Saturday, February 18, 2006

EnWritten and EnBlogged: The Good, the Great and the Merely Pedestrian from the First Three Weeks of This Year's Trial of the Century

Our reader representative, Hidalgo Hidalgo, who’s been assigned to scan the Houston Chronicle while we finish our giant colored-macaroni collage of David Stern we hoped to unveil at halftime of the NBA All-Star game, reported to us earlier this week that his counterpart at the daily newspaper had proudly noted that the publication had gotten a pat on the back for its “excellent” Enron trial coverage from CBS Martketwatch.

OK, it’s not a Pulitzer. But it’s something.

We must confess that our own passion for Enron trial news, while white-hot when the show opened, had cooled to a low, dull flame by midway of the second week. We’re down most days to a peek at the first few graphs of the Chronicle’s main story, along with a full reading of Loren Steffy’s columns and the occasional gander at his Full Disclosure blog. Steffy’s the genuine article: he can report, write and think on his feet (and possibly chew gum as well, we don’t know the dude) and he’s got his Enron facts and context down cold from having covered the sprawling epic as a reporter before he came to the Chronicle. Still, he’s got to walk that fine line of MSM decorum, although he’s made it pretty clear he wouldn’t be too upset if Lay and Skilling were stripped to their boxer shorts, placed in stocks in Market Square and subjected to the public ridicule of their fellow Houstonians from sun-up to sundown for a few months (he had a great line in his Friday column regarding one sleight-of-hand behind Skilling’s fiction that Enron Broadband Services was worth $35 billion: “It’s a mind-bending concept, the accounting equivalent of a black hole, a bottom line without a top line.” [Emphasis added])

The Chronicle’s trial reporting for the actual newspaper has been pretty good, too, although the Trial Watch blog, written (and real quick, too) by the reporters who are watching the trial (clevah!) for the paper, already shows signs of exhaustion, with headlines such as “Redirect begins just before lunch” (hope it was long one) and entries such as this:
Before former Enron Broadband Services CEO Ken Rice resumed testimony Thursday afternoon, he arrived back at the witness stand early and looked overwhelmingly bored as he waited for prosecutor Sean Berkowitz to continue redirect. Then someone commented on the springlike weather. "It's such a beautiful day, I [sic] would be nice to be outside instead of in here," Rice said. An open microphone broadcast his thoughts to the spillover gallery.
Apparently he’s not nice when inside. But that's a notch or two above this dispatch:
Today, the three rows of reporters in the courtroom remained filled but fourth-floor overflow room now has plenty of seats …Several reporters are commenting on the frigid temperatures in the overflow room and some are not too happy about the noise. Just after the trial broke for lunch, one reporter requested a couple of chatting journalists to keep it down while he wrote. The response? A flat out "No!" A war of words ensued climaxing with an offer of "You wanna step outside?" The offer was laughed off and no fisticuffs occurred. The room is still cold and the work continues.
Fascinating! Another no-fisticuffs moment. That was just the second day of the trial.

One thing we have noticed, though, is the uniformly reverential approach the Chronicle has taken to the proceedings, as if it were covering a Kennedy funeral (JFK, RFK or JFK Jr.). This tendency is especially pronounced when the paper writes of any attorneys involved in the trial: Prosecution, defense or judge, they are all brilliant legal minds, master courtroom tacticians, honors graduates of the finest law schools and devilishly handsome (except for the lady prosecutor, we guess) and/or exceedingly well-coifed. As opposed to being overpaid bullshitters with Bar cards.

Even their perfume smells exceptionally sweet--- even when they slather it on in the potentially toxic quantities usually favored by 6th grade boys! (Skilling mouthpiece Dan Petrocelli must be a real piece of work---after the newspaper reported that he offended a juror’s olfactories by overdosing himself on his perfume [what a brilliant legal strategy!] the paper was forced to run a correction saying it misidentified the cologne because of bad information it was provided (by ... ?). In both the original Page 1 story and the correction, the sweetish stink was branded Tabacco by i Profumi di Firenze. The was the second bizarre correction the paper has published regarding an Enron barrister, and we’ll leave it to greater minds than ours to figure out why. [We used to wow the ladies with a fragrance called tobacco, back when we burned 2 or 3 packs a day.])

Which is why we so enjoyed a full-throated, foul-mouthed diatribe on the trial by Matt Taibbi in the recent Rolling Stone (a magazine we ordinarily read once or twice a year, if we find one laying around the babrershop or must make an especially long airline flight, but which for some reason has been delivered to our home, unbidden and apparently gratis, for the past few issues). Taibbi, a drop-in who doesn’t have to worry about offending the lawyers, the defendants or their attendant flacks, cranks out a spew of bracing invective at the whole sorry spectacle, providing a nice complement to the Chronicle’s fair and balanced coverage. The overly-sweetish-smelling Petrocelli is
Grating and pompous … a fat-faced, heavily moussed Californian …
While prosecutor John Hueston empties such a grab bag of tortuously mixed metaphors that Taibbi finds himself writing in his notebook:
Enron: Big rubber barrel full of trucks.
Trucks=shitty investments.
Describing the corruption of Enron is like describing distances in the universe: impossible to express in rational numbers. Hence the dump trucks and cookie jars.

The local counsel, Lay mouthpiece Mike Ramsey, is a “likeable character with a homespun demeanor” [read: a good actor to an out-of-town audience] who Taibbi says injected a somber note of believability in the bullshit when he proclaimed, in his client's defense:

"Failure is not a crime …"

Only to undercut it with a colossally inappropriate non sequitur:

"... If it was, we’d have to turn all of Oklahoma back into a penal colony---heh heh."

Taibbi writes:

The courtroom didn’t laugh with him; not a peep from anywhere in the room. This is how Ken Lay asks for forgiveness---by calling all of Oklahoma a bunch of losers?

We couldn't find Taibbi's piece online, but you can probably check it out next time you visit your barber (unless he or she also perms the silvery locks of Dashin’ Dan Portobello, uh, Petrocelli).

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