Crime scene — focus on the greedy businessman

In the Wall Street Journal today (subscription required), Dorothy Rabinowitz takes a probing look at a recent “Law and Order” episode that transforms a Manhattan tragedy to create a corporate villain.

Rabinowitz was rightly outraged at the twists in the fictionalized plot. The real and terrible crime story involved a Manhattan mother and businesswoman who complained about construction noises in her building. An illegal Ecuadoran immigrant doing some of the work hit her, thought she was dead, and then hanged the woman (who was still alive) to stage a suicide.

That plot, though horrible, wasn’t politically correct enough for “Law and Order.” Instead, the episode portrayed a sympathetic immigrant doing construction work and supporting his poor mother in Colombia. He did hit the woman, but the rich and greedy owner of the construction firm became the one who hanged her in a staged suicide to cover up for his exploitation of illegal immigrants.

Rabinowitz points out that depictions of corporate villainy on prime-time television seem to be the rule rather than the exception. She cited a report from the Business Media Institute, which noted that businessmen in TV dramas were portrayed as “a greater threat to society than terrorists, gangs or the mob.” That report also zeros in on “Law and Order” as a prime proponent of that view.

It’s not just TV, of course, that projects businessmen and women as venal, greedy, and depraved. Popular culture, including movies, thrillers — and Congressional hearings — all focus on corporate villains as the “safe” group to attack. After all, business people are among the least admired professions.

According to a Harris poll last year, firefighters, doctors, and nurses were the most admired professions, while “ranking lowest in prestige were the wheeler-and-dealer types: real estate brokers at 6 percent, stockbrokers at 11 percent, and business executives at 11 percent.”