- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 12, 2002

Is Enron the next Whitewater?

Many newspapers and networks seem to think so, judging by their front-page stories and television-news programs, most of which didn't waste any time yesterday branding the legal troubles of the collapsed energy-trading company as "Bush's Whitewater."

Reports of President Bush's ties to the energy giant, political contributions, destroyed documents, phone calls to the White House and the decision by Attorney General John Ashcroft to recuse himself from the criminal investigation led reporters, editors and anchors to start laying the groundwork for what may or may not be another Washington scandal.

"Enron's dealings [are] fast becoming the biggest potential embarrassment the Bush administration has faced," a story in the Boston Globe read.

"These revelations helped fan what was already a major embarrassment for the Bush administration into a political firestorm," the Houston Chronicle reported.

MSNBC's anchorman Brian Williams, in his newscast, referred to Enron as "a major preoccupation, if not a danger, for the Bush White House."

Then, there was Bill Press, the liberal co-host of CNN's "Crossfire," who called the Enron case worse than Whitewater. "Enron makes Whitewater look like peanuts," he wrote in his syndicated column.

Members of the press said that Enron is here to stay at least for a while. "It's a very important story all around, economically and politically," said Su-Lin Nichols, a spokeswoman for ABC News. "It's one story that we'll be covering from all angles, every day."

Media critics, however, aren't surprised by the intense interest Enron has generated. But they caution the media against turning it into a political scandal or another Whitewater before all of the evidence is uncovered.

"It's dangerous to predict something like that before the facts are in," said Richard Noyes, director of media analysis at Media Research Center (MRC), a conservative media-watchdog organization.

"This shouldn't be a case to even the score just because [President] Clinton was linked to instances of wrongdoing," Mr. Noyes said. "That automatically doesn't mean that you have to make this into a political scandal."

Even Lanny J. Davis, who was special counsel to Mr. Clinton during the Whitewater scandal, said in an interview last night that everyone including Democrats should take a wait-and-see approach with Enron and not jump to any conclusions.

"I hope it's not like Whitewater and I hope that at this point Democrats will not try to make it into another Whitewater," Mr. Davis said. "Democrats have to avoid using innuendo as a surrogate for fact. This is not payback time."

The networks' coverage of the Enron debacle has followed the print media. All the networks led their news broadcasts with the Enron case.

ABC News and CBS News did not compare Enron to Whitewater, but rather added a "who knew what and when did they know it" scandal motif to the story, according to the MRC.

Some outlets barely touched on the fact that Enron Chairman Kenneth L. Lay and his company made substantial campaign contributions to Democrats as well as Republicans.

Only at the end of its story did ABC report that Mr. Lay had played golf with former President Clinton and that Enron contributed campaign funds to the Democrats.

Critics said that type of coverage will soon come to an end. "Democrats should be wary to fan the flames, because they'll get burnt as well," said Matthew T. Felling, media director at the Center for Media and Public Affairs.

"To borrow a phrase, this Enron story rolls downhill," he said.

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