Learning Curve

Covering Enron -- beyond simply reprinting company press releases -- is still something of an acquired taste for Houston's Leading Information Source.

The collapse of Ken Lay's house of cards is the biggest local business story to hit the city in years, but for the Houston Chronicle, making the shift from being a house-organ cheerleader to an aggressive investigator has been as easy as getting a supertanker to make a U-turn.

The paper has been forced to run tons of wire stories from papers like The New York Times on Enron developments. That's understandable -- few papers could hope to match the resources the Times can throw at a breaking story -- but it's a little embarrassing when one wire story, for example, consists of a look at how Enron cultivated our very own Representative Tom DeLay through indirect donations. (We guess the Chron should get credit for at least running the piece.)

More baffling, though, is how the paper treated the news about an Enron executive's memo warning Lay about pending disaster.

On January 15, the Chron had a story, like everyone else in the nation, saying a congressional committee had released documents that included the warning memo. The memo was released without the author's name, the Chron said, but the story gave The Washington Post credit for naming her, Sherron Watkins.

Well, we thought, at least we know one thing that will be in the next day's paper: a profile of Sherron Watkins of Houston. Sending a reporter out to localize that story is as automatic as a first-baby-born-in-the-new-year assignment.

Except we opened the next day's Chron and…zip. There were two stories on the memo; they dealt with its contents and potential ramifications. Of the author, we learned simply that her Houston attorney said she wrote it "solely out of concern for her company and its employees" and that the attorney said "she will not discuss the memo with reporters, but will cooperate fully with investigators."

Those seeking information on Watkins had to look elsewhere that day. Luckily, other papers weren't as hapless as the Chron.

"Enron's implosion came as no surprise to Sherron Watkins, a small-town Texan with a flair for numbers," was the lead on a Dallas Morning News story that day. From the paper's talks with Watkins's mother and fellow Enron employees, readers learned about her growing up the stepdaughter of Tomball's mayor, her academic and business career, the fact that she lost a ton on Enron stock, even that she spent "plenty of achy days and nights commuting" between Houston and Seoul, South Korea, while pregnant.

The Los Angeles Times's story that day had an interview with her husband and a sorority sister. The New York Times's front-page piece was headlined "Author of Letter to Enron Chief Is Called Tough." (Some Enron employees, the paper reported, mistook her "for a brash New Yorker.")

Finally, the Chronicle got the message. The day after all the Watkins profiles appeared, it got around to its own version. The headline January 17: "Executive's Memo Draws Media Notice."

"On Tuesday, Watkins…was thrust into the national spotlight," the story read. "Now, television crews are camping outside her Southampton home and interview requests are pouring in from major newspapers and networks."

One of these days, we're sure, the Chron will get around to asking for an interview itself.

(In a new wrinkle on "he said/she said," a January 19 article quoted her attorney relaying Watkins's responses to some questions.)

Highway to Hell

The January 13 Chronicle featured a story about Austin's high traffic-fatality rate, based on a report by something called The Road Information Program.

TRIP, which the story said was "a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group that conducts research on highway traffic transportation issues," found that the fast-growing state capital ranked fifth among 50 U.S. cities in terms of vehicular, bicycle and pedestrian fatalities.

"The study showed city planners need to address inadequate infrastructure that failed to keep up with population bursts in their communities," the Chron's story read. "Among the study's recommendations were: Provide medians to separate traffic, build or widen shoulders on major routes to 12 feet and improve intersection safety with turn lanes, clearly marked lanes and improved signalization and lighting." Officials from the city and state highway department basically concurred, the story said.

Who is this "nonprofit group that conducts research on highway traffic transportation issues"? Let's ask the Associated Equipment Distributors, an industry group representing construction-equipment companies.

The headline on their January 2000 Internet newsletter? "TRIP Paves the Way for Sensible Highway Spending: This Critically Important Information Organization Promotes the Need for National and State Road Programs and Also Stands Up to Antihighway Proponents."

The lead paragraph: "When the highway construction industry needs credible research to…promote pro- highway issues in the media, [TRIP], the public relations arm of the highway construction industry, is the group that gets the call."

The group also has high-tech programs to distribute information, the story noted, "thereby enabling the industry to immediately react to antihighway propaganda distributed by groups such as the Sierra Club."

The Sierra Club apparently doesn't have such space-age stuff -- it wasn't quoted in the Chron's article.

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