Honesty, Dishonesty and the Enron Scandal
WHEN NOTHING BUT A FULL-PAGE AD WILL DO
by Norman SolomonWhen a large company is getting clobbered by news stories and pundits, the damage-control response often includes packing full-page newspaper ads with solemn reassurances. That's what the Arthur Andersen accounting firm has been doing lately to wash some of the mud off its name as the outfit that assisted with Enron's phony bookkeeping.
Andersen is "committed to making fundamental changes in its business as a result of the issues raised by the Enron matter," says one of the big-type advertisements -- headlined "An Open Letter from Joe Berardino, Managing Partner and CEO, Andersen." The ad explains that changes "already taking place ... are major steps toward reforming our U.S. audit practice and transforming our firm."
Such ads are carefully crafted by PR agencies that specialize in blending tones of repentance, wisdom and resilience. The aim is to make headway with investors, Wall Street analysts, journalists and the general public. So, a contrite Andersen ad pledges that "we will be accountable for our actions, will learn from the experience, and will become a better firm as a result." Theoretically, those kinds of ads are prudent.
But most readers can probably recognize the cloying phraseology as self-serving. Full-page ad statements might be more convincing if they went a bit heavier on the honesty.
Andersen would really seem to be turning over a new corporate leaf if it gambled on candor. For instance: "We made huge profits by helping Enron with its shell game. Now the game is over, and we're ready to repent. We've suffered consequences of getting caught, so we figure that in the future we'll be more trustworthy than other accounting firms."
But people like Berardino and Enron's Kenneth Lay aren't the only high-profile professionals facing significant media-image problems. These days, some prominent American journalists might want to consider taking out a few full-page ads themselves.
Facts have recently emerged about several journalists who quietly pocketed sizeable checks from Enron. Now, maybe I can be helpful. In a collegial spirit, I'd like to provide -- at no charge -- some wording that they could use in their own full-page ads.
Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, has reluctantly admitted that he received $100,000 for a two-year stint on an Enron "advisory board" that didn't do much of anything.
An Open Letter from Bill Kristol: "Members of the vast left-wing conspiracy are trying to make a big deal out of a hundred grand. That's less than our magazine's annual martini budget! Let's get real -- I can't be bought for that kind of money. Besides, if you don't want capitalism with a rapacious edge to it, you've got the alternative of soul-murdering Communist tyranny..."
New York Times op-ed columnist Paul Krugman got $50,000 from Enron to serve on the company's phantom-like advisory board in 1999, before he joined the newspaper.
An Open Letter from Paul Krugman: "The people I condemn in my columns have ripped off millions, even billions. I'm not in their league. They are demagogues and robber barons. I am an entrepreneurial member of the affluent middle class..."
Republican wordsmith Peggy Noonan, who writes purportedly visionary commentaries for The Wall Street Journal, has said that she was paid between $25,000 and $50,000 for assisting Enron's Lay with a speech and annual report.
An Open Letter from Peggy Noonan: "Are we to become a land of mediocrity or meritocracy? I see a shining city on a hill. May the spirit of America, with its free enterprise and hard-working God-fearing citizens, lift our hearts to rejoice in our nation's triumph over the slow suffocation of envying freedom's apostles. Yet some wish to tarnish the legacy of saintly Ronald Reagan, while disparaging me in the process. Forever is the memory of one spring morning when I met with President Reagan in the Oval Office, and I gazed into his eyes, crystalline windows of his spiritual magnificence..."
The current need to refurbish media reputations is extending far beyond the perimeters of the Enron scandal, however. Last fall, Geraldo Rivera joined the staff of Fox News Channel so he could rush off to Afghanistan -- where he quickly gained attention for claiming to be situated where he actually wasn't, all the while posturing as an intrepid correspondent on the front lines.
An Open Letter from Geraldo Rivera: "Due to my idealism, I allowed myself to get carried away. But a war was on, and as long as Rupert Murdoch pays enough, why shouldn't I shoulder arms in the Fox army? There's no such thing as being too patriotic or too ambitious. So what if I made stuff up? I was waving the flag -- you got a problem with that? Gimme a break..."
Norman Solomon's latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media." His syndicated column focuses on media and politics.
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