Before the Fall

The Chron plays catch-up on the biggest local business story of the year

The Houston Chronicle is pouring on the resources to cover the collapse of Enron, issuing reams of copy on the employees who got screwed and the investigations and machinations.

On their Web site, they offer a link to what they call "full coverage" of the issue, which leads to a list of archived Chron stories.

The stories go back only as far as October 25. We're sure it was just bandwidth problems that kept the paper from listing stories that were printed a few months earlier.

Surely they could have linked to the news story that ran on the front of the business section August 28 headlined "Taking a Long View: Enron Works to Shore Up Confidence." The lead on that piece: "Even though nothing major appears to be wrong at Enron Corp., investor confidence in the world's largest energy trader remains shaky."

(Maybe that's because investors had been reading other publications, like The New York Times, which had been aggressively writing about Enron's troubles.)

The Chron story, which came in the wake of the departure of Enron CEO Jeff Skilling, dutifully noted that investors had concerns about Enron's difficult-to-understand financial statements and some questionable investments. Although this was more or less news out of the blue to readers who depend solely on the Chronicle to cover major Houston institutions, it was old hat to those with a more extensive reading list.

Skilling's announcement August 14 that he was quitting his job triggered a host of Enron-boosting stories in the Chron, such as the August 19 column by Jim Barlow titled "Enron Making Way to Weather Storm."

"Wall Street has fallen out of love with Enron Corp.," he wrote, noting the company's plummeting stock price.

Not to worry, though: "Enron is a risk-taker," he wrote, "always looking for new ways to make money…In a stock market that rewards innovation but also craves certainty, stock prices for companies like Enron often are volatile. Despite the stock price cratering, Enron's earnings remain strong and growing…It's still a company with innovative people who have shown they can turn ideas into profitable businesses. That's why the current problems will blow over."

Of course, hindsight is always 20/20, and no one predicted that Enron's implosion would be as dramatic or complete as it was. But the Chronicle has been consistently protective of the company and its leader, Ken Lay, who for years had been treated almost as a secular saint in the paper's pages.

Of course, it's always been pretty protective of its own reputation, too: Also missing from the "full story" archives link is any mention of the Sunday paper from April 15.

That edition featured a nearly book-length examination of all that had made Enron great. "The New Power" consisted of four stories -- totaling more than 180 inches of copy -- on the front page and throughout the business section.

"Making of the market-maker," the headline on the main piece read. "Pipeline operator evolved into player that keeps raising bar."

That story ended with quotes from Skilling and Lay about what Enron would be like five years from now. "As we sit here with what is on our plate today, we can see some very significant growth with several years to come," Lay's quote read. "I am sure if we look back five years from now there will be at least one or two businesses with enormous potential in our portfolio that we have not even thought of yet."

Which was true, if you're a bankruptcy or litigation lawyer.World News Tonight

Remember the latest round of "Houston's Great!" boosterism earlier this year? It didn't work.

The chamber-of-commerce types, horrified that the Al Gore campaign had criticized Houston's pristine air, announced an effort to restore the city's reputation. That effort consisted largely of the Houston Chronicle printing a lot of news stories, columns and op-ed pieces about how Houston was being unjustly maligned.

Apparently the news didn't make it to Oklahoma.

Bartlesville, Oklahoma, is home to the Phillips Petroleum Company, which is merging with Conoco and moving to Houston. The Tulsa World had a reporter find out how the locals in nearby Bartlesville felt about Space City. And in doing so, the World gave our own Chron a run for the money in the Hometown Cheerleader contest.

There were the requisite put-downs: "'It takes forever to drive anywhere in Houston,' said Pam Dunlap, Bartlesville Area Chamber of Commerce president. 'It's dirty. Every stoplight you drive up to somebody jumps out and comes up to your car needing a hand-out.' "

Dunlap later was quoted as saying, "Our kids are safe and they don't have to go through metal detectors to get into their schools every day," and when it comes to neighborhoods, "Anything that is a decent place to live in Houston is gated."

The story, which was perfectly straight and not sarcastic, noted that ConocoPhillips officials said Houston had more to offer when it came to air travel, cultural events and educational opportunities.

"However," the World reported, attributing no one, "Bartlesville with its 35,000 population combines an incredible cultural life with a community that is clean, has low crime rates, affordable housing and a public school system that has produced more National Merit Scholars than any other district in Oklahoma."

Remember -- that's any other district in Oklahoma, pal.

You want higher education? "Bartlesville is home to Oklahoma Wesleyan University…[and] Rogers State University."

Bartlesville is a family town, but it swings like the pendulum do, according to the World. "[T]here is plenty to do in Bartlesville for the single population, according to James Holt, who heads up a singles group for 24- to 40-year-olds at Highland Park Baptist Church," the story said. "On the agenda for the coming weeks in Holt's group are trips to the Bartlesville Ballet Guild Tour of Homes, Tri-County Tech's Arts and Crafts Bazaar [and] a dinner outing in Tulsa."

Stop snickering. Holt says, "I am never bored." And, the story noted, "Bartlesville does have some 'watering hole' activity for those who are seeking some night-time entertainment. There are sports bars and clubs with karaoke nights in town, and numerous dance club offerings 45 minutes to the south in Tulsa."

We here in Houston welcome you Phillips newcomers. Kevlar vests are available at all the finer stores. And we can only hope that one day our arts-and-crafts shows can match the majesty of Tri-County Tech's.

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