BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Enron was America's 7th biggest company in the year 2000, and by the year 2001 it became the biggest bankruptcy in history, and many are wondering if it will be the political albatross of the 2002 election season. Now fewer than 10 congressional committees are looking into possible malfeasance around the Enron collapse, and their investigations are driving this story forward. From the top on down, the Bush administration was very friendly with Enron executives and dozens of members of Congress were beneficiaries of Enron donations. That's why it was so surprising when Howard Mortman, a columnist of the National Journal's Hotline Newsletter went to a meeting of political journalists the consensus was that Enron, though a financial fiasco, didn't qualify as a political scandal. Howard Mortman, welcome to OTM.
HOWARD MORTMAN: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So why isn't it a political scandal? Because no politician is accused of a crime?
HOWARD MORTMAN: I think because that it hasn't met any of their standard definitions of a political scandal -- you know, no indictments or grand jury investigations of politicians. Well we, we have definitely a big political mess here for both parties, but in terms of our traditional knowledge of or understanding of what a scandal is, this really hasn't met the test yet in the minds of the media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:So do you think the Washington press corps will just walk away from the country's 7th largest company turning belly up if it doesn't take down any member so Congress or the administration with it?
BOB GARFIELD:I think that the -- Washington press corps smells blood in the water for both parties -when you have current Republican officials and former Democratic officials both heavily involved with Enron, there is no heavy political axe to grind. Let's say the Bush administration turns over documents that shows undue influence from Kenneth Lay, the CEO of Enron, in drafting energy policy, for instance. Is that a scandal or is that just the way government works and the way politics and government interplay.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:I guess what you're telling me is that since the money flow was so bipartisan and so much part of the fabric of life in Washington, DC, there's nothing to get excited about.
HOWARD MORTMAN: It doesn't really matter that the money flow went to both parties. It can go to a single party; it c-- Enron could have given millions of dollars solely to the Republicans, and its eurodollars to the Democrats -- that's still not a scandal; that is still not illegal.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:What about the sense that is abroad in the land that the entire political structure of the country is awash in money that's corrupting the system? I mean that's the Enron story isn't it?
HOWARD MORTMAN: [LAUGHS] Let me-- bring up an example of a news director I talked to from a station in Iowa, and I'm very interested in what a Des Moines TV station is thinking because Des Moines and Iowa is the first level of the Campaign 2004 -- the presidential caucuses. So I asked the Iowa news director if you had a Democratic presidential candidate come into Iowa in the next couple of weeks or so, what would be the top 3 questions you would ask that candidate? And this news director from Iowa said first of all how has President Bush been doing since September 11th in handling matters? The second question this Iowa news director would ask of a Democratic candidate would be the economy and taxes and what should we be doing to get us out of recession, and a third question is a very Iowa question --agriculture. I asked him well, you know, you didn't mention Enron! And he's tell-- he said Enron is a very big story, a very important story, but it's not yet a political story that I would ask a Democratic candidate--
BROOKE GLADSTONE:So is it a failing of the press or the public that without a smoking gun there's no scandal? In other words a blue dress is a smoking gun -- therefore-- a scandal. But a systemic, legalized process of buying access is par for the course -- therefore, no scandal! What does it take to get the public up in arms?
HOWARD MORTMAN: Well what it doesn't take is reviewing quarterly reports. There's more excitement in a, in a blue dress than there are in reviewing quarterly statements from companies. Now what would get people impressed? Well shredding of documents is always a sexy thing to talk about; you know, members of the Enron board testifying - raising their right arm like tobacco industry did -- that would get people in an uproar. What the story lacks is - I hate saying it -is lacks sex. It, it does - it, it's not as exciting as a sexy story was to the Washington press corps.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well thank you.
HOWARD MORTMAN: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Howard Mortman is a senior columnist for the National Journal's Hotline - a political newsletter based in Washington, D.C.