Corporate Mythology in Kurt Eichenwald’s Conspiracy of Fools

-using scenes in journalistic accounts
-increasing journalistic credibility with use of detail

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In an interview about his research process for his book Conspiracy of Fools, which details the collapse of Houston’s own Enron, Pulitzer-nominated investigative journalist Kurt Eichenwald says he was the last one who thought Enron would make captivating book material. But then he came to realize that the saga had a narrative arc out of Greek mythology: a meteoric rise, then the crash and burn, with the hubris of the parties involved seeming to make the collapse inevitable. (The book is divided into four parts, the first two about the rise, the second two about the fall.) Eichenwald’s narrative arc ultimately reveals how lust for short-term gains generated irrevocable long-term damage: Enron destroyed itself.

In his sprawling account of the various factors that influenced Enron’s collapse, Eichenwald describes practicing “narrative journalism,” which is often derided by “journalistic purists” but which he believes requires a more rigorous investigative process. Eichenwald aims not merely to relay facts, but to paint a picture in the reader’s head, to put them in a scene. His purpose is not just to inform, but to entertain by arranging the information in a narrative arc for maximum dramatic impact. The prologue, as prologues will do, essentially gives us the entire narrative arc in condensed form; from the scenes he uses to construct the prologue–Andy Fastow’s dismissal as CFO and the  former CEO Jeff Skilling’s breakdown when the collapse becomes imminent–we can tell what the major narrative threads will be (they will revolve around Fastow and Skilling).

Rendering a full-blown scene requires more details, which requires more authentication to confirm the details are accurate. The goal of this extra work is to make the material more enthralling to your readers. Thus, instead of “telling” passages like “Andrew Fastow met Ken Rice for dinner,” Eichenwald offers passages like:

THE WHITE MAZDA NAVAJO turned onto an inclined driveway off Westheimer Road, heading toward the purple-and-white stucco facade of Armando’s Mexican restaurant. A valet watched the vehicle slow to a stop before hustling over to the driver-side door. Andy Fastow popped his seat belt and stepped out, handing over the keys as Lea emerged from the passenger side. He escorted her to the restaurant’s wooden door and swept inside.

All of this was constructed from info Eichenwald must have gotten from Fastow, with some info then extrapolated from what Fastow told him—what kind of car he would have been driving, and since he knew what restaurant they went to, he knew what road they must have driven down to get there. Eichenwald provides details that “show” instead of “tell” to pull us into the narrative via scenes, but he’s also carefully selective about what he uses to construct such scenes. Fastow probably didn’t explicitly describe handing over his keys to a valet, but Eichenwald knows from other research that the restaurant would have had it, and if it had it, Fastow would have used it, and Eichenwald’s putting the valet in here shows us Fastow’s casual wealth and implicitly emphasizes his off-handed attitude about it.

It’s the specificity of detail that not only paints a picture in the reader’s head, but that implicitly reinforces the credibility of the telling:

Carter maneuvered her fiancé up the terrazzo steps and into the hotel’s high-ceilinged lobby.

By caring enough to include such tiny details, enough to include that the steps are terrazzo and the lobby has a high ceiling, Eichenwald is implicitly sending the message that he cares about larger more story-important details even more.

Through his narrative journalism technique, Eichenwald occupies the thoughts of his subjects as if he’s in their heads (he points out that his journalism reads like “a novel”). He’s only able to do this by constructing so much of his account from primary sources—from interviews with the people he’s describing in the account. Only a primary source will do when you’re presenting people’s thoughts in this way—a secondary source can’t tell you someone’s thoughts—only the person him/herself can do that. Eichenwald only presumes to know what someone feels if that person described to him what they were feeling in that moment.

Eichenwald faces the challenge of translating the nuance of corporate accounting scandals into laymen’s terms, of explicating complicated deals that were made specifically for the average person not to be able to understand, and to locate and highlight the drama inherent within them—the stakes and consequences. His goal is to isolate the causes of Enron’s downfall and to present the chains of events that constitute these causes in scene. One of the biggest causes of the collapse were some of the deals put together by Enron’s Chief Financial Officer, Andrew Fastow, who created complicated financial vehicles that allowed Enron to hide their debt by manipulating technicalities in accounting rules, and who also carried out transactions between Enron and a personal account of his that eventually came to light as an egregious conflict of interest. Thus, a major narrative thread that emerges in Eichenwald’s account are meetings and discussions about this personal account of Fastow’s and people’s different reactions to it—and of course the most interesting scenes to hone in on are the ones where people’s reactions are conflicted.

One of the character’s whose in-the-moment feelings are particularly important are those of Ken Lay, Enron’s CEO. Lay always insisted he had no knowledge of any wrongdoing, particularly on Fastow’s part. Eichenwald’s account is able to remains true to his source without letting him off scot-free by emphasizing Lay’s naiveté. We can see this at work in the prologue, when we get Lay’s interior monologue:

We had every protection in place. We disclosed it all. They just don’t understand.

And:

Fastow would be a victim. It just wasn’t right.

Lay had no idea that Fastow had failed to tell him the most devastating news of all—news he wouldn’t learn for years to come.

Eichenwald remains true to Lay’s interior monologue, but finds ways to let the reader know how it’s misguided or problematic.

-SCR

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