If Ken Lay Was Black

Susan J. Douglas

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If Kenneth Lay was black (and, say, a former athlete or fading pop star) and Jeffrey Skilling was the has-been lead of a 70s detective show (or a domestic diva), might the Enron trial be getting more front and center coverage?

A few greedy guys became obscenely rich while allegedly bilking workers and stockholders out of millions--why is this narrative a flatliner?

After all, this was supposed to be the trial about the corporate corruptions of the late 20th and early 21st centuries – the case that dramatized the ongoing and urgent need for corporate oversight and reform. Yet, despite reports that the trial’s Houston courthouse is surrounded by media, it has received virtually no coverage. While lacking sex and murder, the case has a simple and dramatic story line: A couple of very greedy guys became obscenely rich while allegedly bilking their workers and stockholders out of millions, including, and especially, their pensions. So why is this narrative a flatliner?

The trial is in federal court – it cannot be televised. But since when has this stopped the networks from sending in their SWAT teams of sketch artists? That didn’t stop the incessant coverage of Martha Stewart’s trial, or Scott Peterson’s, or Michael Jackson’s – for Jackson’s, the media hired actors in costume to perform what happened. Possibly because the collapse of Enron happened late in 2001, which now seems a lifetime ago in the 24 – 7 news cycle, news directors have deemed the Enron trial not newsworthy. Or, more likely, it’s because Lay and Skilling are white male executives who also happen not to be celebrities.

According to the Tyndall report, during the first week of Kenneth Lay’s long-awaited testimony, the Enron trial was not even among the top 10 stories covered by the three networks that week. Yes, the soaring price of oil and gas was deservedly the top story, but Enron was beat out by the irrelevant hoopla about whether the national anthem should be sung in Spanish – the sixth most-covered story that week. 

During the course of the trial so far, ABC seems to have offered one brief tell story” plus one slightly longer story about how Enron continued to pay accountants, lawyers and consultants even as it laid off about 4,500 people. NBC Nightly News” appears not to have covered it at all, while the Today Show” has offered only short rip-and-read accounts. 

Over at CNN, when Skilling was being cross-examined, the Nancy Grace Show” devoted an entire program – punctuated by three sentences about the Enron trial – to, yes, the Natalee Holloway kidnapping story. Only Fox News covered – and derided – Kenneth Lay’s blaming the news media, and particularly the Wall Street Journal, for Enron’s problems.

And where is Lou Dobbs here, the man who, during the Dubai Port scheme brouhaha, aligned himself as the populist defender against corporate interests run amok? Clearly relishing all the coverage he got (including in this column) about his new style of advocacy reporting, Dobbs has become even more rancorous about immigration, losing the brief, refreshing edge he had on corporate irresponsibility. 

It’s not that the trial has been without drama, particularly during the cross-examinations. Prosecutor John Hueston reportedly shredded Kenneth Lay’s affable mask and his story about why he dumped so much Enron stock in such a short period of time, ridiculing Lay’s tales of financial hardship. Between July 26 and Sept. 4, 2001, Lay reportedly sold $24 million in Enron shares back to the company because his debts were being called in. Lay had a $200,000 birthday party for his wife and other niceties to fund. We had realized the American Dream and were living a very expensive lifestyle … where it is difficult to turn off the spigot,” he said.

Hueston would have none of it and asked why he, Lay, did not sell any one of his multi-million dollar homes? According to the Houston Chronicle’s blog, During some of the prosecutor’s questions, Lay is increasingly making what can be best described as a low groaning or growling noise that is audible in the media overflow room via his microphone.” Does anyone besides me think that this is both juicy stuff and testimony Americans might want to hear just a tad more about?

Let’s just remember: In 2000, according to the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Lay made $123 million in stock trades, nearly 10 times what he made in 1998. Jeffrey Skilling made more than $62 million cashing in on his options that year, and both men continued to clean up in 2001 when, among other things, parts of California were experiencing rolling blackouts and metastasizing energy prices. (Recall the phone calls about screwing all the poor grannies in the state?) Approximately 4,500 Enron employees lost their jobs and their pensions, and stockholders were bilked out of their investments. 

This is the current state and, without correction, the future of corporate America. This is why the most powerful media bias of all – the corporate bias – is so especially pernicious.

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Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. Her forthcoming book is In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead..
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