Dancing Around Bill Clinton's Enron Deals

The three broadcast networks' evening newscasts - the ones that shrugged their shoulders over Whitewater because it was a complicated business story with a lot of numbers - have pumped out 198 Enron stories since January 9 without any evident boredom. Enron's bankruptcy seems actually to excite reporters like CBS's Bob Schieffer who champion it as a parable about money and politics.

"Reformers say embarrassment over the nearly $6 million that Enron has lavished on Congress may be what it finally takes to force [campaign finance] reform," Schieffer exulted on the February 13 CBS Evening News, inadvertently explaining his network's above average focus on Enron (71 stories on Evening News, 10 percent more than World News Tonight's 64 and NBC Nightly News's 63).

But even as they use the plight of Enron shareholders to lecture about the corrupting nature of campaign dollars, the networks have shown a double standard. While trumpeting the GOP's ties to the bankrupt energy firm, the Big Three have been muted about the benefits Enron bestowed upon former President Bill Clinton and the assistance the company received during his eight years. Indeed, only six of those 198 stories (3%) hinted at Clinton's Enron connection, even as the evidence builds:

- Lots of Enron money found its way to Clinton's accounts. "During the Clinton years, Enron contributed more than $1 million to the Democratic Party, including $600,000 to the Democratic National Committee," the Washington Times's Patrice Hill recounted on February 21. That's not as much soft money as was given to the GOP (more than $2 million), but it's more than enough to get corporate chiefs the "access and influence" that self-appointed reformers find so revolting.

- Clinton's administration loaned taxpayer money for Enron deals. Back in the '90s, Clinton officials boasted of a foreign policy which focused on getting deals for select U.S. businesses, including Enron. (See box.) Now bad deals, like Enron's worthless power plant in Dabhol, India, are plaguing taxpayers. Two federal agencies - the Overseas Private Investment Corporation and the Export-Import Bank loaned campaign contributor Enron $1.2 billion during the Clinton years, most of which ($964 million) Enron hasn't paid back yet, according to a February 21 New York Times story.

- Former Clinton officials pleaded Enron's case. Clinton's chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Elizabeth Moler, joined Enron's payroll as an anti-regulation lobbyist in 1999. That same year, former Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin turned down a seat on Enron's board, but he called Bush officials on Enron's behalf last November as the company's financial woes mounted. Treasury under-secretary Peter Fisher turned Rubin down.

- Network coverage: Rubin's role was a secret on ABC and CBS, although NBC mentioned it on January 12, and no newscast covered Moler's trip through the revolving door. Only CBS's Bill Plante on January 18 and NBC's Lisa Myers on February 25 detailed Clinton's use of tax money to back the Dabhol plant, while ABC's Jackie Judd (January 14) merely mentioned Enron's access "to overseas trips with the Clinton administration." As for campaign money, only Plante, Myers, CBS's John Roberts (January 11) and ABC's Linda Douglass (January 10) mentioned Enron's Democratic donations, although Douglass - too busy documenting Bush's ties to Enron - limited herself to a single sentence.

By their own standards, the networks should be salivating at the combination of soft money, rewards for the company and bad deals for taxpayers. Why aren't they interested in the details of Clinton's deals with Enron? - Rich Noyes