A Walk With Cory Johnson

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On a sunny Thursday morning with clear blue skies, I met Cory Johnson in front of the Bloomberg office at Pier 3 on The Embarcadero. He had on a crisp blue checked Sports coat, with a satin origami handkerchief tucked into his breast pocket. His hair was perfectly in place. I saw a light coat of powder that tamed the shine on his forehead and nose. Cory was in between shoots in his role as editor-at-large of Bloomberg TV. Despite the gentlemen’s club jacket and his towering six foot five frame, Cory has the energy of a high school teenager trying out for the basketball team.

When we initially planned this interview, I had imagined that it would be accompanied by a couple shots of espresso and perhaps in a café with views of the bay. To my pleasant surprise I was greeted with, “Let’s walk.” In fact, Cory often plucks CEOs, and many others from intense meetings, out of the office to join his walking meetings. He believes that the change of scenery and fresh air, breaks people of their rehearsed pitches and allows a more natural discussion.

Before I was able to start asking some of the questions I had prepared, Cory said, “Tell me something about you.” He listened with trained ears and responded with appropriate feedback. He’s a good listener.

Walking along the water, I asked Cory about his start in journalism. The philosophy of his work principles was largely shaped by his mentors. He has a few, but one that stands out is Gil Rogan. More than anything in the world, the young Cory wanted to write for a magazine. Gil was the editor at Time inc. when Cory worked on FYI, the company’s in-house biweekly newsletter. Cory said that Gil was “loving and harsh, and a brilliant writer”. He recalled entering into Gil’s office, and seeing the many coffee cups on his desk filled with freshly sharpened pencils. As Gil made corrections to the articles or notes presented to him, he stabbed into the paper with such force that the tips of pencils would snap. Without breaking his stride, Gil would grab another pencil and toss the broken one to the floor. Gil was a man who disliked numbers ending in zeros, meaning that if you reported to him that 30,000 people attended a game in Yankee Stadium, he would scream, “It would be a MIRACLE if there were exactly 30,000 attendees at a stadium!” Gil insisted on precise details, not estimates. From Gil, Cory learned to develop an intense demand for details. He learned to avoid brushing over the narratives. He does not accept a smoothed number as a fact. He learned how to ask the questions that rendered the often overlooked truths. This is the foundation to his
investigative journalism.

We made a left turn off The Embarcadero and onto Francisco Street. We ascended steep winding steps that led to Grant Avenue. Cory talked with ease. His breathing and speech cadence were completely unaffected by the steps. He began to explain about how his career led to fraud investigation. With a penchant for spy novels, Cory spent much of his career digging up the hidden stories behind neglected equities, solid but unloved companies and, conversely, stocks undeserving of love—what he calls the three F’s: fakes, frauds, and failing businesses.

Spending so many years training his eyes to find fraud and corruption I asked if he sees the world through cynical eyes. “Not cynical,” he told me, “critical.” The former leader of the NSA passed a bit of advice from his father to Cory, “When you think you see a conspiracy, don’t dismiss the possibility of incompetence.” But Cory’s cautious mind goes deeper than that. His approach to conspiracies is, ”Before you dismiss an irregularity as incompetence, explore every possibility of conspiracy. Doubting is thinking.”

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We circled our way to Washington Square Park. Groups of women were dancing with fans to Chinese music. Dogs were leaping for Frisbees. I asked Cory if he has noticed cultural differences between San Francisco and New York, where he is from originally. Cory said that San Francisco has been defined for the last 200 years by people who want to start over. He thinks that the Bay Area is teeming with people who believe that an empire can be created out of an idea. San Franciscans say, “Right on!” New Yorkers say, “Forget about it.” And “Forget about it” in New York can be used as words of commiseration, or words of encouragement with a sense of false gruffness.

Rounding the corner from Washington Square Park, we walked into Caffe Roma on Columbus Avenue. Cory knows everyone in the café. The owner, Tony, wanted to debate about a topic from one of Cory’s recent Twitter posts. Staff and customers walked by to greet him. I heard “Hey Cory” at least five times while we were waiting for our cappuccinos.

Sitting down at a round, marble table, I asked Cory to explain his process of research in more detail. He grabbed a pen and paper and started drawing small circles and crisscrossing arced lines. He explained that the visual layout of his investigations are hugely influenced by the late artist Mark Lombardi who was known for his large scale pencil drawings that documented alleged financial and political abuses of power. Even Cory’s quick illustration on a scrap of paper was elegant and detailed. The circles represented the main players from one of his earlier investigations. The connecting lines showed the relationship between the circles and how they worked together. On a diagram such as this, it’s stunning to see all lines directing back to one or two individuals or corporations. Cory showed me pictures of his original diagrams on his iPhone, some of which took many months to lay down on paper.

Cory’s obsession with detail and truth, reveal a more quirky side to him. He admitted to being so intrigued with Lombardi that he found a photo of his Williamsburg apartment. On noticing a bookcase in the photo, he zoomed in, and noted the titles of every book. He spent years collecting nearly all the same books from that photo and read each one. He only has a few more books left to complete this curious collection. Additionally, he arranged all the books on his own bookshelves in the order in which they appear in the photo.

Then Cory’s phone rang and he was told he would be back on air in just a few more minutes. We walked briskly back to his Bloomberg office. He told me that he was recently promoted to the position of “Bloomberg editor-at-large” from his previous title of “Bloomberg West editor-at-large.” Along with the substantial increase in TV airtime in his new role, Cory also launched a daily three-hour radio show, Bloomberg Advantage. The long and short—Cory said, “I’ll never sleep.” We parted with a firm handshake and circles and lines in my head.