A Professor of White Collar Crime Reviews USA's 'White Collar' series
A standard critique of media portrayals of crime includes an over-emphasis on street crime compared to white collar crime. Yes, the law also emphasizes street crime over white collar crime -- the the summary of Ch 2 of The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison -- but the media goes even further. When was the last time COPS, Law & Order, CSi, etc dealt with a white collar crime? Sometimes rich people end up on the show, but usually for committing a homicide or other street crime, not for corporate acts that harm workers, consumers, the environment and/or communities.
So, along comes the USA series White Collar. Neal, a convicted art forger, joins forces with an FBI agent to solve white collar crimes. Television is now dealing with white collar crime, right? Well, sort of. As I will explain below, the crimes that are portrayed are a narrow set of white collar crimes -- and they are ones that do not challenge abuses of power by corporations or government. I'll provide some examples of "ripped from the headline" events that the show will not touch. Finally, I'll raise the issue that USA's ownership by GE (which owns NBC Universal) might be a factor given GE's habitual offending over the course of decades (no 3 strikes and you're out for the powerful).
My research, teaching and TV watching
I like USA's Burn Notice, so the idea of a series about white collar crime caught my attention. Part of it was a professional interest, but I try to avoid rationalizing TV watching as part of my work. Still, I am a co-author of Class, Race, Gender and Crime (going into a 3rd ed); co-author of the ninth edition of The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison; and I teach a class on white collar crime. I've seen most of the episodes of White Collar, thanks to repeats and not TiVo.
In the premier episode, I noticed a scene where Neal is in prison, sitting on a bunk with scratch marks in the walls to count the passage of days. The show was trying to establish his motivation for cooperating with the FBI, but I was disappointed when the scene ended with swatting a bare light bulb hanging from cord and the bulb breaks. Please - prisons are designed so there is nothing around for the inmates to use to hurt themselves, each other or the guards. Electric cords are a no-no; there's not just the shock risk, but also a strangulation and suicide risk as well. Glass is a no-no; it can be used by a prisoner to cut himself (suicide risk here as well) and as a weapon. A light bulb, in the possession of someone patient with lots of time on their hands could potentially be turned into an explosive. When exposed to air, the filament gets red hot, so fuel from a lighter (yes, it would be contraband, but available) could be combined with a light bulb into something problematic. (I guess I should say I have also taught a corrections class.)
In spite of my critique above and below, I generally like the show. My critique is really about the politics of white collar crime. More specifically, my critique is that they have created a show about white collar crime that is non-political -- especially in an era where Wall Street just got huge bonuses for fucking up the world's economy.
White Collar Crime and Power
Too frequently, white collar crime is about employee theft, bank tellers embezzling, and credit card fraud. In each of these cases, the perpetrators, white "white collar" professionals, are victimizing an entity more powerful than themselves (stores, banks, and financial institutions). What's missing from the picture are harms done by the powerful, usually powerful corporations and governments.
White Collar follows the former pattern and not the latter. Counterfeiting is a crime against the government; the perpetrators may be rich and sophisticated, but still have less resources and power than a government. Art theft or the other variations in the show tend to be personal crimes: one on one crimes, either without a clear power dynamic or one in which an individual is protected from a more powerful group of obvious "bad guys" (organized crime, for example). Absent are episodes where someone with power and prestige who is seen as a respectable person victimizes the less powerful. This is really the essence of white collar crime and the common theme of most definitions.
"Ripped from the headlines" applied to White Collar
"Ripped from the headlines" is part of the advertising for Law and Order, which airs in (endless) re-runs on USA because of the ownership of Law and Order's production company. This gives the show a timeliness and vague "reality" that catches people's curiosity: "Although the stories tend to wander into make-believe, they rely on the lightly disguised depiction of real people and events for their immediacy and sense of authenticity," notes the Washington Post in an article about surviving family feel "blindsided" and violated when crimes appear on the show.
While using people's personal tragedies as fodder for popular TV without contacting them is not a model I would recommend for White Collar, a few "ripped from the headlines" examples might help clarify my critique about the apolitical nature of White Collar. This is a short list pulled from my recent bookmarks...
A Big Car Manufacturer that became became "a little safety-deaf." Yes, Toyota in real life, but the safety deaf quote was from Transportation Secretary LaHood, who noted some problems penetrating the corporate culture. He added that "For now, any car that's on the Web site needs to go back to the dealer because they're not safe."But there are many questions about whether the dealer's fix really solves the problem. To add to the intrigue, maybe a West Wing flare, we see that "Toyota heads to Capitol Hill with team of lobbyists, history of political giving" Can the FBI ensure that justice prevails even though the there's "a million bucks in donations, a million bucks to charities preferred by key members of Congress, a 32-person (and growing) lobbying operation -- what’s a little free speech among friends? I’m sure it’s a coincidence, but Toyota spent $45,000 feting Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.), who, oh my gosh, happens to chair one of the relevant transportation committees readying for hearings on the company." It might not be Jack Bauer in 24, but lives are on the line.
A Treasury Secretary misleads Congress about how $700 billion will be spent: then Secretary Paulson said: "During the two weeks that Congress considered the [TARP] legislation, market conditions worsened considerably. It was clear to me by the time the bill was signed on October 3rd that we needed to act quickly and forcefully, and that purchasing troubled assets—our initial focus—would take time to implement and would not be sufficient given the severity of the problem." For those needing more explanation, a financial blogger explains "So Paulson knew 'by the time the bill was signed' that it wouldn’t be used for its advertised purpose – disposing of toxic assets – and would instead be used to give money directly to the big banks. But he didn’t tell Congress before they voted to approve the TARP legislation." At what point does misleading Congress and the public become a crime? Is it relevant that the biggest beneficiaries of the new and undisclosed plan was Goldman Sachs, where the Treasury Secretary was a former executive?
Added intrigue: The Federal Reserve asks AIG to keep quiet about the huge payments that went to Goldman (even a national security exemption! - but that wouldn't be believable on TV, would it?). Of course there are further issues about the payment of huge bonuses by those institutions receiving taxpayer money through TARP as well as the lobbying they are doing to defeat reform. (
Some Way too much of it seems to be legal, but this could still be part of the plot, just as discussions about whether to charge and what to charge are part of the drama of Law & Order. )
Food processor as mass murderer, knowingly ships contaminated food that kills 5 and sickens 500: The Peanut Corporation of America. Remember those hundreds of potentially contaminated products? The executive who would not eat any of the products when a Congressman offered him some at a hearing? The back story is that on 12 occasions of two years they had lab reports that confirmed salmonella and they shipped products anyway according to a Washington Post article. Investigation is hindered by the fact that companies are not required to report test results to the FDA. The FDA has no power to order a recall, so all they can do is pressure the company into a "voluntary" recall. Again, maybe not Jack Bauer, but real lives, real children died. More than a year later, no criminal charges, even though there's a very good case to be made for them.(There's another possible investigating similar concerns with hamburger.)
Pharmaceutical giant illegally markets drugs: Pfizer agrees to a $2.3 billion settlement over illegally marketing a drug. According to the New York Times, it was "the largest health care fraud settlement and the largest criminal fine of any kind ever." Reading further, it was "Pfizer’s fourth settlement over illegal marketing activities since 2002." The recidivism seems to be important as "the government charged that executives and sales representatives throughout Pfizer’s ranks planned and executed schemes to illegally market not only Bextra but also Geodon, an antipsychotic; Zyvox, an antibiotic; and Lyrica, which treats nerve pain. While the government said the fine was a record sum, the $2.3 billion fine amounts to less than three weeks of Pfizer’s sales." There's also an issue that this "occurred while Pfizer was in the midst of resolving allegations that it illegally marketed Neurontin, an epilepsy drug for which the company in 2004 paid a $430 million fine and signed a corporate integrity agreement — a company wide promise to behave." (More here and here). Illegal marketing mean higher costs to taxpayers as people on Medicare are prescribed drugs they don't need and/or higher doses of drugs, plus there are all the side effects that people have to deal with for medication they did not need to take.
As a related episode or subplot, the NYT reports that: "Newly unveiled court documents show that ghostwriters paid by a pharmaceutical company played a major role in producing 26 scientific papers backing the use of hormone replacement therapy in women, suggesting that the level of hidden industry influence on medical literature is broader than previously known." (Yes, the companies write articles for medical journals about their drugs and
"solicit" pay doctors to put their names on it.)
While some people would say the topics are boring and that's why they are not on TV, I'd point out the success of John Travolta's Civil Action (pollution from chemical company causes cancer); Julia Roberts' Erin Brockovitch (same); Al Pacino's The Insider (informant on tobacco company); and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.. If White Collar can create a drama around a stolen piece of art, why not some of the high stakes issues above.
The problem more likely is corporate ownership of the media. Specifically, USA is owned by NBC universal, which is owned by GE. Here's part of the lowdown, which is in the opening of Chapter 8 of Class, Race, Gender and Crime (the forthcoming 3rd ed; the 2nd ed has a less detailed version).
Now consider the case of General Electric, which is not considered a habitual criminal offender despite committing diverse crimes over many decades. In the 1950s, GE and several companies agreed in advance on the sealed bids they submitted for heavy electrical equipment. This price-fixing defeated the purpose of competitive bidding, costing taxpayers and consumers as much as a billion dollars. GE was fined $437,000—a tax-deductible business expense—the equivalent of a person earning $175,000 a year getting a $3 ticket. Two executives spent only 30 days in jail, even though one defendant had commented that price-fixing “had become so common and gone for so many years that we lost sight of the fact that it was illegal” (in Hills 1987, 191).
In the 1970s, GE made illegal campaign contributions to Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign. Widespread illegal discrimination against minorities and women at GE resulted in a $32 million settlement. Also during this time, three former GE nuclear engineers—including one who had worked for the company for twenty-three years and managed the nuclear complain department—resigned to draw attention to serious design defects in the plans for the Mark III nuclear reactor because the standard practice was “sell first, test later” (Hills 1987, 170; Glazer and Glazer 1989).
In 1981, GE was convicted of paying a $1.25 million bribe to a Puerto Rican official to obtain a power plant contract. GE has pled guilty to felonies involving illegal procurement of highly classified defense documents, and in 1985, it pled guilty to 108 counts of felony fraud involving defense contracts related to the Minuteman missile. In spite of a new code of ethics, GE was convicted in three more criminal cases over the next few years, plus paying $3.5 million to settle cases involving retaliation against four whistleblowers that helped reveal the defense fraud. (GE subsequently lobbied Congress to weaken the False Claims Act.) In 1988, the government returned another 317 indictments against GE for fraud in a $21 million computer contract.
In 1989, GE’s stock brokerage firm paid a $275,000 civil fine for discriminating against low-income consumers, the largest fine ever under the Equal Credit Opportunity Act. A 1990 jury convicted GE of fraud for cheating on a $254 million contract for battlefield computers, and journalist William Greider reports that the $27.2 million fine included money to “settle government complaints that it had padded bids on two hundred other military and space contracts” (1996, p. 350; see also Clinard 1990; Greider 1994; Pasztor 1995; Simon 1999).
Because of tax changes that GE had lobbied for and the Reagan tax cuts generally, GE paid no taxes between 1981 and 1983 when net profits were $6.5 billion. In fact, in a classic example of corporate welfare, GE received a tax rebate of $283 million during a time of high national deficits even though the company eliminated 50,000 jobs in the United States by closing 73 plants and offices.
Further, “Citizen GE” whose advertising slogan has been—“brings good things to life”—is one of the prime environmental polluters and is identified as responsible for contributing to the damage of 52 active Superfund sites in need of environmental cleanup in this country alone. In 1999, they agreed to a $250 million dollar settlement to clean up the Housatonic River in Massachusetts.
GE is responsible “for one of America's largest Superfund site, the Hudson River, where the company dumped more than a million pounds of toxic wastes including cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyls over a period of decades, according to the EPA” (Center for Public Integrity 2007). Instead of cleaning up their part of the 197-mile site, they mounted an eight-year challenge to the Superfund law that requires polluters to remedy toxic situations they created. (GE’s corporate environmental counsel during part of this time, Ignacia Moreno, was appointed by President Obama to be Assistant Attorney General for the Environment and Natural Resources Division in the Department of Justice.)
Even though felons usually lose political rights, GE donated almost $18 million to candidates in federal elections between 1989 and 2009 (Center for Responsive politics 2009), and they spent $191 million for lobbying between 1998 and 2009 (Center for Responsive Politics 2009a). In spite of having been convicted of defrauding every branch of the military multiple times, GE is frequently invited to testify before Congress.
GE also has the ability to shape public opinion through its ownership of NBC Universal, which owns NBC television (and A & E, USA, and others), MSNBC and the financial news outlet CNBC. Some call CNBC an “economic infomercial” because there’s a rather obvious but little discussed conflict of interest between owning a financial news outlet, being one of the world’s largest financial operations and receiving government support during the economic crisis.
GE created a number of finance arms to help people and companies buy its products, and those activities account for nearly half of their earnings in the last five years (Gerth and Dennis 2009). Most people know GE “for light bulbs and home appliances, but GE Capital is one of the world's largest and most diverse financial operations, lending money for commercial real estate, aircraft leasing and credit cards for stores such as Wal-Mart. If GE Capital were classified as a banking company, it would be the nation's seventh largest” (ibid). Although GE was not originally eligible for government support through programs enacted to help with the financial crisis, they engaged in lobbying and received $74 billion in loan guarantees that helped the company finance its operations at low cost (ibid).
For 2008, GE was the sixth largest company on the Fortune 500 list. If the corporation’s revenue were compared to the Gross Domestic Product of countries, it would be in the fifty largest economies in the world. With this kind of political, economic, and social power, it is easy to understand why “three strikes and you’re out” does not apply to the “big hitters” like GE.
Gee, I can't imagine why they wouldn't want a show about white collar crime that was "ripped from the headlines" and more importantly spoke truth to power. When you are the power, you shape people's vision of truth. And the the (corporate) truth is that crime isn't about what the rich and powerful do. Nothing to see here - check out the good looking guy dealing with white collar crimes about computer chips...