Tuesday, March 09, 2010

"No One Would Listen" to Harry Markopolos -- Including the Media

Harry Markopolos's book No One Would Listen has zoomed to No. 19 at Amazon.com and I can see why: it's a fast-paced thriller that is clearly the best book so far on the Bernie Madoff scandal. Markopolos sheds new light on how the SEC screwed up its Madoff probe--and how the media also dropped the ball.

Markopolos's book (marred only by, arghhhhh, reconstructed quotes) describes in detail his contacts with the late John Wilke of the Wall Street Journal, which fizzled out after a year. Forbes and the New York Times also were contacted and did nothing, but Markopolos had placed all his eggs in the Journal basket, which was a mistake.

Markopolos writes:
The question I wrestled with for a long time was: Why? When the newspaper that existed only to cover the financial world was handed a detailed explanation of the biggest fraud in Wall Street history, why wouldn't someone at least conduct a cursory investigation? Three phone calls, two phone calls, that's all it would have taken to verify that I wasn't some kind of nut, that the accusations I was making were based on fact. A half hour, that's all.
So far there are two alternative, contradictory explanations of what happened.

One, from Joe Nocera, is that Wilke "spent a little time rummaging around the Madoff story, but he didn’t really have any way to get at it, other than to take Mr. Markopoulos’s word for it, and that wasn’t good enough for either John or The Journal."

The other is that Wilke was eager to do the article but was stymied by his editors.

There's now an alternative theory being floated. A Wall Street Journal review yesterday concedes that "the press also did not cover itself in glory," but goes on to suggest that it was at least partly Markopolos's fault that he was ignored.

Former Journal editor Richard Tofel writes:
The author of "No One Would Listen" is fond of describing himself as "slightly eccentric," but he is not exactly self-aware. By his account, the fault for his having been ignored throughout eight years of warnings is everyone else's. But that conclusion requires ignoring much of his story.
Tofel goes on to recount some eccentric behavior by Markopolos and concludes his review as follows:
None of this behavior makes Mr. Markopolos's case against Mr. Madoff any less convincing. Nor does it excuse the SEC. But it does provide a fuller picture of the author than the cardboard cut-out of the lonely hero we've been hearing about for the past 15 months. With his book, Mr. Markopolos sheds more light than he intends on just why no one would listen.
Indeed. If Markopolos's case was convincing, that doesn't excuse the SEC--or the media.

I have a better explanation for why Markopolos didn't make any headway in the press: he just failed to contact enough reporters.

When Wilke began to lose interest, Markopolos should have gone back to Barron's, which ran an early account raising questions about Madoff, or approached Fortune or BusinessWeek, or other people at the Times or Journal. Or any number of other publications.

In other words, Harry Markopolos could have used a good press agent--which says a hell of a lot less about Markopolos than it does about the financial press.

© 2010 Gary Weiss. All rights reserved.

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