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Chinese Wall


Maybe the problem with writing about Enron is that it’s not a business story. Maybe it’s a political story.
Maybe that’s why it – and a host of other corporate scandal stories – aren’t sinking in the way they should. There’s precious little outrage. That’s partly because we know live a Wal-mart nation: it’s every man and woman for themselves and, in business, we kinda sorta expect people to behave badly. We understand that they’re motivated by profits and money and greed so when greedy guys get caught no one is hugely surprised.

No place is this more true than California where faith in deregulation and a Libertarian belief in the superiority of corporations let Enron pretty much do what they like for a very long time. The business consequences were severe – people paid and are still paying – ridiculous prices for electricity; the voters’ faith in stage government – never high – is ever lower now. That’s had political consequences that aren’t trivial. Dissatisfaction with electric outages – which we now know were engineered – triggered the effort to recall Gov. Gray Davis. Davis was absolutely right about Enron and what they were doing but the Bush White House made constant fun of his allegations blaming environmentalists for the energy crisis. It’s not just California. With the profits from those engineered trades, it seems Texas got a redistricting plan that’s, well, not exactly legitimate, as Paul Krugman notes in today’s New York Times.
Krugman’s column got me thinking; in politics there are rules, particularly rules about money. Because it’s understood that money can make people soft in the head. So, perhaps the reporting on all this is just taking place in the wrong part of the newspaper. It’s the part of the newspaper that’s gotten all the attention — and a lot of the funding — lately. Even the Times’ Enron reporter, Kurt Eichenwald, said as much in passing:
“Business is the only thing that’s really great to write about any more,” Eichenwald says. “It is the last area of society where there is power that can affect people’s lives for better or worse and can be largely unchecked. You’re not going to have another Nixon or see the CIA run amok. Lots of people learned a lot from the ’60s and ’70s.”
Well, Eichenwald spoke a bit too soon, eh? There’s an argument to be made that the CIA has, indeed, run amok. And perhaps the problem isn’t with the lessons learned from the investigative journalism of the 1960’s and 1970’ but with the way in which most of that reporting has devolved into a kind of light-weight “gotcha” journalism. Outside of one or two real powerhouse investigative reporters working at the big national dailies, there’s precious little really heavy lifting going on in political writing. It’s a bird feeder – reporters fly in, get their sound bites and fly off back to the nest – run by political campaigns. How do you think opposition research by campaigns became so acceptable?
Interestingly, this is the same accusation long leveled at business reporters: they just rewrite press releases. But believe me, business guys are far more interested in winning reporters to their side than they are having a good give-and-take. So we’re left with an interesting situation as we – particularly those of us living in California – look at what’s gone on and how it’s been discussed. Enron is a political story here and in Texas – and maybe a few other places where no one’s looked too hard.

Share  Posted by Chris Nolan at 3:46 PM | Permalink

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