Any Story Will Do

We all know the Houston Chronicle's been having some trouble covering the Enron story. (Which is kind of like saying Enron's been having a little trouble on the PR front lately.) The paper's been running wire stories from The New York Times and Washington Post, and often trying -- with mixed results -- to follow the bigger papers' leads on their coverage.

But maybe they should be reading their own paper.

Thursday, February 21, the lead story in the Chron -- besides the bannered Andrea Yates coverage -- was their latest Enron offering: "Lay Told Analysts of Faith in CFO: Enron Placed Fastow on Leave the Following Day."

The story breathlessly related how Enron honcho Ken Lay had told Wall Street analysts in a conference call October 23 that he had the utmost confidence in CFO Andrew Fastow. (Who was canned the next day, in an apparently unrelated development.)

The second and third grafs of the Chron's high-profile February 21 story: "The statements, contained in documents released as part of a congressional investigation of Enron's collapse, shed new light on the key issues of what Lay knew, and when he knew it.

" 'I and Enron's board of directors continue to have the highest faith and confidence in Andy and believe he is doing an outstanding job as [chief financial officer],' Lay said in a transcript of the October 23 call with financial analysts."

The story noted that analysts participating in the conference call, especially Goldman Sachs managing director David Fleischer, were hostile to Lay's presentation.

All of which the Chron had faithfully reported on the front of its Business section October 24, the day after the call. "Lay Tries to Assure Enron Investors: Company's Credibility Questioned," read the headline that day. The story said the analysts, especially Fleischer, were hostile, and that Lay was standing behind his man. "Lay and Enron's board continue to have the 'highest faith and confidence' in Fastow, [Lay] said," read the story, which was somehow not based on transcripts released by a congressional committee.

Eventually, the February 21 Chron story got around to the point that Lay had told investigators that he had doubts about Fastow even before the October 23 conference call. But the prominent headline and main focus of the article were things even Chronicle readers had all read before.

Speaking of Enron, we know it's pointless to complain about Chron columnist Thom Marshall. Sure, he has the most prominent column in the paper (yes, Leon Hale rotates on the same Metro-front space, but Hale's well-turned country-lit pieces aren't meant to be comments on the current scene). Sure, with that spotlight, with a columnist's license to cover the city beyond straight-news reportage, he should be forgiven for grinding the Enron subject into the ground.

If only he would.

Since the Enron story broke last fall, Marshall has continued to pump out columns three times a week. In exactly five of those columns, he's mentioned the biggest story to hit the city in years.

And what mentions: "Keeping Focused on Silver Linings," read one headline. "Few Thanksgivings More Challenging," read another. "Tragic Job Loss Can Inspire New Career," read a third.

In that latter one, Marshall reminisced about people who had lost jobs, many of which seemed rehashed from stories he had done earlier in his career: a laid-off geologist who began repairing shopping carts, a guy who began selling ropes to cowboys, and a Denver couple who would "come to your yard and clean up after your pet."

He ended with a threat: "We can expect a huge flock of phoenix birds to come rising from the ashes of those [lost] Enron jobs. And I would appreciate hearing about the success stories as they develop, so I can pass them along here."

How about picking up after Thom Marshall columns? We could start with his November 16 effort, which didn't mention Enron by name but noted that an e-mailer had complained about officers of "a big corporation" selling stock.

"Looked to him like insider training," the column read. "I don't know. Big business maneuverings always have been beyond my comprehension. That collapse of the savings and loan industry more than a decade ago still mystifies me. Where did all that money go?"

We'll never know, because the column then went on to address two unrelated reader e-mails, including one from an 11-year-old girl dismayed that lawyers advertising on TV were using the Bible and the September 11 terrorist attacks in their ads.

When in Rome

Channel 2 viewers might have thought they were getting an extra dose of Mattress Mac ads this week -- the station has been airing a lengthy series of stories on a trip to Rome by 500 or so local Catholic-school students, parents and teachers, all financed by McIngvale. (A fact dutifully noted in each report.)

The first story by Krista Marino included an actual clip of a Mac ad, with the publicity-hound huckster braying his trademark "Saves You Money!" line. The report also included, for little apparent reason, shots of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, which is 200 miles or so from Rome.

Grumbling has been heard that the station is taking Mac's largesse in exchange for airtime, grumblings that KPRC news director Nancy Shafran is glad to reject.

"I can assure you we are paying for every expense we have on the trip," she says, declining to say what the cost is. "Absolutely 100 percent of it."

She says she doesn't see the series of reports as a plug for McIngvale's store. "I don't think it's a free ad for Mac at all. It's no secret he paid for the kids' trip. It's a story about Rome and the trip experience."

Cooler Heads Prevail

As a way of attracting viewers throughout the day, the Chronicle's Web page often includes stories that will be published in the following day's print edition. Those Web stories need headlines, of course.

But did the February 13 Web edition really need the headline "U.S. Slaps Around German Women in Hockey 10-0"?

Apparently not. It was changed for the next day's paper.

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