It Pays to be Infamous: Psychopaths and the Media

I’m not alone in thinking that the NOT GUILTY verdict in the Casey Anthony trial, the young woman accused of killing her young daughter Caylee–like that of the O. J. Simpson trial before it–was a travesty of justice. What’s more appalling than when a clearly disordered person seems to be getting away with murder (at least in the eyes of a large segment of the public) is when she’s also getting paid large sums of money by the media  for her infamy. It’s as if the American media rewards those who seem to be, quite literally, getting away with murder.

Faced with a much-deserved backlash from an outraged American public, ABC news decided to withdraw their offer to pay Casey Anthony one million dollars for exclusive rights to her story. It’s a wise decision, although I can’t help but wonder what kind of message both the news and the entertainment media send the public when they’re even contemplating such an offer. Apparently selling scandalous news trumps any consideration to ethics or the public welfare.

Because of this priority, not that long ago, notorious (probable) psychopaths like Drew Peterson had a field day with the media, manipulating them to the point of ridicule and humiliation. When interviewed on Steve Dahl’s Morning Show about his proported grief for his missing wife, Peterson wanted to pitch instead his idea for a dating contest, Win a Date with Drew. Being desperate to get an interview with high profile suspected murderers, even the mainstream media–not only the tabloids–are turning psychopathy into a circus.

Here’s one of the latest stories about the outcome of Casey Anthony’s trial and the media offers for her story, from Marisa Guthrie in The Hollywood Reporter (July 8, 2011). I’m including below both Guthrie’s article and its link, since I believe this case has everything to do with psychopathy (and its rewards in the media). The media has become so motivated by the bottom line that, apparently, they are willing to pay any price for salacious news stories, no matter how much they offend the norms of human decency.

Claudia Moscovici, psychopathyawareness

How a Casey Anthony Interview Could Backfire on News Orgs

by Marisa Guthrie

Steven Hirsch, co-chairman of Vivid Entertainment, said in a statement: “It’s clear to me now… that there has been an overwhelmingly negative response to our offer and so we’ve decided to withdraw it. It has become obvious to us that Vivid fans, and people in general, want nothing to do with her and that includes a XXX movie. We want to make movies that people want to watch and we now believe that we underestimated the emotional response that people are having to the verdict. A movie starring Casey Anthony is not what people want to see.”

On Thursday, Hollywood agency Paradigm, Jose Baez hours after the company announced internally that it would rep Baez in TV, film and book rights.

Nevertheless, as Anthony is due to be released from jail on July 17, bookers for the broadcast and cable networks are camped in Florida working contacts in hopes of landing interviews with Anthony and her family. But the stench of checkbook journalism and the prospect that Anthony could profit from the death of her daughter is giving news executives back in New York pause.

One executive characterized any Casey Anthony interview as “hugely complicated.”

And a booker echoed that sentiment: “It’s complicated any time you’re paying somebody who everybody thinks is a killer.”

“It’s going to be one of the biggest gets,” said another booker. “But is it worth the bad press? Sometimes it’s not.”

News organizations are already feeling the heat for the widespread practice of licensing photos and videos from interview subjects. ABC News was revealed to have paid the Anthony family $200,000 in 2008 for what a network spokesperson has described as an “extensive library of photos and home video for use by our broadcasts, platforms, affiliates and international partners.” ABC News also paid meter reader Roy Kronk, who discovered Caylee Anthony’s remains, a $15,000 photo licensing fee. But it was not for a picture of the remains, rather it was for a photo of a snake. Kronk appeared on Good Morning America. He testified that the snake distracted him when he found Caylee’s skeleton. (ABC News did not pay Baez or juror Jennifer Ford.)

Now news organizations routinely disclose on-air if they’ve paid a licensing fee. And the practice has become so derided, that they take pains to disclose when they haven’t paid. Today host Ann Curry noted as much during her interview with Octomom Nadya Suleman on Friday.

News organizations dealings with Anthony, say industry observers, must be squeaky clean if they hope to preserve some semblance of journalistic integrity and also land what is sure to be a ratings bonanza. But Anthony, who is clearly estranged from her family and has no resources to speak of, has little incentive to grant a free interview.

“She’s got no interest in granting a regular news interview,” says television news analyst Andrew Tyndall. “She’s only got interest in granting a promotional interview, which is remunerative. Of course, news organizations should sit her down and say, ‘What’s your theory of what happened to your daughter?’ But that’s a news interview. There’s no prospect of an actual journalistic interview being done here, where real journalistic questions are asked and answered and we actually gain some insight into the circumstances of this case.

“Journalists, for their own self-preservation,” adds Tyndall, “should go a million miles away from this because there’s no information, just sensation.”

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Evil Jokers: The Dark Knight and Other Psychopaths

Psychopaths often fool others with their mask of sanity. As we know, they appear glib and charming in casual contact, hide their wrongdoings from others and lie smoothly with no compunction. But usually they’re far better at fooling their buddies and professional acquaintances–those they have only superficial contact with–than they are their long-term significant others. For a number of reasons I’ve explored so far–including fear, dependency, a sense of helplessness, PTSD, loyalty and deep emotional attachment–women sometimes stay with known psychopaths. Perhaps a less obvious reason for this that I’d like to discuss today is a self-defeating fascination with evil. Many of us are intrigued by evil, partly because of it’s caused by human beings who are fundamentally different from the rest of us. Just as it’s impossible for psychopaths to relate to what’s good about human nature—they see conscience, empathy and love it as weaknesses–it’s almost as difficult for most people to understand what motivates psychopaths to harm others.

The film The Dark Knight (2008) was a box office hit largely due to the popularity of the evil character. The Joker kills not in order to become richer, as do the other outlaws in the movie, but solely for the sport of it. His characterization as a psychopath is plausible: except perhaps for the unfortunate fact that most psychopaths are much harder to identify. They usually don’t look as repulsive and don’t act as obviously crazy as the Joker does. Yet, fundamentally, all psychopaths are evil jokers. Their idea of entertainment, and of a life well-spent, is duping and destroying others.

Similarly, Dracula novels remain international best sellers for a similar reason. In spite of ourselves, we’re drawn to human vampires who feed upon our lives, to weaken and destroy us. Even crime shows that feature psychopaths are very popular. Evil individuals also tend to monopolize the personal interest and crime stories featured on the news.

Because most of us are capable of empathy and love, and thus can’t identify with those who completely lack these capacities, we imagine evil people to be far more complex and intriguing than they actually are. We may be initially mystified by the contradiction between a psychopath’s apparent charm and his underlying ruthlessness. But once we realize that the charm of evil people is purely instrumental, to get them whatever they want at the moment, this contradiction is resolved and ceases to intrigue us. In reality, normal people are far more interesting and less predictable than psychopaths. The depth and range of our emotions complicates, nuances and curbs our selfish impulses and desires. For psychopaths, however, nothing stands in the way of their absolute selfishness. Each and every one of their actions, including seemingly other-regarding acts, can be plausibly explained in terms of their quest for dominance.

Evil men may appear to be masculine, self-confident and in charge. They seem to know what they want from life and how to get it. Keep in mind, however, that it’s so much easier to know what you want when you’re considering only your own desires and are willing to sacrifice everyone and everything to satisfy them. Even animals manifest deeper emotions. They care about their young and bond with others. Psychopaths don’t. If decent men sometimes hesitate, it’s because they’re more thoughtful and other-regarding. They put other people’s needs into the equation before reaching a decision. Thus, paradoxically, it’s only because of their deficiencies and simplicity with respect to normal, more multidimensional, human beings that we consider evil individuals our “Others” and are intrigued by them.

Claudia Moscovici, psychopathyawareness

Dangerous Liaisons: How to Identify and Escape from Psychopathic Seduction