalls. He made it through multiple interviews with a New Jersey bank, only to lose out when a vice president asked if he loved finance. He recalls his answer as something like “ah, well, um, sure, yea.”

“I don’t think I did particularly well,” he now says. “I think they could see it all over me that I didn’t really want those jobs.”

At that point, Uygur’s dad stepped in again, this time suggesting law school. Again, Uygur went along. It was during his third year, deeply in debt, that panic set in. He didn’t want to be a lawyer either, but accepted a job with Drinker, Biddle & Reath in Washington, DC, to pay the bills, then left work early the first day to spin by the public access television station. By Halloween 1995, he was on air discussing politics and philosophy with a panel of his best friends.

“I didn’t care if no one watched. I thought it was great to have my own TV show,” he says.

He soon began hosting a weekend talk show on WRC. He made appearances on CNN’s “Burden of Proof,” and America’s Voice “Youngbloods,” a political talk show aimed at the younger set. Then it was on to WAMI-TV in Miami, Barry Diller’s flagship station for USA Broadcasting. There, among other jobs, Uygur worked as the supervising producer, head writer and commentator for a show called “The Times.”

In each case Uygur brought a spicy, hip, well-informed voice to the often staid world of broadcast news. It seemed almost natural that when Univision bought USA, Los Angeles beckoned. What better place to inject entertainment into current events than from the world capital of entertainment?

A friend suggested Uygur pitch something to Sirius Satellite Radio, which was still in its fledgling days. Sure enough, the company agreed to put Uygur on air with Ben Mankiewicz, an anchor he had worked with on “The Times.”

Today the duo is on air on two Sirius stations, once during mid-day, the other during afternoon drive. They’ve also signed up affiliates in Wichita, Pittsburgh and Portland.

Still struggling to pay the bills, Uygur is hoping to again someday earn as much as he did his first year out of law school. “The Young Turks” has already moved from taping in his living room to a series of ever larger, better-equipped studios. With recent guests including former New York Governor Mario Cuomo and NBC’s Stone Phillips, it looks as though the show’s mix of the irreverence and seriousness might be just the ticket. At 33 years old, Uygur says he has no intention of staying poor, and no plans to return to law.

John Daniszewski, W’79, Reporting from Baghdad

In many ways, John Daniszewski’s career couldn’t be different from Uygur’s. While Uygur had little idea what his future held while he was at Penn, Daniszewski quickly wedded himself to The Daily Pennsylvanian and to journalism. He was already freelancing for The Associated Press by the time he graduated.

“Wharton was a serendipitous choice,” Daniszewski writes in an e-mail from his current post as Baghdad correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. “It gave me an advantage as a journalist in that I have always felt fairly at ease with economic topics, polls and corporate statements. Courses I took in economics and finance, international business, statistics and labor law have all helped me out through the years, whether it was covering a labor dispute in the Pennsylvania steel industry or the solidarity strikes in Poland.”

Indeed, it’s difficult to overestimate the leg up basic business classes give journalists. Even one statistics class makes covering political polls and scientific studies a cinch. Accounting and finance make dissecting most corporate earnings statements a breeze. Management classes make communicating with corporate officers easier and handling one’s own career negotiations less mysterious.

As an Associated Press newsman, Daniszewski excelled at all of the above. After joining AP full-time after graduation, he transferred to Harrisburg in 1980, New York in 1981, Warsaw, Poland in 1987, and finally to Johannesburg, South Africa as bureau chief in 1993.

The Los Angeles Times came calling in 1996, and it was with that newspaper—known as a haven for some of the industry’s best writers—that Daniszewski went to the Middle East. He moved to Moscow in 2000, but returned to the Middle East last year to cover the war in Iraq.

“It was a difficult choice to leave my family in Moscow and wait out the war in Baghdad,” Daniszewski writes. “I definitely had the feeling I might not get out of it alive… But I thought that even with the danger and the obstacles, it was worth-while to report the course of the war as best I could, and give readers that side of the story.'”

For Daniszewski, the professional reward came when U.S. troops entered Baghdad on April 9. He says it was one of the most exciting days of his journalism career because he saw people who were previously afraid to speak their minds cheer when the statue of Saddam Hussein came down.

Since then, the story has become more complex, with more nuances. All the problems of the occupation—skyrocketing crime; the lack of electricity, clean water, telecommunications and jobs—have in some ways overshadowed those first joyous moments.

And now Baghdad has become a dangerous place again, with soldiers, aid workers and contractors all being increasingly targeted by insurgents.

But since so much is at stake for Americans, for Iraqis and for the rest of the world in putting the country back together and creating a stable and prosperous Iraq, Daniszewski feels fortunate to have the opportunity to write about these great and decisive issues.

They are, of course, also highly controversial issues. Daniszewski recalls one recent story he wrote about American forces evacuating the family home of a member of the Iraqi resistance, then bombing the house. The story thoroughly documented that at least one of the people who lived there was responsible for a guerilla attack that killed an American soldier. The piece also documented the lengths to which U.S. troops had gone to in order to protect the women and children who lived in the home: giving them notice to leave, allowing them to pack up some belongings, and destroying the house only when it was empty.

Still, a reader complained that the Los Angeles Times was biased against the war because a photo that ran with the story showed a woman who had lived in the house in tears near the wreckage. The reader believed the story showed too much sympathy for Iraqis, but Daniszewski maintains the story was unbiased.

“The country is rebuilding and schools are being reopened…but you can’t close your eyes to the reality,” he says. “We have no purpose in being here unless we try to give our best take about what is going on. It’s not like we are going out and looking for the bad things.”

Margaret Popper, WG’89: Balance is Key

Of all the tough things journalists write about—war, quantum physics, opera, space travel—corporate America is one of the trickiest to negotiate.

It’s sadly true that some reporters struggle to learn the difference between a cash flow statement and a balance sheet. But even the best-trained business writers have an extremely difficult job. The reason? No matter how much a journalist knows, there is always someone out there to criticize.

Business coverage is dissected by an army of highly trained, razor-sharp businesspeople and the public relations execs who labor for them.

Margaret Popper is up against them every day. “Against them,” that is, because the relationship between journalists and business is inherently adversarial. News is about the fringes of behavior. “Dog bites man” is rarely a story. “Man bites dog” is Page 1.

Popper works for Bloomberg News, the New York-based brainchild of billionaire businessman-turned NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It’s a company whose information is on the need-to-know list of all major news organizations that cover business, not to mention any company that wants to control its own image or understand its competitors. Popper writes about Morgan Stanley and Bear Sterns & Co., as well as general “enterprise” about Wall Street. “Enterprise,” in journalistic lingo, means pretty much anything other than breaking news. The reporters who do it are the ones who actually have time to contemplate a story before slapping it into print or on air.

Take, for example, one of Popper’s stories from last fall. The headline read: “Ameritrade’s low-cost online trades help beat Schwab.” The story went on to detail how Ameritrade, with a staff one-tenth the size of Schwab’s, managed to grow its operating profit margin to 52 percent, four times that of Schwab.

Those were the facts, but not ones Schwab execs were thrilled to see in print. Popper, who earned an undergraduate degree in English from Yale and worked in investment banking before attending Wharton, says she tries to manage such dicey source relationships by making sure her stories are balanced. She talks to a firm’s friends as well as its enemies.

“The fact that I have an MBA helps. The fact that it’s from Wharton helps tremendously. It says ‘You have to take me seriously. I know what you’re about,'” Popper says.

Dr. Roy Peter Clark, vice president of the Poynter Institute for journalists, says alums like Popper are on the leading edge of journalism’s journey from trade to profession. “There has been a sort of an evolving sense in the last 20 or 30 years that the most important news is increasingly complex,” Clark says. “While it is not impossible for the good generalist to tackle these stories, we’ve seen lots of examples where reporters with specialized knowledge and specialized training have been able to report stories in powerful and revealing ways.”

Dr. Clark went on to say that if a journalist is good, one sign of their power and knowledge is that they will be both feared and respected.

Popper, Vise and Daniszewski all dance a delicate dance with the people they write about. (Uygur, as a talk show host paid to stir opinions, simply bubbles when people say they hate him.) The other three Wharton grads, however, work hard to balance the good will of their sources with the sometimes negative news that must be reported.

“It’s difficult. You fight it every day,” Popper says.

Vise waxes a bit philosophically about the matter. “A newspaper, at best, catches history on the run,” he says. “All the stories, words, images, it’s amazing what happens every single day. If aliens came from Mars, landed on Earth and picked up The Washington Post or The New York Times, they would not get an accurate picture of society. But they would get the extremes of behavior, both good and bad.”

REPORTERS FROM AROUND THE WORLD COME TO WHARTON

Wharton Seminars for Business Journalists

By Martha Mendoza

Sanjeep Junnarker was sure he’d be “bored to tears.”

After all, days and days of accounting might be stimulating stuff for a typical Wharton student, but Junnarker, the New York Bureau Chief for CNET News.com, was no MBA candidate. He was there for an intensive five day Wharton Seminar for Business Journalists, and he wanted action.

It didn’t take long, though, for Junnarker to realize crunching numbers isn’t necessarily a bore.

“Learning some of the basics of accounting and going on to the tricks of the trade to make your books seem stronger, was fascinating,” he said, recalling his seminar last year. “We also learned of the various red flags that tip accounting from mere routine tricks to enliven the numbers to fraud.”

The result of his time at Wharton, said Junnarker, is that he is better equipped to ask questions and follow up when interviewing executives.

Junnarker is one of 2,000 journalists who, over the past 35 years, has taken a few days away from deadlines and headlines to study with some of Wharton’s top professors. The seminars cover everything from corporate governance to marketing strategies.

Each year, about 20 to 40 business reporters, editors and producers gather from around the world for five days of intensive lectures and hands-on exercises with top faculty members. Professors say the time is as valuable to them as it is to the reporters.

“Journalists tend to seek answers in plain English—which is a true test for academics accustomed to speaking ‘ivory-tower.’ I enjoy meeting this group because of the real-world concerns they focus us on,” said Olivia Mitchell, an internationally renowned pensions expert at Wharton. Mitchell holds several positions, including the post of International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans Professor in the Insurance and Risk Management Department; executive director of the Pension Research Council, the oldest research center of its kind in the country; and director of the Boettner Center for Pensions and Retirement Security.

Mitchell, who has offered journalists a session on pensions and retirement for several years running, said working with them is an important part of her job.

“I find that the people who participate in these events at Wharton tend to be the key opinion-makers of the nation. For this reason, I believe it is crucial to work with them to ensure that our research message reaches the broad audience it deserves,” she said.

In addition to Mitchell’s sessions, journalists this year had a chance to study with a range of professors including Robert Mittelstaedt, Jr. Vice Dean of Executive Education and Adjunct Associate Professor of Management, who taught a session on corporate governance issues from a global perspective. Focusing on the role of boards, he presented the journalists with tools to evaluate boards’ effectiveness, and an overview of relevant rules and regulations.

The Wharton Seminar for Business Journalists began in 1968 after University of Pennsylvania’s Public Relations director Donald Sheehan proposed a short program to help journalists understand the important business issues of the day.

Since then, participants have included writers from The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, US News & World Report, and Business Week. They come from across town at The Philadelphia Inquirer and they come from across the globe. Past participants include reporters from the East African Standard in Nairobi, Puerto Rico’s El Nuevo Dia, Expansión in Spain, Portugal’s Fortuna, Israel’s Ha’aretz, Nikkei in Japan and Sydsvenska Dagbladet in Sweden.

Nick Wachira of the East African Standard in Nairobi, Kenya, said participating in the seminar offered him practical knowledge about accounting, finance and investment and management. He said the studies clearly improved his journalism.

“This has allowed me to stand out against many journalists in Africa,” said Wachira, who also happily notes that he was promoted to business editor soon after he completed the Wharton seminar.

Since the program’s inception, business journalism has moved from the stock pages to the forefront of daily newspapers, television broadcasts and web sites. These days, money and business issues affect all aspects of life, from health care and housing to politics and the environment. Business journalists have struggled, and in many cases failed, to keep up with the changes.

An American Press Institute survey released in February concluded that the nations’ business leaders are unimpressed with the quality in most daily newspapers, and that journalism school graduates are ill prepared for business desk assignments.

The survey also showed that programs like the Wharton Seminar for Business Journalists are exactly what editors, reporters and CEOs want—intense and focused education from the experts.

The seminar fees, paid by participating journalists and their companies, cover only part of the cost. The rest— underwriting faculty honoraria, classroom costs, materials and meals—is covered by dozens of corporate and foundation sponsors including Altria Group, Chevron Texaco and Pfizer Inc.

Merck & Co., Inc. media relations manager Chris Loder said his company has appreciated the opportunity to sponsor Wharton’s Seminars for Business Journalists.

“This relationship has proven mutually beneficial and opened opportunities for premier journalists to receive a fine educational experience,” he said.

The National Press Foundation, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit organization dedicated to journalism education, sponsors three participants annually, including tuition and travel expenses. Alumni of the seminars say the program helped them better communicate complex issues to their readers.

“As a journalist who’s been working as a foreign correspondent in Latin America for nearly 25 years, I really appreciated the opportunity to be in an academic setting,” said Geri Smith, Mexico City bureau chief for Business Week magazine.

“Wharton made some of its best-known professors available for the course, and they were wonderful, provocative speakers” said Smith.

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