And What Is the Going Rate For a Felon?

So many convicted felons in the US seem to go on to have active and lucrative media careers.

The BBC News Magazine recently complied a list.  Martha Stewart, convicted on insider trading, is back on TV.  G. Gordon Liddy, the Watergate burglar, became a staple of Fox News.  Jack Abramoff, the lobbyist convicted of corruption and jailed for 3 years, was recently invited to comment on CNN.  Henry Blodget a former Wall Street analyst convicted of fraud regularly comments on CNN.

And the list of those in the financial industry is growing. “Is there a financial news channel that wouldn’t take an appearance from Bernie Madoff?” asks Todd Gitlin, a sociologist and professor of journalism at Columbia University.  “American television networks long ago relinquished their role as a moral arbiters,” noted the BBC reporter.  (See, “Jack Abramoff on CNN: Why does US TV book bad guys?”)

What does this mean?  Another sociologist attributes this “decline of public moral standards” to “the moral relativism of the 1960s.”  He notes,  “We live in a world where it’s much harder to define good guys and bad guys.”

Though that is true, there is little ambiguity about the jail sentences of the culprits, and often little doubt that they were well deserved.  It looks as if this is more about celebrity trumping ethics.

Decades ago Andy Warhol claimed, in a burst of optimism, that everyone would have 15 minutes of fame.  Certainly he was right that fame would be increasingly distributed and cheapened.  But it has not worked out quite as equitably as he predicted.  Not everyone gets 15 minutes, and some get inordinate amounts and go on to enjoy lasting careers.

The BBC article quotes Ron Powers, a Pulitzer Prize-winning television critic, who says it illustrates “the contempt” TV producers have for audiences.  “It’s a way of saying to the viewer: ‘We put this guy on the air not because he has any particular expertise, but because we have a strong suspicion you don’t read much, and here is a name that you can maybe titter over.’”

That’s probably closer to the truth.  But you can tell that Powers himself has some contempt for the producers who have such debased standards as well as for the ignorant public to whom they pander.  Todd Gitlin tells of calling the TV news host Tim Russert some years ago after the right wing firebrand Rush Limbaugh appeared on Meet the Press, a much respected Sunday morning interview program.  Flabbergasted, he asked why the show had booked Limbaugh.  “The answer was not he knows something about Iraq,” Gitlin says. “He said to me, ‘he speaks to 20 million people.’ That was a marker of what is considered valuable about a person on exhibit on a major news show.”

Basically it boils down to money.  More viewers mean more advertising revenue.  But that is not the only way in which attention has become valuable:  hits on a website, “friends,” YouTube clips, tweets, “likes,” endorsements, “reviews” – they can all be used to produce profit.  There is a simple equation.

In our culture, where news is entertainment, fame is money.  We may worry about the lack of judgment involved, but it doesn’t seem to matter.  You just have to be remembered.