Welcome to Remarkable People. We’re on a mission to make you remarkable. Helping me in this episode is Kurt Eichenwald.

As an acclaimed investigative journalist, he shares his unbelievable story of resilience battling terrifying seizures and corporate greed.

From a young age, Kurt struggled to control unrelenting epileptic seizures devastating his health. He recounts the harrowing experience of misdiagnoses from incompetent doctors and discrimination from ignorant peers that almost destroyed his future.

However, Kurt learned to advocate for his own care, firing physicians until discovering one committed to relentless trial-and-error treatment.

This self-reliance mindset fueled Kurt’s reporting style too. By thoroughly preparing with deep research on unfamiliar topics, Kurt equips himself to dismantle corporate corruption coverups piece by piece. Despite his condition, Kurt built the strength and knowledge to expose massive scandals like Enron in the pages of globally-read newspapers.

Kurt further persevered by focusing on the life he wished to build after survival during his darkest days – even envisioning future children to maintain hope.

Let his journey inspire you to transform adversity into purposeful contribution too.

Please enjoy this remarkable episode, Kurt Eichenwald: The Relentless Reporter.

If you enjoyed this episode of the Remarkable People podcast, please leave a rating, write a review, and subscribe. Thank you!

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Transcript of Guy Kawasaki’s Remarkable People podcast with Kurt Eichenwald: The Relentless Reporter.

Guy Kawasaki:
I'm Guy Kawasaki, and this is Remarkable People. We're on a mission to make you remarkable. Helping me in this episode is Kurt Eichenwald. He is a distinguished figure in investigative journalism. He's currently serving as the senior investigator at The Conversation. This is one of my favorite publications because of its dependency on academic experts in current events.
As a senior writer at Newsweek, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and a senior writer at The New York Times, his work has encompassed the broad range of topics from Wall Street and corporate scandals to terrorism, healthcare policy, and the dangers of the internet.
Beyond his accomplishments as a journalist, Kurt has crafted a literary legacy with his compelling nonfiction books. This includes The Informant: A True Story, 500 Days: Secrets and Lies in the Terror Wars, and finally, A Mind Unraveled.
In particular, this last book chronicles the humongous challenge of living with epilepsy since a young man. It makes his accomplishments even more remarkable. I'm Guy Kawasaki. This is Remarkable People. And now here is Kurt Eichenwald.
Kurt Eichenwald:
I was diagnosed with epilepsy when I was eighteen in my first semester of college when I had a grand mal seizure, and it took a great deal of effort to get it under control, and I got sicker and sicker, and I had a lot of medical misdiagnoses. I was advised to hide what was going on, and so I pretty much stayed in my dorm room most of the time, and my roommates helped me out.
When I finally stopped doing that, after eight weeks, I was thrown out of school and had to fight to get back in and bring in the federal government in an advisory capacity. And from that time forward, I had to learn how to manage every element of my life.
How do you tell employers or potential employers that you have uncontrolled epilepsy or poorly controlled epilepsy? You could have a seizure at any point. I get fired from one job when they found out and within twenty-four hours of having been hired. But for the most part, people from that point dealt with it pretty well.
Guy Kawasaki:
This job you alluded to, that you had less than twenty-four hours, I have to say I was amazed because I had it in my naive brain that Ralph Nader is protecting the people and he's a do-gooder and all this kind of stuff, and then his organization terminated you when they found out you had epilepsy. What the fuck is that?
Kurt Eichenwald:
Sometimes when you experience people in real life, they aren't what you imagine them to be. The same time that was happening, literally the same time, Ralph had a publication called Multinational Monitor and he fired the editor because he didn't like what they were doing. And so the staff started to form a union in order to, one of their demands was to get the editor back and Ralph busted the union and changed the locks on the door and fired everybody.
This man is not what people think he is. It's been difficult for me over many years when people are holding him up to be a saint to go, "Yeah, this was the guy who fired me when he found out I had seizures." It was funny, because I got a phone call in all of this from Sid Wolfe. He's always called Ralph's doctor.
He was the head of the public health group, I can't remember the name of it. And he was asking me all these questions about it, which made me obviously very uncomfortable. And at the end of it, he just said, "Oh, Ralph is just such a hypochondriac." And I'm like, "What is he thinking? He's going to catch it from me?" Yeah, that was quite surprising.
Guy Kawasaki:
Well, maybe Ralph will spend eternity in a pinto, and that would be just, right?
Kurt Eichenwald:
There were periods I was terrible because I would be on Twitter, that's what it was called, and Ralph would pontificate about something on his feed and I would frequently reply, "Ralph, remember me? I'm the guy you fired when you found out I had a disability, and hey, you really should stop being such a hypocrite." I do enjoy that over time, you do get to be able to snap back at people.
Guy Kawasaki:
Here's another prime example of, I hope you snap back at this guy too. Apparently, I read this and I was shocked that this professor basically said that your writing was horrible.
Kurt Eichenwald:
He was right. That's the thing. I wanted to be in a career that would entail writing, and it was my first college essay. And it came back marked all over the place and red marks, and he wrote across the top, "Your writing is grotesque." And yeah, it was a punch in the face, but I could then read it and go, "Yeah, he's really right. I really need to work on my writing." And he wasn't just being a jerk, he was being quite honest.
Guy Kawasaki:
Wait, Kurt, I'm sorry. You don't write somebody's writing is grotesque and claim that you're taking the high road and doing it for his benefit. Excuse me, that's bullshit.
Kurt Eichenwald:
It worked out that way for me, because he made me take it. I guess I could have taken a step back and gone, "Oh, woe is me." But I just looked at it and went, "Yeah."
Guy Kawasaki:
Did you ever let them know that you worked for The New York Times?
Kurt Eichenwald:
No, I got better during college for everything. And actually I write about this in the book, which was the strangest thing. There was a period of time I was having a grand mal seizure, full convulsions every other day.
Guy Kawasaki:
This is a great story. Please continue. I was just going to ask you about this.
Kurt Eichenwald:
And there were periods, seizures don't just end and you move on. There's something called postictal period. And I wrote an essay and I was fine at that time I wrote it, I would turn it in and get it back. But if I was postictal, I would still write whatever I had to write and I would turn it in and I would get back a graded essay. This is fantastic, this is the best thing. And I'd read it.
And first of all, I didn't recognize it. It wasn't like, "Oh yeah, I wrote this." It was like, "I wrote this?" And they were brilliant. And so I was just sitting here going, I guess somewhere inside me is a brilliant person who comes out. But it was the strangest thing, because there was a clear change in my capacity to write and analyze when I was struggling after a seizure.
Guy Kawasaki:
And is this still true?
Kurt Eichenwald:
I haven't had with one or two exceptions; I haven't had convulsion since I was thirty-five. And now, I have what's called intractable epilepsy, meaning I'm never going to be a hundred percent. Now, I'll have small seizures. On a bad day, I'll have small seizures throughout the day and I don't start getting smart. I start getting exhausted and eventually, it's like I have to go to bed and I'm also not in my twenties anymore.
Guy Kawasaki:
Even that is bizarre. In a sense, it's in you, right?
Kurt Eichenwald:
Yeah, somewhere. Maybe now nobody would say my writing is grotesque. Maybe that person has come out now. I don't know.
Guy Kawasaki:
Kurt Eichenwald:
It did tell me that I had the capacity to write better than I wrote, if that makes any sense.
Guy Kawasaki:
Whatever it takes, man, whatever it takes. I have to say there are more what the hell moments in your memoir than maybe any book I've ever read. And this includes Dr. Nicholson, Dr. Craddock, Dr. Strauss, Whitaker, your father. I hope I got this right, but basically, you had so many misdiagnoses and your father was a very accomplished doctor and he refused to admit this, that you had epilepsy. How do you interpret all of that? At some level, it's medical malpractice.
Kurt Eichenwald:
One of the things that's been disturbing after the book came out, I did a lot of bookstore appearances and a lot of public speaking, a lot of talks at epilepsy organizations. And the number of times that people came up to me and said, "I felt like I was reading my own story." It's not as if what you're reading is, I don't mean for it to be a horror story, but it's not as if it's exclusive to me.
In fact, when I was thinking, it took me a long time to decide to write this book, and there was a point where I went to somebody at the Epilepsy Foundation and I said what I wanted to do, but I said, "I'm going to tell you my story because I don't want to write something that is just a horror story that's just going to scare people who have this diagnosis."
I laid it all out and he said, "There is nothing that you've described that I haven't heard of happening to someone else. I've never heard of anyone who's had all of it happened." But that was me. And then I found people who had a lot of it happened, and people thrown out of school.
When I was, I can't remember if the book had just come out or if it was about to come out, but Notre Dame drove a kid out and I launched it right when the book was coming out right around that time, and I launched a bit of a war on Notre Dame, but the kid ended up going to another school. Fortunately, it started before he got to the school.
Unlike me when it was junior year is when they threw me out. By then I had settled in, this is my school, these people know me. I didn't want to go somewhere else where I would in two weeks become the epileptic as opposed to Kurt with epilepsy, which I was at the school I attended.
This kid, he hadn't started at Notre Dame yet, and they notified the school of what was going on, and they said, "Oh, we're very committed to supporting people with disabilities." But then they made all these rules that he had to follow, and the rules were basically his own neurologist was saying, "He can't do that."
Well, he has to. It was a very effective way of throwing somebody out of school without saying why you were throwing them out. But everybody understood you were throwing them out.
If somebody came in was a quadriplegic and Notre Dame said, "That's fine, we're accepting of that. But first you have to run a quarter mile and well, we're not saying we won't admit him if he's a quadriplegic. We're just saying that to have the full Notre Dame experience, you have to be able to run a quarter mile." That was what they were doing.
Guy Kawasaki:
And when was this?
Kurt Eichenwald:
Oh, 2018.
Guy Kawasaki:
2018 is yesterday. Work with me here. What goes through their minds at Notre Dame or Swarthmore? Do you think they're like smoking in this smoke field room and they're plotting how to get rid of you or how to get rid of this kid? Or what goes through their mind that they think this is ethical?
Kurt Eichenwald:
I'll throw one more on the pile. There was somebody, I don't want to give the school because I'm not a hundred percent sure, but it's a nursing school in Virginia where somebody was training to be a registered nurse, and she went into convulsions and they threw her out of school.
We have nurses, a nursing school. Swarthmore, what they did, it was so long ago, it was when I was in college and they have really advanced. To give you an idea, this book came out, I sent them an early copy because I knew Swarthmore and I sent them an early copy, and I got a phone call from the president of the school.
And of course I'm thinking, "Oh man, this is going to be really bad." And she said, "We'd like you to come up and talk about what is in your book in terms of your experiences from Swarthmore and just basically, let's sit down with current students and talk about the horrible things that the school did."
And I can talk about the lessons that they learned because it wasn't the first time they invited me to speak, and I'd gotten a formal apology from them. But the fact that they really wanted to confront it said a lot.
But that doesn't mean this is over. There are a lot of people, kids who've been thrown out of private school. Now, I'm talking about real people I came across. A girl, who while the mother was waiting to get a signed copy of the book from me, she got a phone call from her daughter's best friend's mother telling her that she had found out that the daughter had epilepsy and she no longer wanted her to spend the night at their house.
And that night, she was supposed to be spending the night at their house, so the mother had to drive home when she started sobbing in front of me. And the mother had to drive home so she could be at the house because her daughter was being thrown out of her best friend's house.
Really, it comes down to ignorance and fear. Convulsions are still frightening if you don't understand what's going on.
Guy Kawasaki:
And so do you think in that case they were worried that they could not take care of her if she had a seizure? Or do you think that they thought epilepsy was contagious or something like that?
Kurt Eichenwald:
I think people are just scared of what they don't understand, and scared of seeing someone who has lost control of themselves physically. And it can be very ugly and people get frightened. And what they get frightened of, I'm not sure. I've always said I don't know because I'm not there. There was a time where it was actually during an interview with Ralph Nader's group before I got the job that someone had a seizure outside, and everybody surrounding him was just absolutely horrified.
And they had this look on their faces that I recognized because it was a look that I saw when I would wake up sometimes. And to me it was like, this is it. Because it was the first seizure I'd ever after years and years, god, half a decade of having seizures. It was the first seizure that I actually could see. I'd seen one before, but there were a bunch of football players piled on the guy, supposedly trying to "help".
And so I couldn't see what was going on, but this was the first time I saw somebody have a seizure. And it was just like, there are no dragons flying around, nothing's on fire. You got to understand, you know there's this thing that terrifies people and it's this thing in you, but you never see it.
You're never part of it, but you only deal with the consequences of what it did. And so seeing this gentleman was really, it was stunning. And it also made me angry on some levels because it's like, "This is what you're so scared of? This?"
And truthfully, if I didn't see everybody surrounding him looking so horrified, I would've thought, "Oh, this is not that big a deal." And so, it was very eye-opening and disturbing and angering all at the same time.
Guy Kawasaki:
Well, this is a very good point in the interview for you to explain to people if they see someone having a seizure, what should they do? Because until I read your book, I thought, "Oh yeah, you got to make sure they don't bite their tongue or something. You got to open their jaws." Tell us what you should do if you see somebody having a seizure.
Kurt Eichenwald:
Step one is don't panic, they'll survive. Step two is be aware of the time because after four minutes, you do need to get an ambulance, get something under their head. Do not force something into their mouth. If somebody's going to bite their tongue after the seizure started, it's too late. It's been bitten. And there is someone I know who the people surrounding him thought the most important thing was to get something into his mouth to stop him from biting his tongue, which apparently he wasn't doing.
And so they tried to pry his mouth open with a bottle opener and broke his teeth. So that's the horror story that says, for god's sake. Now, if the seizure hasn't really started yet, but your person's mouth is open and you want to put a soft wallet in, nothing hard, that's fine. But no spoons, no pencils, nothing that you couldn't bite down on really hard without hurting yourself. Then it is good if you can to be able to turn someone on their side because saliva can build up.
And if you can't, wait until the seizure stops and then turn them on their side. And then talk calmly, get people to back up, get people to be quiet so that there's only one person talking. And then just as the person wakes up, just say, and you might have to say it over and over again, "Okay, you're here, you're safe, you're on a sidewalk on the street. I found you here, and blah, blah, you haven't injured yourself that I can see," just very calm descriptions.
And ultimately, just don't panic. Don't think you can stop it. Don't hold anybody down. The brain is firing neurons saying, "Move your arm this way." And if you push the arm back, the neurons are not changing what they're doing, they're still giving that command. And you can actually make it worse by holding someone down. Just let the seizure proceed. Make sure their head is on top of something. If they're face down, flip them over and be calm. But after four minutes, call an ambulance.
Guy Kawasaki:
Wow, if we just help one person because somebody hears that advice, that makes this episode worth it, right?
Kurt Eichenwald:
Oh, I thought it was worth it just because I was here.
Guy Kawasaki:
Well, that's icing on the cake. Your father was in denial basically, right? And yet you write that you have come to forgive him. Let's talk about forgiveness because you are about a ten on the forgiveness scale. I want to hear about this.
Kurt Eichenwald:
One of the things that I circle back to in the book frequently is the blame that I bear where I made mistakes, where I had decisions that were terrible decisions. And a lot of people will, when I bring this up, will say, "Yeah, but you were just a kid. You were in your twenties." And it's like, yeah, and I don't think we should expect that I would handle this perfectly, but I can stand back and say there were decisions I made that made the circumstances worse.
My father was a pediatrician and a very prominent pediatrician, and pediatric infectious disease. This was not his area. And it was something, they have the old line, the cobbler's children go without shoes. The children of doctors tend to get the worst care, and he didn't want to confront it.
And so he just remained in denial. And you go, how did I forgive him? Let's start off with one thing. Did he do it on purpose? Of course not. Was he trying to do his best? Yeah, his best wasn't very good, but if I can't forgive him, how can I forgive myself? And I have to. When I have to look at people's failures... And there were a lot of people who failed, clearly including me. And if I look at people's failures that led to this, it comes down to who was malevolent and who was human.
My father was human. My first doctor was, I would say, was malevolent. He was so caught up in his own opinions of what was going on and what would stop things that when his treatments didn't work, he just blew it off. He didn't do a good job of figuring out what the side effects of medications were. He was very reckless.
The second doctor was worse, the third doctor was better, but still bad. It was the fourth doctor. I don't forgive the first doctor, and the psychologist at Swarthmore who was a purely malevolent person, and I will never forget his entire thing. I was very glad that the book came out that I was able to talk to his family. He wouldn't get on the phone before he died.
And he died after the book came out, because I identified myself when I called up and they said, "Oh, yes, my father told me about how he saved you and did all these things for you." And I said, "Well, your father is a liar. Your father almost destroyed my life. It was his pushing that got me thrown out of school."
And when I was doing the book, I found a book he had edited and partially written that did it like twenty-five years after he successfully got me thrown out of school. And it talked about how the college health centers have to be protected. And if there's one person who has the risk of harming other people in the student body by draining too much resources or attention, they should be thrown out. And I was like, son of a bitch, there it is.
Actually, I quoted in the book, in the afterword. I have this section on what happened to all of these people, and it quotes that very thing, and the fact that he was also fired because of a group of students who got together because there was a recognition that he just really got off on getting people thrown out of school. And I learned that very early on.
And so he is somebody, the degree to which I would never forgive him. Somebody said, "Oh, he died." And my response was good. I hoped stress from him knowing I was going to print this, played a role.
Guy Kawasaki:
Oh, my god.
Kurt Eichenwald:
The first doctor, same thing. He's not dead as far as I know, I will feel nothing. And there are some people who cause so much damage in your life and hurt you so badly and do so out of the worst of intentions that I'm not a pure enough person to forgive them. I will always forgive people whose actions, no matter how painful they were for me, whose actions were the consequence of human failures of, again, not malevolence.
Guy Kawasaki:
Wow. I would think if I was listening to this and you had this streak of lousy doctors and lousy diagnoses and lousy psychologists, they're probably wondering with hindsight, how do I recognize when I'm getting bad advice?
Kurt Eichenwald:
The most important thing, and it's one of the lessons of the book, I think, is everybody has to be their own advocate. Meaning, the big problem I had with my first doctor is when things weren't going the way he said. They guaranteed, "We'll do this and this will happen." It didn't, and when things weren't getting fixed easily, he just pretty much stopped returning my phone calls. Or if he did, he'd be so cruel and abusive that it would be emotionally destructive.
The reality is I should have let that happen maybe once, not for two years. And as an advocate for my own health, I never would've allowed that to keep going. The second doctor, what his failure was he kept boosting me on my anti-convulsants. These are very powerful drugs and they have some really horrible side effects. And he kept boosting me on them after every third seizure. And I started to get worse, and I started to lose a lot of weight and eventually looked like a scarecrow.
And I was saying, something's wrong. I'm nauseous all the time. I'm losing weight constantly. The seizures are getting worse. And he would say, "Oh, it's stress. It's not the medication." I even knew that was ridiculous. Nobody has so much stress that they lose seventy pounds, and losing the seventy pounds and starting at 170, it was not normal. And just saying stress, now it ended up that in fact he was killing me.
And it was the third doctor who figured out that, actually, he brought in a hematologist who figured out that I was being driven into aplastic anemia by the drugs, and they caught it just in time. But for another year or so, I had to have my blood taken once a week. But then that doctor, and this goes on and on, and it was the fourth doctor, who by the time I sat down with him, and this was spelled out in the book, I didn't trust anybody and I was giving up.
I was planning either to run away and nobody would ever hear from me or if I couldn't manage to get out, that I was just going to kill myself, because I couldn't keep living that way. He came in and he just, I don't know if the book conveys what a humorous character he is, but not in a funny way, in an odd way.
When I'm seeing a neurologist and he is suddenly talking to me about The Brothers Karamazov, if I can remember, that's what it was. And telling me stories about French carriages in the eighteenth century and how those were found because of certain things that happened were found to be triggering seizures.
And it was all designed to throw me off guard because I was very much like on guard. I don't trust doctors at all. They're all terrible.
Guy Kawasaki:
I can't say I blame you.
Kurt Eichenwald:
Yeah, it's like none of you know what you're doing. And he said a few things, and probably the most important thing he said was he talked about bringing in a new medication. And I said, in the greatest tone of obnoxiousness, because I'd heard it so many times, "And then everything will get under control, right?"
And he just looked at me and he says, "I don't know. I can't make that kind of promise. I can promise you that I won't stop and I will do what we need to do to get you to the best life you can live. And that might mean living with some side effects and no seizures or living with some seizures with fewer side effects or everything working out. But I can't tell you one way or the other what's going to happen. I'm just not going to quit on you."
And I knew that was the truth. I knew. And he said the line, "When we understand seizures, we'll understand the human brain, and we're nowhere close to understanding the human brain." And it was that level of humility that none of the other doctors had demonstrated. They all knew. And doctors need to be humble and they need to be careful.
And so that was my big lesson. And this Dr. Allan Naarden trained me on how doctors are supposed to be. And so in the future, I only encountered one more terrible doctor, and I fired him on the very first meeting. But most of my doctors since then have been really good. They keep retiring on me though. I'll have one who's great, then was like, "Okay, I've retired."
Although it's interesting, we moved to Massachusetts not long ago, and I made an appointment to see a neurologist. And I went in and started talking and she said, "Do you remember me?" I'm like, "No." I had given a speech at Harvard, and she came up to me afterwards about the book, and she came up to me afterwards to ask me all sorts of questions. And so I was like, "Oh, really?" She said, "Yeah." I was like, "All right, you better be good then, because I always have another book in me." She's wonderful.
Guy Kawasaki:
One more question about epilepsy, okay?
Kurt Eichenwald:
Guy Kawasaki:
And you stated that if you could go back in time and not have epilepsy, you would not do that?
Kurt Eichenwald:
No, I said something even stronger. If I could change the experiences, I wouldn't do it.
Guy Kawasaki:
And why is that?
Kurt Eichenwald:
Because those experiences were the most formative things of my life. They made me the person that I am, and I like the person that I am. I like the life I live. I would not have gone down the path of journalism. It was too hard. But I did because that experience taught me that we only have one life, and I was supposed to be dead. I wasn't, I survived. And so I was forced first when I was at my sickest, I was forced to really think, what am I fighting so hard for because it's really easy to give up.
And I envisioned a life. It was in Northwestern Hospital that I was having this experience like Paul on the road to Damascus level of experience. And I envisioned everything I wanted in my life. And I went from thinking I was going to be a lawyer to being a journalist. That was the night and the kind of woman I wanted to marry and the kind of life I wanted to live and what I wanted to value. I really charted everything out.
And that wasn't the last time that happened. I had one more big one, which dealt with my kids that didn't exist. In fact, I didn't even have a girlfriend at the time, but it was looking into a future involving my children. And it was interesting because that was taking place at an Irish bar. I wasn't drinking.
I was having a hamburger in Washington on Capitol Hill. And I vowed to myself that if I survived, and at that point I was pretty sure I was going to survive, but that I had this mental image of sitting across from my oldest son.
And yes, it was a son. It just happened to be and telling him I was proud of him and I committed to myself that someday I would come back and this is what this experience would happen. And my kids all knew about this, and my oldest son would be like, "When are we going?" "Not for a while. You have to be older. We have to be the age you were in my, not vision, but in what I saw in my mind's eye."
Eventually, we all went to Washington and I sent the middle boy and the youngest boy or son, they were adults, sent them away. I said I'm sorry, the mental image was of one, not three. So, I have to do this the way I promised me I would do it. And we sat down. The restaurant arranged the table, our table, the way it had been on that day because it needed to be the same. It was a very strange experience.
And I told my son that I was proud of him. And he told me the same thing, and I burst into tears because I had reached that point. It was the ultimate representation that not only had I survived, but I accomplished everything I wanted to accomplish.
Guy Kawasaki:
Wow. I feel like we should end right now. I mean, how are we going to top that story? Shit. Oh my god. But like Elizabeth Warren, nevertheless, I'm going to persist because now you've had some amazing investigative reporting. And I just want to know how you do a story like Enron? How do you take on a story about Enron? Because I read in your book about that, and that is an amazing thing. How do you do a story that big? What goes into it?
Kurt Eichenwald:
Step one, writing nothing. One of the big failings of journalism is that a lot of journalists don't know what they don't know.
Guy Kawasaki:
A lot of politicians too, but I digress.
Kurt Eichenwald:
Yeah, yeah, exactly. And they'll jump into it and start dividing up the world into, okay, here are the bad guys, here are the good guys, who tells me what, you told me this, you're my source, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And Enron collapsed into bankruptcy and everybody was chasing the story and I was doing something else, I don't remember what.
I was at The New York Times and we were getting beaten fairly roundly by The Wall Street Journal. And then there was an announcement that a bunch of document that the accounting firm, Arthur Andersen, which existed then, it was a big accounting firm, had destroyed documents related to Enron. And it was at that point that we had been beaten so many different ways that my specialty was corporate fraud. It was, gee, why hasn't he been doing this?
And so, I was asked by the executive editor, no, I was told by the executive editor to start covering Enron, and I sort of freaked everybody out because my response was, "Okay, give me two weeks." And they're like, "No, we need you on it right now." It's like, I will write some stories but I'm not going to jump into it full force because I don't know what I'm talking about.
This is about a pipeline company that became a trader of gas contracts, but it's actually more complicated than that and I don't quite understand what they do. And then this involved something called structured finance and an accounting rule that pertained to 3 percent outside equity, and I don't know what any of this means.
And I had over the years built up what I called the gray heads who were experts in law, securities law, criminal law, accounting, finance. And I always said I had the greatest business education of anybody I know because it's been constant and all of my professors are the world or national experts. And so I called up these folks and said, "Teach me. I need to understand this. I need to understand that."
And that is really the key to reporting that people miss is, I don't care what somebody tells me. I care what they tell me, makes logical sense and fits within the reality of what we're talking about. If somebody tells me that, "Oh, this fraud was, they did it this way." A big one is, "Oh, Enron lied, and they had all these off the books partnerships," which is the heart of this, "off the books partnerships they didn't disclose."
I go, "Wait a minute. I've read the SEC filings, they did disclose them." "And oh, there was a partnership that was financing Enron operations that was being run by one of its executives and they never disclosed it." "Yes, they did. Just because someone told you that doesn't mean it's true. You can look it up. It's a public document. There it is disclosed."
And so the questions became much more complicated. It's what did they do that wasn't disclosed and how did those things make a difference and why didn't people know what was in the disclosures? And at the end of the day, it was a much more complex story without, oh, here are the absolute good guys and here are the absolute bad guys. People always wanted to be good guys and bad guys, and it's always more complicated.
And at the end of the day, that was how I did it. Once I understood this stuff at a fairly strong level, and it just kept getting deeper and deeper every time, every day I worked, I was able to really do stories. There was always something. I always said my best source is logic. And if you understand what the complexities of the field, then logic will take you to what questions there are to be asked and logic can prove to be wrong.
But the other thing is that if you know what you're talking about, you can stand out among the sources. If you're not sitting there going, "Somebody told me such and such, how do you respond?" I never do that ever. It's always, "I'm working on what I hear, what you have to say, this is what I hear."
And ultimately, it doesn't become like on the one hand and on the other hand, it becomes I'm able to figure out who's right and who's wrong because I have bothered to wait and to learn the complexities before jumping into it but with both feet.
Guy Kawasaki:
From the outside looking in, when you read about Theranos, do you say to yourself, "This was well done, it was well analyzed," or did The Wall Street Journal just jump in on that and said, "Elizabeth lied, Sunny lied, they're going to go to jail"?
Kurt Eichenwald:
I think that they did a very good job. I think that was also a complicated story, and they really delved into those complications very well and got it very clearly. The conclusion of responsibility took a little time, but eventually it did start to sneak in on responsibility, but they didn't jump into it full force from the beginning, which is what happened with Enron. It's, "Oh, it's Lay and Skilling, heads of the company." How do we know that? We don't know anything. We don't know what happened.
Now, there have been some horrible stories that have run in The Journal, that have run in The Times over the last couple of years in terms of on the business side of things. And I stand back scratching my head going, "That's not a good story." I can look at it and say, "Okay, this is going to blow up in their faces," and it does.
Guy Kawasaki:
But from the outside looking in, I'm a reader of The Times or The Post or The Journal, how do I know that? What's the tells on this is a lousy story?
Kurt Eichenwald:
You have to pay attention to bylines, first of all. As an example, there was a journalist, a financial journalist at The Times, Floyd Norris. If he wrote it, I know it was through foreign correspondence, Steve Erlanger. If he writes it, I know it's true or it says truth is a complex concept, it's accurate and fair. People say, I write the truth. If you write the truth, then you can't possibly be wrong. People write what is accurate and fair.
And there are people like that throughout all publications. A great example, there was a story, I won't say in which publication where it had I think four reporters and three editors, and it was about this investment firm and how it was a sweatshop and really difficult and combative environment and interviews with twelve current and former. I'm like, "Twelve? How many people worked there?" "3,000." "Wow."
And so you sit there going, okay, that already strikes me as farfetched. We have something these days which are called Employee Reviews Online. Let me look it up. Oh, four and a half stars from 2,000 employees. What do they have to say? This place is a hot house, but if you're able to work hard and work through this, it's enormously rewarding. This is not the kind of place to come to.
And it was all like, how is it phrased? Some people would go, "Oh my god, it's so terrible." But then when you read the reviews, it was people going, "Wow, this is challenging and it's not for everybody." So it's, okay, this story is going to blow up in their faces and it did.
Guy Kawasaki:
This sounds like Goldman Sachs.
Kurt Eichenwald:
It's a less well-known company. There was a story pertaining to financier, Michael Milken. I can't remember which publication it was in, but just in reading it, it was this doesn't make any sense. I remember it was something to do with getting an enterprise zone designation over certain property.
And it was a big property. It was like many thousands of acres. And there was one little line in there, "Milken among a number of other investors." I said, "Wait a minute, how many? Who? Are they related to him? What are we talking about?"
And then with this billionaire is going to walk around going to the Secretary of the Treasury and saying, "I want an enterprise zone designation for this piece of land," I was like, "This doesn't make any sense." And it ended up that an entity that may or may not have been controlled by Milken, nobody ever established that it was, but it was owned.
I think it was something like 2 percent of this land. And the 98 percent was owned by the other investors who had no connection to Milken other than they held adjacent properties.
And when you look at that, I could read the story from the get go and just say, "Does this make logical sense that a billionaire would go to the Secretary of the Treasury, and the Secretary of the Treasury would take action to make this particular property have a designated," it's like the world doesn't work that way.
The Secretary Treasury doesn't just wave a magic wand and poof, it has that. The government is much more complex and why would Milken go through the trouble? It didn't make any sense. And it ended up it didn't make any sense because it wasn't correct.
Going way back in time, there was, what was his name? The guy from The New York Times who was making stories up at a whole cloth. It was a big scandal and how can I not remember his name? Anyway, this was around 2005 and I read a story he wrote, it was about the DC sniper.
And I read a story he wrote, and the second paragraph, I forget what it was that it had, it was the lead of the paper. And the second paragraph said, "According to three federal law enforcement officials and two state officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because," blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
And I finished it and I said, "Well, that was made up," because the source, I've used anonymous sourcing and it's complicated. And to have five anonymous sources, three on the federal level, two on the state level who are all giving you the same piece of information and are all explaining precisely why they are speaking to you on background and all of them have the same reason, it's an editor's wet dream.
This is the kind of thing they tell us to do, and it's not doable. It's not that we don't do it because we're being difficult. We don't do it because it's not doable.
Well, this guy did it. Jayson Blair, that was his name. What I figured was he made up the sourcing. I never imagined he made up the whole story. And that's what ended up being true is that Jayson Blair was making up stories and getting really good play in The New York Times because he had blockbuster stories with huge sourcing that met all of the desired standards that editors demanded but never got. And there's a reason they never got.
Guy Kawasaki:
I got to ask you this because you're one of the few people I could trust with an answer for this question, all right? It seems like in this political environment, the conservatives say, "Mainstream media is suppressing our speech". And then the liberals say, "Mainstream media, they don't condemn Trump enough as a threat to democracy."
Liberals have their issues, conservatives have their issues with mainstream media and by that, I think they're referring to The Post and The Times. What do we believe? What is the role of mainstream media?
Kurt Eichenwald:
Anytime anybody says, "Oh, The New York Times is a liberal publication," I go, "Which article led you to think that?" And they always cite the editorial page and it's like, that's an editorial. Editorial is meant to be opinion. And they're like, "Yes, but that bleeds into the news." It never did with me. Now, what is wrong with all areas of news? Reporting is hard. It's really hard. Doing it right takes an enormous amount of time, an enormous amount of self-doubt.
The people who doubt themselves, in my career, the people who have consistently thought they were getting it wrong were the greatest reporters because if you're not consistently thinking you're getting it wrong, you're probably getting it wrong. You're always playing defense if you think you're getting it wrong, which means you're busy making things better.
Is there bias in people's personal beliefs that bleeds into the news? I used to say, of course, people have biases but good journalists do not allow. There is a thing of objectivity and you are able to objectively know a fact from a belief and you can have a value system.
But once you get out of social areas, reporters tend to be people who have more experience with the LGBTQ community. They tend to be people who are widely read. They tend to be people who have more of a social experience that gives them one perspective.
Now the problem is that it blinds them to other perspectives. There was a great book I read called White Working Class, which is really about the white working class and not in a look down your nose way, but actually in a, let's examine the values here, the real values, where they stem from and why big news organizations don't get it. It was a really fascinating book. And it's true there are things that they don't get. I'm really circling around your question without answering it.
I would say that what has started to happen is that more and more opinion and personal values, it used to be the problem was just laziness. But now it is more and more opinion and personal values are getting into the news. And that is from every perspective, conservative, liberal, whatever.
And one of the greatest editors of modern times is a fellow named Marty Baron, who was the editor-in-chief at The Boston Globe and at The Washington Post, and he was the senior editor at The New York Times, just a brilliant guy.
And he gave a speech or wrote something, I read it, but I think it was a transcript of a speech where he was talking about how expressing the value of objectivity, and objectivity is important. And I was like, why are we even discussing this? Of course, it's true. This is like saying it's important to wash your hands before performing surgery. I'm like, yeah.
And I had no idea this was a topic of debate. And it ends up that it is. I would encourage everyone, I don't know if this will come up with it, but search Martin Baron and objectivity and see if you can find the speech or whatever it is, because it was horrifying to me to realize that this was the discussion and that Marty was saying in the course of his speech was making it, or what he wrote was making it clear that he was getting progressively in the minority.
Talk about arrogance it takes for a reporter to think that their non-objective beliefs have any value at all. In my books, one of the things I get cited for more than anything else is, well, Kurt never said his opinion on what people should conclude. And my answer to that is once I finish the book, everything I do, not every single thing but everything that's important enough to make your own conclusions. And I am at that point no more qualified to make a conclusion than you are.
And so I will give you the facts. I will not tell you what to think. My opinion has no value.
Guy Kawasaki:
Should there be a statement that in a recent speech, Donald Trump channeled or emulated or was similar to Adolf Hitler and therefore he is a threat to democracy? That's an opinion. That's not a fact, right? It does not belong in there.
Kurt Eichenwald:
But you can state very clearly that when Trump talks about vermin, you can then say this statement set off outrage and upset because it is the language that critics say is a language of Adolf Hitler. And you can quote what Hitler said where he used these exact words and then quote people talking about it. Yeah, but should you stand up and down and say, "Oh my god, he's a Nazi"? No, that's not a reporter's job.
Now, if I was on the op-ed page, would I say that? That would be in the headline. Or he's a fascist, yes, that would be in the headline. And a lot of people are now starting to say he is a fascist, and all you have to do is go off and read about fascist and recognize that that's what we're dealing with.
Joe Scarborough the other morning said, "Okay, we need to finally start using that word." He was like, yeah, you do. But in terms of reporting, if you are telling that, the Republican Party doesn't do any great shakes here either because you go to them and say, "Trump said this, what do you think?" They know exactly what he said. They heard it. They got an aid coming in going, "Oh my god, Trump just said this." And they'll go, "Oh, I haven't seen it. I can't stand." Okay.
Guy Kawasaki:
This is the DeSantis effect.
Kurt Eichenwald:
No, it's been going on for years. This has been going on since Trump got into office. The, "Oh, I have a lunch." And I've always wanted to see if somebody had the guts to walk up and say, "Senator, are you going to lunch? Because I have a question about Donald Trump." DeSantis the other day when he was asked about something that Elon Musk had done.
Guy Kawasaki:
Yeah. “I haven't seen it.”
Kurt Eichenwald:
He's agreeing with the anti-Semitic tweet, "I haven't seen it." I said, "Okay, here it is. This is what he said. This is what was said. This is what he said." "Oh, I don't know the context." It's a tweet. There is no context. That's it. We're not talking about Moby Dick. We're talking about a total of fifty words.
The failure to do follow-ups is one of the biggest failures of our profession. Now, if you don't start doing follow-ups, if you allow someone to say something absolutely ridiculous and then you move on to the next topic, you're no good. You shouldn't be out there.
And there's one, oh, how can I not remember his? I'm doing so badly on names today, and this is someone I know personally, an MSNBC reporter or anchor who had something on The Peacock Network, and he's the best interviewer out there. And I cannot for the life of me. Oh, Mehdi Hasan.
Guy Kawasaki:
Oh, Mehdi Hasan has been here. He's been on, we've interviewed him.
Kurt Eichenwald:
And he's amazing. He is what every journalist should try to be and not enough of them do because he does not let people get away with anything. And if you watch Meet the Press these days or you go, "What do you think of Trump on such and such?" "Trump is 700 feet tall and weighs eight pounds." "Okay. And following up, and what about Biden?" It's, "Wait a minute, follow up for god's sake," to challenge what they're saying. Don't just move on to the next topic.
And this bothers me a lot, is I believe that all TV news on one level or the other have become propaganda machine. They bring on the same people to say the same thing over and over again. They rarely challenge what's being said. They rarely follow up. It's all about getting people worked up one way or the other. And Mehdi Hasan does that. He gets people worked up, but he gets them worked up because he's plowing in and getting information, forcing people to give answers.
Guy Kawasaki:
I would pay to watch Mehdi Hasan be the moderator of a presidential debate.
Kurt Eichenwald:
Me too, but it would never work because he would never do it and nor should he do it. Presidential debates aren't debates. The thing about Mehdi Hasan is he has no qualms about asking the same question over and over and over again.
And a good interviewer, if somebody's dodging and dodging, you just say, "It certainly seems like you're not willing to answer this question, but I'm going to ask it again until you finally do. This is the question, why won't you answer the question? Let's make it into a yes or no question."
And this is the thing is that journalists these days on TV are not asking hard questions. And so when you end up, there's a great old line that I love and applies to so much that if you have a barrel full of garbage and add a teaspoon full of wine, you get garbage. And if you have a barrel full of wine and add a teaspoon full of garbage, you get garbage. Something that's supposed to be good, you only need to add a little bit of bad and it's bad. And if something's bad, you can add a little bit of good and it's still bad.
And the news business, some of it is a barrel full of garbage, some of it is a barrel full of wine, but very little of it is garbage free. And as a result, we have a lot of garbage.
Guy Kawasaki:
Oh my god, that is a brilliant metaphor. We got to end this episode. My head is exploding. I think you have clearly proved if nothing else in this interview that you do not have to have a grand mal seizure to be insightful anymore. You've moved beyond that.
Kurt Eichenwald:
I figured out how to have some of the benefits without all of the downside.
Guy Kawasaki:
So that's Kurt Eichenwald. For the last twenty or so years, I've had Meniere's disease. And one of the symptoms of Meniere's disease is sporadic attacks of vertigo. So at any given moment, the world could start spinning and I would be on the ground sometimes throwing up, in my opinion, not nearly as traumatic as an epileptic seizure.
But I could tell you what an effect the threat of vertigo had on me. I can only imagine the effect of epilepsy on Kurt. He has become such an accomplished investigative reporter, it is truly remarkable. And the story of how his family coped with it, or in one case didn't cope with it, is pretty amazing. I hope if you have members of your family who have something like this, you appreciate what they're going through and do everything you can to help them control or overcome or cope with their affliction.
I'm Guy Kawasaki and this is Remarkable People. My thanks to two people at the conversation, Beth Daley and Priyanka Sharma-Sindhar. The two of them made this episode possible. And if you want really first-rate journalism, check out The Conversation. I guarantee you that you'll find very few news sources more informative than The Conversation.
Let me also thank the Remarkable People team. That would be Jeff Sieh and Shannon Hernandez. They are remarkable sound engineers. Then we have the Nuismer sisters. That's Madisun, who is the producer of this podcast and co-author of our book, Think Remarkable. Tessa Nuismer, recent graduate provides the background research that preps me for these interviews and makes the transcripts perfect. Finally, we have Luis Magaña, Fallon Yates, and Alexis Nishimura. This is the Remarkable People team, and we are dedicated to helping you become remarkable in 2024.
One plug for our book, Madisun and I have a book that is releasing on March 6th. It's called Think Remarkable: 9 Paths to Transform Your Life and Make a Difference. This book reflects the wisdom of the 200 or so remarkable people we've interviewed as well as our experiences in business and life.
The blurbs are from, believe it or not, Carol Dweck, the mother of the Growth Mindset; Bob Cialdini, the godfather of influence; Julia Cameron, the mother of creativity; and a blurb, the likes of which has never been seen, Amy Handy. She was the copy editor of the book, and her email comments to me were so positive and so flattering I decided to turn them into a blurb.
And by the way, last but not least, the foreword is by Jane Goodall. Yes, the Jane Goodall. How can you resist that book? Oh my god, end of promotion. Think Remarkable, available March 6th all over the world. With that, let me say mahalo and aloha.