It is not just a story; it is a test. It is not just facts that will be revealed; it is character.
The way that reporters cover the ever-unpeeling Enron scandal will tell Americans as much about the world of journalism as it does about the world of corporate skullduggery. I fear the worst, and I say that for three reasons.
First, the story is a complex one. Even business reporters are struggling to make sense of the precise ways in which Enron played three-card monte with the money of investors and the confidence of brokers and the trust of the general public.
Yet the story is such an important one, demanding so much coverage, that there are not enough business reporters to go around; journalists with no background whatsoever in the machinations of boardroom America have been assigned to the Enron beat, diving into murky and muddled depths and trying to rise to the surface again with nuggets of comprehensible information. It is not an insult to any member of nation’s press corps to say that understanding the Enron shenanigans will be as difficult a task as they have ever had.
Second, the forums of conventional broadcast journalism are too limiting in a case like this. Which is to say that, even if reporters do figure out precisely what happened with Enron, they still have to tell the tale to those of us in the audience, and a story of such intricacy does not lend itself to the kind of reports introduced five nights a week by Brokaw, Jennings and Rather. Those reports are too short, and the Enron story will be a series of long-winded explanations. Those reports are too dependent on visuals, and the Enron story is about private decisions and shifty accounting practices. Those reports require journalistic access, and the Enron story is about closed doors.
It is for this reason that newspapers and all-news cable have an advantage over ABC, CBS, and NBC. The former can run articles with an indefinite number of column inches; the latter can run interviews with experts that take up as much time as required.
Third, and most troubling to me, the Enron story is sure to be politicized, at the almost certain expense of accuracy. In fact, it has already been politicized — with the liberal pundits claiming the Bush administration spent so much time under the sheets with Enron that their bedsores will never go away, and the conservative pundits claiming the Republicans are so innocent they never even said "Gesundheit" when Ken Lay sneezed.
Nonsense. On both counts. The likely truths are these: Politicians from both parties were compromised to some extent by Enron, although not to the extent that they profited illegally or served as accomplices in the company’s scamming; and the ultimate lessons of Enron have more to do with crooked businessmen and accountants than they do with crooked office-holders.
But pundits are making the story a political one, because by doing so they suit the narrowness of their vision and the dictates of their agendas. In addition, politicizing events is a means of simplifying them; it is always easier for a journalist to create a villainous legislator than to explain the labyrinthine nuances of numbers-juggling and other forms of corporate malfeasance. It is easier, in other words, to paint a myth in black and white than to render reality in all of its myriad shades.
So far, a great number of pundits are not even asking the real questions that Enron raises, much less attempting to answer them.
What, exactly, did the company do?
How did it get away with such behavior for so long?
How can that kind of behavior be curtailed in the future?
Are there other Enrons out there just waiting to happen?
Journalists need to figure out this story. They need to relay their information clearly and comprehensively to the rest of us. They need to eschew what is partisan in favor of what is relevant. They need to realize that this story is as serious a test as they have taken in a long time, and that their goal should be nothing less than the honor roll.
Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT .
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