During the next two weeks, we’ll be Trumped to death by NBC and the rest of the media. The Donald will host Saturday Night Live this weekend. His latest tribute to his ego, How To Get Rich, is on Amazon.com’s best-selling books list. Dateline plans roughly two hours of stories about The Apprentice and claims business schools are using the show as a teaching tool. (But this reality program is hardly true to life; how many employees whose necks are on the chopping block are brave enough to talk back to the boss?) The series’ finale will air live on April 15 — ironically, IRS filing day for everyone else — replete with what is supposed to be a surprise appearance by Spider-Man. (In a masterful stroke of summer movie promotion by Sony Pictures, Tobey Maguire shows up in character, only to be met by Trump’s newly trademarked phrase, “You’re fired!”) Already, there’s chatter about casting Apprentice 2. And idiots like me keep writing articles that serve only to feed Trump’s insatiable publicity maw.
What’s alarming about all this is that we’re watching a totally trumped-up infomercial. While much of the media criticism has focused on Trump’s God-awful orange weave and gilded tackiness, why hasn’t there been universal outrage that the basis for the series is a big, fat lie? After his long absence from anybody’s roster of successful businessmen, NBC is taking great pains to make us believe it’s good to be Donald Trump again. But recent reporting shows that his gambling empire is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy — again — with revenue and profits slumping and casino holdings drowning in $2 billion in bond debt. And just Tuesday, a letter to the board of directors from auditors for Ernst & Young was made public as part of the filing of the company’s annual report saying that, barring a bailout, Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts may not be able “to continue as a going concern.” A lot of investors big and small may get screwed, but not The Donald, who is a 50/50 owner with producer Mark Burnett of what is now going to be The Apprentice franchise.
NBC isn’t at all embarrassed about this misrepresentation since the end justifies the means: The Apprentice has improved entertainment programmer, and now president, Jeff Zucker’s Thursday-night ratings by 39 percent since it launched on January 8. Nor are viewers bugged by it. Witness this recent letter to The New York Times: “I work for a top investment banking firm, on the trading floor, and when promos for The Apprentice appear there is an audible roar of enthusiasm and applause. The mood on ‘the street’ is a lust to recapture the boom. Everybody loves Kwame, the baby-faced Wall Street banker who, in an early episode, ripped off little kids by pretending to be a football hero. The Apprentice is not about old-fashioned ethics and self-made success — it’s as much about the joy of the swindle as it is about the honest deal.”
Corporate America’s ethos of greed is good again. Lying about it is even better.
It’s the ultimate irony, really, considering the recent history of chairmen, CEOs and COOs cheating to make Wall Street and Main Street think everything’s right with their companies when the truth is everything’s wrong. How inevitable that the ongoing (and seemingly never-ending) Tyco International trial has a Trump connection: Jurors asked Monday for all exhibits related to 1 Central Park West, Donald Trump’s monument to acquisitive excess, because former chief financial officer Mark Swartz put down deposits on apartments there that the company later wrote off as expenses.
In fact, there’s no better proof of this celebration of mendacity, besides the fact that Ken Lay is still a free man, than the daily perp walk to and from the courthouse by Swartz and his compadre in crime, Tyco chief L. Dennis Kozlowski. They wear broad smiles — as do their high-maintenance wives — instead of hanging their heads in shame for just being accused of having looted the company out of $600 million spent on luxury homes, pricey art, diamond jewelry, planes and yachts. (Not to mention that videotaped, $2 million birthday party for Kozlowski’s wifey-poo on the Mediterranean island of Sardinia where an ice sculpture of Michelangelo’s David featured mounds of caviar and shellfish at its feet and dispensed expensive vodka from its penis.) And if that recalcitrant juror, Granny Blueblood, gets them off with a mistrial, will anyone be shocked if Fox hires them to host an Apprentice clone produced by L.A.’s own felon-turned-philanthropist Michael Milken?
Even people who at first refused to view The Apprentice just on the basis of a well-deserved dislike of The Donald eventually started watching, won over by the water-cooler talk about the contestants’ unethical business antics. Which is why Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, the associate dean of the Yale School of Management, told Newsweek recently: “This show is vulgar. It’s deception, trickery and sex peddling. The lesson is that leadership selection is developed in a process akin to musical chairs at a Hooters restaurant.” Give these conniving corporate pups a $250,000 Trump organization job? The vast majority of us wouldn’t even trust them to walk our dogs. Now it turns out that the only one of the five finalists to demonstrate even a modicum of conscience during the series is also all about the money. On Tuesday, a press release from the Newport Beach–based Berman Investment Group boasted that Nick Warnock has ordered the firm’s how-to-get-rich manual: I Got Here. You Can Too! A Master’s Course in Becoming a Millionaire.
As for the show itself, there’s no attempt to portray any joy in work for work’s sake or even accomplishment’s sake. Just the opposite. Trump’s wannabes labor to win the next perk — a gander at Trump’s apartment, a ride on Trump’s helicopter, a stay in Trump’s hotel suite — anything that hoists them one rung closer on the corporate ladder to emulating The Donald’s vulgar work style — one that belies his near-bankruptcy reality. It’s bad enough that it became standard operating procedure in the workplace for bosses to feel entitled to company-paid and company-provided goodies just by virtue of having the top jobs, but now the offending CEOs cop a vaingloriously smug attitude toward public outrage over the pillaging.
For years now, George Carlin, that cultural anthropologist masquerading as a comedian, has entertained us with the riff that what this country’s all about is “gotta keep on getting more stuff.” And the acquisitive dreams of a confident American consumer fueled not only the Greed Decade of the ’80s but the stock market boom of the ’90s. Fortune, BusinessWeek, Vanity Fair all celebrated the corporate titan who couldn’t wait to show off his wonderful work style on CNN’s Pinnacle. Then came the millennium, and the bull-market euphoria wound up selling out the public in the process as Enron, Global Crossing, Waste Management, Computer Associates International, Adelphia Communications, Cendant Corporation, and ImClone Systems joined Tyco on the rogues’ list of suddenly collapsed corporations.
In almost every case, the bosses’ need for bling-bling on the excessive order of E! Entertainment’s It’s Good To Be, MTV’s Cribs and VH1’s The Fabulous Life Of: (“Here my plasma . . . here my otha plasma”) brought corporations and investors to their knees. Talk about a disconnect. While we mere mortals faced ever-rising Adelphia cable bills, Adelphia’s Rigas family members — founder John, sons Timothy and Michael — are now on trial for allegedly using company money like a private piggy bank and spending $2.3 billion for cash advances, $13 million to buy a golf course and hundreds of thousands of dollars on golf and club memberships. And let’s not forget the time Timothy had the company buy him 100 pairs of bedroom slippers. Or that episode when John directed a corporate jet to be used to fly a Christmas tree from Pennsylvania to New York City for his daughter, who rejected it and ordered a replacement to the tune of $20,000.
It’s little wonder that Jack Welch, the ex-chairman of General Electric who engineered the corporation’s acquisition of NBC and earned the reputation as a ruthless corporate cost cutter, proclaims himself a huge fan of The Apprentice. If it weren’t for his divorce divulgences, no G.E. shareholder would have been informed that Welch walked away from the company with a wealth of retirement perks, including use of a G.E.-owned apartment in Manhattan, sports and opera tickets and the use of a corporate aircraft. It was only because of the bad publicity that Welch requested that the G.E. board modify his retirement package. Now Welch is unabashedly and publicly ruing his move.
That celebrating corporate greed and then lying about it should be revived during the Bush administration doesn’t come as a surprise. After all, these conservative cronies never met a Republican rich man they didn’t like. They extol the superhero powers of The Wealthy Class to lift this country out of recession so long as the tax cuts for the well-off are fat enough. They lie at every opportunity. And they praise as a virtue George W.’s desire to run the country “like a CEO.” Here’s hoping that, during next fall’s November sweeps, the nation rejects this president as well as Trump and NBC.
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