Senate staffers moving back into anthrax-decontaminated offices this week are passing around a grim joke: We have to evacuate again. They found traces of Enron in the air vents.
For Enron, it's fair to say, things are going from awful to horrible. The visionary company has become the butt of wisecracks, the prey of plaintiffs' lawyers, the target of countless investigators.
Congress and the FBI are doggedly pursuing document shredders. Enron Chairman (and friend of all elected Washington) Kenneth L. Lay has resigned, explaining drolly that multiple investigations "currently require much of my time." The company's dwindling work force is job-hunting and suing to recover vanished retirement funds.
Yet in the virtual world of Enron's Web site, the outlook is far, far brighter.
"It's difficult to define Enron in a sentence," says a welcome message that, like so much at enron.com, is intriguing in a way its authors never anticipated. "It's difficult, too, to talk about Enron without using the word 'innovative.' Most of the things we do have never been done before. We believe in the economic benefits of open, competitive wholesale markets, and we play a leading role in creating them. No wonder Fortune surveys have named Enron the most innovative company in America for six years in a row."
There's a winning streak that may be endangered.
Clicking through Enron's Web site today is like touring the half-ruined palace of some vanquished regime that imagined its reign would never end. Everywhere there are ironic reminders of the glory that was, or at least was claimed. Like the hundreds of pairs of shoes Philippines first lady Imelda Marcos left behind when she fled the presidential mansion or the gaudy sculptures left in Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu's gargantuan palace, they are a bracing reminder of the dangers of hubris and the fleeting nature of human triumph.
True, here and there on enron.com you can find indications that all is not well: above the speeding bicyclist on the opening page is a link to "Information for Former Enron Employees Affected by Chapter 11 Filing." But most of the site -- as of Thursday -- remained cheerfully intact.
Everyone's still smiling as they bustle about the new economy. Shirt-sleeved managers introduce Web slide shows to explain the intricacies of weather derivatives and bandwidth trading. The slightly blurred, bright color photos give the impression of a company going places.
In the "Most Requested" section, you can jump to "Corporate Responsibility," where you will learn that the company is "dedicated to the highest professional and ethical standards."
Employees and shareholders who feel they were fleeced may be surprised to read the details: "We treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves. We do not tolerate abusive or disrespectful treatment. Ruthlessness, callousness and arrogance don't belong here. We work with customers and prospects openly, honestly and sincerely. When we say we will do something, we will do it; when we say we cannot or will not do something, then we won't do it."
The bottom line in Enron's "Vision and Values" statement: "The great fun here will be for all of us to discover just how good we can really be."
Or check out the Letter to Shareholders from the 2000 Annual Report: "At a minimum, we see our market opportunities companywide tripling over the next five years. Enron is laser-focused on earnings per share, and we expect to continue strong earnings performance."
"If you're on irony watch, this is the place," says Steve Baldwin, a Yonkers, N.Y., Web writer, as he surfs the Enron site.
Brewster Kahle, a computer pioneer and director of the Internet Archive (archive.org), an online collection of old Web pages of all kinds, says the deceptive nature of Web sites extends far beyond the corporate world.
"On the Web, everything always looks brand-spanking new," says Kahle, of San Francisco. "The question is, can I trust it? If companies go under, their Web sites can just live on and on."
You can ride the Wayback Machine at Kahle's archive, named for a time-travel device in the old Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons, back to Web sites that have long been off-line.
At taleban.com you can study the public relations messages the ousted Afghan regime put out to the world in 1999: "The case is often made that Osama bin Laden is living in Kandahar under the administration of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. However the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan has moved him to Kandahar to keep him under strict limitations. He is no longer allowed to use Afghan soil to cause harm to any country."
Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service
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