Mindreaders Befuddled by Enron Jury

As the nation waited to hear the outcome of the Enron trial, television news hosts struggled to fill empty airtime.

Word came late yesterday morning that the Enron verdict would be announced at noon — just the sort of biding-time, hurry-up-and-wait situation that inevitably brings out the best in cable news. So how, exactly, did cable news reporters fill the waiting time (apart, of course, from constantly returning to a live shot of a grouping of lonely microphones in front of the Houston courthouse?)

Over at MSNBC — in between reports that Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling was “seen in shorts eating sandwiches and talking with people” in an “area of shops” near the courthouse this week — MSNBC’s Melissa Stark and Willow Bay attempted to lure their guests into speculating about what the verdict might be.

Joining the MSNBC duo by phone from Houston, Houston Chronicle business reporter Loren Steffy was asked: “What is the suspicion that if the jury comes back earlier than expected, does that lean towards one verdict or another?” Steffy answered that “sort of the rule of thumb on these things is the sooner the jury comes back, it’s usually good for the prosecution.” Our first thought was, “Tell that to the O.J. Simpson jury,” but Steffy quickly backpedaled with “Anything can happen. We have to wait just a little longer.”

Unable to wait, Bay hit up another guest minutes later with the same question — what might be “going on” with the “earlier than expected” verdict — but that guest, Frank Aaron of the Washington Post, was unwilling to play along, answering: “I’ve given up trying to say what it means. We always misread the time that the jury takes. If they came back early he must be guilty. If they came back early he must be innocent. I’m not going to touch that one.”

Also unwilling to “touch that one” was Fox News’ Neil Cavuto who made the following pronouncement minutes before noon: “There’s a large debate, as you know, about what to make of the timing of this. I’m no lawyer, but I just see that it’s before Memorial Day weekend. These guys were not going to meet tomorrow, weren’t going to meet on Monday, maybe they just didn’t want to drag it over the weekend. They had enough days to look at what were 34 counts between these two guys and get it out of the way before the weekend. Maybe that’s a bit simplistic but … I think it’s just a fool’s game to start interpreting what the relatively quick jury process means.”

The “fool’s game” was well underway on CNBC, with Morning Call anchor Liz Claman doing her best to draw speculation from her guests. To former SEC commissioner Harvey Pitt Claman she said, “We’re six minutes away from supposedly the start of the process. What do you make of what’s happened?” Pitt replied that “the fact that the jury was able to come in with a verdict so quickly suggests that this could likely be bad news for the defendants.” Minutes later, Claman ran the same question — “What do you think is going on?” — by Laura Unger, another former SEC commissioner. Unger’s prediction: “I would be surprised if they didn’t come back with a guilty verdict. I guess the question is how guilty and on what counts …”

CNN’s Ali Velshi, with just 11 minutes to go before the verdict was scheduled to be read, was no more patient than his C- or MSNBC peers. To his guest, lawyer Tom Ajame, Velshi asked, hopefully, “And you feel it doesn’t mean anything other than the fact it was a clear case to the jury that they’re back? It doesn’t mean acquittal or conviction?” Ajame replied that it is “too soon to say” (yeah, at least 11 minutes too soon). Fifteen minutes later, still verdict-less, Velshi could no longer contain himself. “This jury came back very quickly without any questions of substance to the judge, without any readbacks, without any clarifications,” Velshi reported to colleague Daryn Kagan in the studio. “Some are suggesting that might be an acquittal.” Ah, the old “some say” school of sourcing. With that, Velshi threw it back to Kagan who, not two minutes later, interrupted her guest to say: “Let me just jump in. Let me go live. Ken Lay is guilty on all charges. We have heard Ken Lay has been found guilty by the jury in the Enron verdict, guilty on all charges for Ken Lay.”

So much for what “some” said.

The world waited almost five years for Enron’s big enchiladas to face justice. Reporters couldn’t wait just a few minutes more?

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.