Thursday Hosokawa Lecture presents journalist who helped break Enron scandal

Bethany McLean Smartest Guys

Bethany McLean, a former investment banker turned investigative journalist who helped break the Enron scandal story, will give a free public lecture, “Media as Watchdog: Exposing Corporate Scandal,” at 7 p.m. Thursday at Whitman College’s Maxey Auditorium. A book signing follows the lecture.

McLean, now a contributing editor for Vanity Fair, was working for Fortune magazine when she exposed corruption at Enron. She has been widely acknowledged for questioning Enron’s inflated stock price in her March 5, 2001 Fortune article, titled “Is Enron Overpriced?”

McLean and Fortune colleague Peter Elkind later co-wrote “The Smartest Guys in the Room – The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron,” which was made into an Academy Award nominated documentary.

In a recent Palm Beach Daily News article, McLean explained that after working four years as an investment baker for Goldman Sachs she “switched careers by landing a job at Fortune as a fact checker.”

She started tackling stories others didn’t want to do, then began writing a column on “Companies to Watch.” After developing a network of sources, one gave her a tip to “take a look at Enron.”

She got and reviewed Enron’s financial statements, and when she interviewed Jeff Skilling, Enron’s CEO, he accused her of “asking stupid questions” and told her it would be unethical to run her story because she didn’t really understand the subject, according to the Palm Beach Daily News article.

McLean said Kenneth Lay, Enron’s chairman, called the magazine trying to get the story killed but, “The magazine put its faith in me, ran the story and didn’t even come to me and say, ‘Are you sure?’ They trusted what I had done…”

McLean’s lecture at Whitman, the 2009-10 Hosokawa Journalism Lecture, has been funded in part by the Hosokawa Endowment, which was established by David and Beverly Hosokawa and the Hosokawa Family Foundation in honor of David’s father, journalist Robert R. Hosokawa, a 1940 Whitman graduate.

In addition to the lectureship, which annually brings a noted journalist to campus, the endowment established the Hosokawa Journalism Contest to recognize outstanding achievement and excellence by student journalists and photojournalists of the student newspaper, the Pioneer.

This year’s contest judges included professional journalists and photographers from The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Seattle Times, Boston Globe, USA Today, Inside Higher Ed and the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin.