In late August 2002 Salon reported a major scoop: An e-mail linked then Army secretary Thomas White, a former executive at Enron, to an effort to cover the massive losses at the energy giant. White’s supposed message instructed a subordinate: “Close a bigger deal. Hide the loss before the 1Q [first-quarter report].”
By early October, the scoop was scrapped: Salon retracted the story, saying it was “unable to independently confirm the authenticity” of the e-mail. What looked like a direct link between the Bush administration and the Enron debacle was shredded, and the career of Jason Leopold—the author of the piece—was destroyed.
Now Leopold has written a book that casts that episode as just one drama in a tumultuous life that includes years of drug addiction, a felony conviction Leopold hid from his employers, getting fired from a Los Angeles Times community paper for threatening a reporter, and leaving Dow Jones Energy Service after an inaccurate story got Leopold pulled from the Enron beat.
“This is stuff that I’ve really hidden my whole life,” Leopold tells the Voice, adding that the book “really allowed me to purge all those feelings. I want to make sure I come across as totally, 100 percent honest.”
He’s uncomfortably honest at times. The book opens with Steven Maviglio, a spokesman for then California governor Gray Davis, telling Leopold that he had purchased stock in two energy companies that were negotiating contracts with the state. The comment is “off the record,” meaning the information is supposed to never show up in print, but Leopold wants to report it anyway. He leaks it to two of his contacts and tells them to pass the tip on to two newspapers. When those papers start working the tip, the story is on the radar screen, and Leopold is free to write about his own leak.
As journalistic crimes go, that one’s a felony. Leopold says he broke the rules because his enthusiasm for news was like an addict’s thirst for the next hit. His aggressive style earned the ire of other reporters, and that’s one reason The New York Times and Washington Post pounced on the demise of his Salon story, he says. “Journalists love to eat their own.”
The Salon piece began to fall apart after Paul Krugman mentioned it in his Times column. White wrote a letter saying he did not “recall saying or writing anything close” to the e-mail. Then Salon issued a correction, noting that seven paragraphs in the story were identical to an earlier Financial Times piece. A week later, Salon pulled Leopold’s story altogether. Leopold faults Salon for caving to political pressure. Salon counters that Leopold’s purported source for the e-mail denied ever speaking to him.
“I totally still believe it’s authentic,” Leopold says of the e-mail. Other Enron watchers are unsure. The broad outlines of the Salon story—that Enron was front-loading the profits from new contracts in order to cover up losses on other deals—jell with common knowledge about Enron. But it’s unclear that White was anything more than a figurehead, and he has escaped the prosecutions that have targeted 32 other people in the scandal.
“The truth of the matter is it’s just damn hard to know” about the e-mail, Robert McCullough, a researcher who has amassed 12 million Enron files, tells the Voice. He says he warned Leopold in 2002 that “the e-mail was not persuasive” because it was shorter and less formal than other Enron e-mails. (My attempts to contact the person who Leopold says was his source were unsuccessful.)
Late last month, a lawyer for Maviglio wrote a letter to Leopold’s publisher, Rowman & Littlefield, demanding a correction to a press release about the book that indicated Maviglio’s stock purchase broke the law. Maviglio denies even speaking to Leopold about any “inside information,” and the letter warns the publisher against defaming Maviglio in the book.
It’s unclear whether Off the Record will make it to store shelves or Leopold will suffer yet another retraction. “All I can say is, there is a legal issue that’s arisen and we’re looking into it,” Rowman publicist Jenni Brewer tells the Voice.
Reporters at “the Shack”—the press center at 1 Police Plaza—are fighting for space, and not in their papers. Hoy news director Javier Castaño says his police reporter shares an office with a reporter from El Diario, three people from The New York Sun, and sometimes a person from Bloomberg News. The Staten Island Advance, after a long wait, was finally shoehorned in with another paper. NYPD public-information commissioner Paul J. Browne says that Hoy and El Diario want separate areas, and that when NY1 applied for a regular desk, some reporters already on-site opposed the bid. Browne contends that police staff is also crammed in at headquarters.
When is short sweet
With a combined 9 million-plus readers, Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News dominate the U.S. newsweekly market. The Economist has a smaller, more highbrow appeal. Now a newcomer called The Week, founded in 2001, is gaining ground: Its readership is only 231,000, but up about 30 percent in the past year.
Twenty staff members put The Week together by scanning some 200 news outlets from around the world—so readers don’t have to. “What The Week is trying to do is kind of short-circuit that need to go to 10, 15, 20 sources to compose your own view,” says general manager Justin Smith.
Editions of The Week average around 40 pages. None of the stories occupies more than one page, and most are just blurbs. If that sounds like TV news, note that The Week offers opinion from Japan and news out of Madagascar. But it’s not exactly in-depth. Is a subscriber to The Week getting enough news?
“I think that it depends,” says Smith. If the reader is a stay-at-home parent, The Week might be enough, he says. “If it’s a secretary of state? No.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 15, 2005