I’ve been submerged in hardcore crime tv for, oh, about a month now. Everything I watch has the words “forensic”, “investigation”, or “cold” (as in “cold case”) in the title. I’ve always been squeamish about blood and guts but once I got hooked, the viscera seemed to just become background. Even when they showed real murder victims, the reality of it was subjugated to the story: how they got the bad guy. There is intrinsically drama in that narrative: a horrible crime, a good guy and a bad guy. Just add Hollywood.
Though I was watching them compulsively, the shows scared me. I started to hear noises. The sounds of my condo settling around me were suddenly as loud as some stranger breaking in through a window. I would mute the television, then dial 911 and creep to the back rooms, to see if I was really alone. Like so:
Surely I’d have enough time to hit CALL if a madman with a hatchet was crawling through the window, right? I even slept with my phone on my pillow, exactly like that, just waiting for me to hit CALL. You know, just in case a man came in while I was sleeping, and didn’t immediately take the one weapon I had – my phone – before doing something terrible to me.
One afternoon when Forensic Files wasn’t on, I found MSNBC’s To Catch A Predator. The show basically has a private group, Perverted Justice, pose as children attempting to lure adult men into sexual meet-ups. Again, the gratifying part is seeing the man squirm under Chris Hanson’s hard, penetrating stare, and then seeing the police force him to the ground before they haul him away. The interviews are always intriguing, but it is that first shock of knowing that they’re caught that gives you that little jolt of suck on that, jerkwad.
I remembered hearing about a suicide that was caused by To Catch A Predator so I googled. It happened in Texas; a PROSECUTOR was caught attempting to meet a 13 year old boy. He didn’t actually go to the trap house, but he planned to (according to police). When the police knocked on his door, he shot himself in the head.
It was at this point I grew sick with not just To Catch A Predator, but to all of the splash-shows. I realized that the prosecutor’s story was tragic and no matter what he had done, he didn’t deserve to be humiliated to the point of suicide on national television. And all those other stories about the missing girls and the chopped up wives and the poisoned husbands… I realized that at some point this had all become entertaining to me. I wasn’t taking any of it seriously because it isn’t meant to be taken seriously. My silly 911-ready phone? Pure symbolism. There was no chance that if something horrible were happening to me that I would be able to call anyone for help. It was an attempt to feel in control, nothing more. And more to the point, the pursuit of bad guys is mostly symbolic. It is news, maybe, but it is mostly entertainment.
I started to consider Enron in the context of “news-entertainment” and some things became clear:
I do not watch the murder shows to learn how to be safer. Likewise, nobody watched the news about Enron to learn how to “spot fraud” or whatever high-minded motive the news channels decided you should be looking for when you saw Enron stories. It was entertainment. That was all.
Secondly, none of the murder shows has anything whatsoever to do with me (the only exception is a show about a girl named Jennifer who actually survived being raped and cut from ear to ear when she was eight years old; she’s a friend of a friend. FBI Investigations on the ID channel shows her story at least a couple times per year.) The fact that it really happened doesn’t mean it is any more relevant to me, so why am I watching it? I am sure the crime is relevant to the subject’s families and friends, but what is the pull for a total stranger to invest in this story?
Drama, I guess. A nice, neat narrative. You have a full incident (beginning, middle and end). Unlike life, it seems finite and definable. Likewise with Enron, I would guess that 99.98% of the people who discuss Enron and hate the Enron execs have absolutely no connection to Enron at all. They probably didn’t own a single share of Enron stock, or know a single Enron executive, or use a single Enron product. Yet they could invest in the drama that was playing out before their very eyes every night on the six o’clock news. They could easily identify a bad guy (Jeff Skilling) and a good guy (the Department of Justice) and they were happy when Skilling went to prison. Roll credits.
I think because 99.98% of the world experienced Enron only by what they saw on the news, they felt engaged only as long as they were being entertained by the nightly Enron Show. When Jeff Skilling was still in prison a year later, they didn’t care because the show had already ended. It was a post-script about something they no longer cared about. There was another show to watch: The Tyco Show, or the 9/11 Show or the Sarah Palin Show. So who the hell cared about the Jeff Skilling subplot of the Enron Show? That is so last season.
I’m starting to understand now just how deeply entrenched the Enron narrative is in our society. It is not a crime story or even a human interest story. It is a media story. It is the story of how a story became a story.
We’re like people standing around the water cooler talking about the show we saw last night. When one person says, “Hm, I wonder if maybe this meant something else…” the result is astonishment. “Dude, were you even watching the same show we were? It was so obvious that Skilling was the bad guy.”
Maybe not. We’ve seen all kinds of stories about journalistic malpractice, but even skeptics are slow to realize that maybe the Enron Show wasn’t really based on a true story. It was a fictionalized account, even though that news lady looked so earnest when she talked, and the crawler on the bottom of the screen was current.
While I can turn off the programs about murder and mayhem, I can’t turn off the Enron Show. There is still so much to correct. So much still to say.