A Conspiracy Of Notebooks

Linda Lay suffered from bad timing as well as bad judgment. Who thought it would be a good idea for the wife of the former chairman of Enron to poor-mouth before a national TV audience that probably included hundreds who had lost their savings in the company's spectacular crash-and-burn bankruptcy? Who thought it would be a good idea for her to talk about "fighting for liquidity" amid reports of her husband's decision to divest himself of millions of dollars in Enron stock while encouraging employees to hang in there as their retirement plans lost most of their value? In the annals of damaging damage control, Lay's performance ranks right up there with Richard Nixon's "I am not a crook."

But the sorriest statement of a sorry performance concerned Cliff Baxter, an Enron executive described by colleagues as a straight arrow, who committed suicide as the disaster developed. "It's a perfect example," Lay said, "of how the media can play such havoc and destruction of people's lives." In other words, it wasn't the company; it was the coverage.

That was where the timing came in. As this extraordinary piece of buck-passing was being aired, Daniel Pearl was being held hostage in Pakistan. Pearl, a Wall Street Journal reporter photographed in captivity with a gun to his head, was a member of that selfsame "media" to which Lay was finding it so convenient to shift blame. There was outrage in this country that militants a world away were literally threatening to kill the messenger. But that's something Americans do figuratively all the time.

Only people with the world's most free and open press and the greatest cornucopia of media outlets in the history of the planet could feel so comfortable trashing the entire enterprise. The American people wouldn't know what had happened in the nation's biggest bankruptcy had the press not jumped on the story, which probably was Lay's chief complaint. Admittedly, reporters were a little late coming to the debacle; it has been nearly a year since a Fortune magazine writer, Bethany McLean, suggested that the Enron emperor had no clothes. Predictably, she was attacked at the time as unethical, biased and incompetent by the very same executives who are currently under investigation for massive fraud.

In other parts of the world those guys might have avoided such scrutiny. There's Mozambique, where, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, "truth is not a defense" in cases of defaming the country's president, or Congo, where "insulting the army" is punishable by death. CPJ reports that 37 journalists were killed last year in the course of their duties, nine of them while covering the war in Afghanistan. The others included a correspondent for a Bengali-language daily who was beaten and stabbed, apparently because of his reporting on local crime syndicates; a Chinese reporter whose throat was cut in what the authorities described as a suicide but his colleagues suspect was reprisal for his stories about corrupt local politicians, and a Filipino radio-program director who was gunned down, probably as a response to his commentaries about police involvement in the drug trade.

The lives of reporters in the United States tend to be less dangerous and more humdrum. Misled by Katie Couric's $65 million contract and the opportunities for Vanity Fair correspondents to hang with Tom Cruise, readers and viewers probably don't realize that the median salary of a reporter in this country is around $30,000. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, reporters and editors in both print and broadcast news are paid on a par with nurses, teachers and firefighters. Most of them are not swanning around Le Cirque unveiling their face-lifts; instead they're covering planning-board meetings and looking over the police blotter, so that when you wake up and say, "What were all those sirens last night on Route 209?" you'll know.

Like many people who use the catchall term "the media" to blame bad publicity for bad behavior, Linda Lay is trying to suggest a hungry conspiracy of holier-than-thous. And there's no doubt that there's occasionally been a combative edge to the enterprise. Side by side came Vietnam and Watergate; the reporters covering both were characterized as disloyal lefties for writing that the war was a disaster and the White House was corrupt. But when the stories were told, the documents released, the tapes transcribed, it turned out that those reporters, like McLean, had been right. The result was a kind of boy-who-cried-wolf effect: there is nothing like being told over and over again that you are inflating a third-rate burglary and then discovering it indeed is a cancer on the presidency to make you a little deaf to persistent criticism.

Luckily there are few institutions that come under as much scrutiny as newspapers, magazines and television broadcasts, and not just by those watching and reading. There are media think tanks, journalism-school reviews and national polling, not to mention the eager willingness of one publication to criticize another. Unlike government or business, most newspapers and magazines even run prominent criticisms of their own work in the Letters to the Editor column. In recent years several dozen newspapers have installed in-house ombudsmen, who cover the paper's policies and shortcomings. If Enron had had someone providing that sort of oversight, maybe it would still be a thriving company instead of a synonym for cooked books.

The press in this country permits a woman to air her contention that her gazillionaire executive husband was asleep at the switch during what may turn out to be one of the greatest fiscal scandals in corporate history, then lets her blame the press itself for the fallout. What a joke. What an institution! Our critics make for great copy, even though their notion of some vast conspiracy of bloodthirsty notebook holders is as improbable as Roswell. Most reporters are like Daniel Pearl, who just went to Pakistan to write some stories. The irony is that his kidnappers likely thought they were grabbing a man of great status in his own country. As Lay's comments suggest and journalists understand, the reality is often quite different.