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Crooks in suits

Money | Study shows that businessmen are television's favorite bad guys

Issue: "Mayberry no more," July 29, 2006

From oil tycoon J.R. Ewing in Dallas to corporate raider Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, businessmen have been Hollywood's stock villains for decades. An occasional doctor, lawyer, mechanic, or teacher will be the bad guy in a TV drama or movie, but studies show that Hollywood holds a particular hostility toward the corporate world.

The latest evidence: a study, titled "Bad Company," released last month by the Business & Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center in Alexandria, Va. Analyzing the top 12 prime-time dramas during last year's May and November sweeps periods, BMI found that 77 percent of the plots involving business were negative toward businessmen and commerce.

Business characters weren't just run-of-the-mill lowlifes, either. They committed 21 times more fictional kidnappings and murders than terrorists or gang members did, and they committed almost as many serious felonies as drug dealers, child molesters, and serial killers combined. On NBC's three Law & Order shows, almost half of the felons (13 of 27) were businessmen.

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Even when corporate characters were not committing murders or other felonies, they were hardly heroic-unlike doctors or other characters. "Businessmen rarely helped solve society's problems through their skill or dedication," the BMI study reports. Of the 12 shows BMI studied, only one, "NBC's Las Vegas-set ironically in the notorious 'Sin City'-offered narratives in which businessmen confronted challenges with skill and creativity instead of murder or sex."

Theories abound about why script writers and producers are so eager to frame corporate types as criminals. Is it because businessmen are not as vocal as other groups in their own defense? (Rather than start letter-writing campaigns to networks, businessmen instead underwrite these attacks with their advertising dollars.) Or is it because Hollywood's dominant liberal philosophy doesn't view business owners and corporate managers as valid contributors to society?

Regardless of the reason for the avalanche of negative depictions, the net result is art that distorts rather than reflects reality while subtly teaching children that business cannot be an honorable calling.

In dreaming up villains, is it really too much to ask that Hollywood show a little less ideology and a little more creativity?

Balance Sheet

BUSINESS

The old gray lady is getting a makeover. Bowing to an industry trend, The New York Times last week announced plans to reduce its newspaper width by an inch and a half in 2008. A spokesman said the move will save millions of dollars each year and that younger readers prefer a smaller paper. USA Today has already gone to the smaller size, and The Wall Street Journal plans to do the same next year.

INFLATION

The Labor Department reported last week that wholesale prices rose a stronger-than-expected 0.5 percent in June. The news prompted predictions that the Federal Reserve would raise the federal funds rate for the 18th straight time at its Aug. 8 meeting. The report, said University of Maryland business professor Peter Morici, increased Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke's "concerns that rising petroleum prices are igniting inflation throughout the economy."

HOUSING

Homebuilding is slowing down, according to a report from the Commerce Department last week. New home construction fell 5.3 percent in June, while applications for building permits (a sign of future building activity) fell 4.3 percent. The Mortgage Bankers Association, meanwhile, reported a 4.6 percent drop in mortgage applications for the week ending July 14. -T.L.

Timothy Lamer
Timothy Lamer

Tim is managing editor of WORLD magazine.

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