Reporting on Business: Enron and beyond. (Journalist's Trade)

Nieman Reports, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Reporting on Business: Enron and beyond. (Journalist's Trade)


Enron's extraordinary collapse leapt into public view with banner headlines befitting the precipitous fall of a once mighty power. This was a company that not too long before its demise had been the business media's poster child, praised for its "innovative" practices and consistently listed among the top American corporations. During these heady times, only a few reporters followed leads that eventually took readers past the media's mostly laudatory words and into the reality of a company whose foundation was crumbling.

Why did so many business journalists miss the story of Enron? How did a few others find their way to coverage--albeit tardy coverage--that began to unravel the illegalities and hidden strategies that had kept the company afloat? And what significance did their reporting have? Finally, what, if any, lessons can be learned from Enron's coverage?

There is much disagreement among our commentators. Through some eyes, certain press coverage of Enron is credited with leading to Enron's downfall. Viewed through other eyes, the performance of journalists was all but irrelevant to its collapse. But by nearly every account, coverage of this story, in general, was scanty, predictable and undiscerning.

Jeffrey Madrick, who edits Challenge, an economics affairs journal, is among those who take a critical view of the media's Enron performance. His blistering criticism of the handling of the Enron story extends into other realms of business reporting such as its mishandling of the "new economy" story. "The financial media in the 1990's were like fatted calves," he writes, "and Wall Street analysts and corporate public relations teams pounced almost at will." Madrick wonders if change is likely. "Some editors expressed dismay at their news organizations' reporting of Enron," he writes. "But I've heard little about how they might seriously mend their ways."

Peter Behr, who reports on energy for The Washington Post and has covered Enron exclusively since October 2001, recognizes how difficult it was for journalists to admit that they didn't "get it" when it came to figuring out Enron's business strategies. When one reporter asked, "How exactly does Enron make its money?" reporting inroads were opened. Behr cites the difficulties of reporting on Enron (ranging from intimidation to hidden numbers) and offers guidance for reporters and editors.

Paul E. Steiger, managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, takes issue with media critics who contend the press "missed" the Enron scandal. While many journalists did, he argues that two Journal reporters not only didn't miss the story but their investigative reporting resulted in the company's collapse. In presenting his case, Steiger connects the dots between the Journal's reporting and the stock's fall. "Without their reporting, the Enron scandal almost certainly would not have come to light when it did," he writes, "and conceivably might never have surfaced."

James McNair, a business writer with the Cincinnati Enquirer, visits the Enron coverage and is not surprised by how Enron executives worked to prevent press scrutiny. He then broadens his scope to write about challenges of reporting on corporations. "Corporations try their best to eliminate proficient business reporters who become too nosy," he writes, and he provides several examples of stories in which corporate interference silenced (or attempted to silence) reporting, and journalists' careers were jeopardized. …

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