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.”

Advertisements

Be Worried! Why Psychopathy is Everyone’s Problem

We worry about psychopaths the way we worry about death: as a form of entertainment (true crime movies and books are the equivalent of Halloween thrillers) and as an abstraction (death and misfortune happen, but there’s no point worrying about it until it happens to me or my loved ones). Death and disease are unavoidable parts of the human condition. However, contact with evil persons who can harm and perhaps even destroy our lives is, for the most part, avoidable. In dealing with such individuals, who often mask their malicious intent and nature, ignorance is our greatest weak spot. A basic knowledge of psychopathy and other personality disorders can save us from years of psychological and financial damage. And yet, few people are willing to inform themselves about psychopathy until they or their loved ones are significantly harmed. Why?

Perhaps because they’re so dangerous and destructive—the closest approximation to metaphysical evil that human beings can embody–the general public has a morbid fascination with psychopaths. We see them featured frequently on the news. The media seems to be intrigued by men like Scott Peterson and Neil Entwistle, who remorselessly murder their wives so that they can fool around more easily with other women, or by women like Casey Anthony, who (most likely) kill their children so that they can party harder. The public eats up this sordid information. True crime books about psychopathic killers tend to be best sellers. Similarly, biographical works about Hitler and Stalin continue to sell well. Yet, paradoxically, as fascinated as the general public may be with psychopaths and their evil deeds, they’re far less interested in what makes these people tick and how to recognize and avoid them in real life. As mentioned, there are a few highly informative studies of psychopathy, some of which–Stout’s The sociopath next door, Babiak and Hare’s Snakes in Suits and Brown and Leedom’s The women who love psychopaths–are written for a general audience. These books describe clearly and without unnecessary jargon the psychology of evil individuals. Unfortunately, however, such informative works tend to be less popular than the dramatic news coverage of psychopathic killers or the horror stories we read in true crime and thrillers. Why so?

The first answer I’ll offer is in the form of an analogy. When I (and probably most other people too) shop for a car, I don’t need someone to explain to me in great detail the mechanics behind how the car functions. I may readConsumer Reports online to see how the car’s rated in various relevant categories, such as overall quality, safety and gas mileage. Then I look at it in person, to see if I like it and if it’s the right size to suit my family’s needs. In other words, a superficial knowledge of the car suffices for me. That’s how most people feel about the psychopaths featured on the news, in history or true crime books and in the movies. They grasp the phenomenon superficially: that evil people exist and do horrible things to others. But they don’t feel like they need to understand these people on a deeper psychological level. Which brings me to my second reason. We tend to view psychopaths as a form of titillating, if morbid, entertainment. We may disapprove of their horrific crimes, but their capacity for evil fascinates us. Third, and perhaps most importantly, we hold psychopaths at arm’s length, so to speak, in our own minds. I can’t even count how many times I’ve heard people interviewed on the news about a violent murder say that they can’t believe it happened to their families or in their neighborhood. We believe that the great misfortune of being the victim of a psychopathic killer, rapist, conman, spouse or lover only befalls others. Somehow, we assume that our families and we are immune to such terrible things happening to us. Perhaps we believe that we’re too wise, too well educated and live in too good of a neighborhood to fall into the hands of social predators.

If you think about it rationally, however, you come to realize that this belief rests upon an illusion. It may be true that you and your loved ones are not statistically likely to fall prey to a psychopathic serial killer. Experts estimate that there are only about 50 to 100 serial killers circulating in the country at any given moment. It’s therefore rational not to live your life in the fear that you’ll be attacked by one of them. But it’s not statistically likely that you’ll avoid any intimate involvement with a psychopath for the rest of your life. As mentioned, psychopaths constitute roughly 1 percent of the population. This is significant, given the number of lives they touch and the kind of damage they can inflict. Psychopaths are exceedingly sociable, highly promiscuous, have many children, move from location to location and, generally speaking, they get around. Their malady is technically called “antisocial personality disorder” not “asocial personality disorder.” An asocial person avoids human contact. An antisocial person, on the contrary, seeks others in order to use, con, deceive, manipulate, betray and ultimately destroy them. That’s what psychopaths do. They feed, like parasites, upon our lives. They live for the thrill of damaging healthier, more productive and more caring human beings.

Statistically speaking, there are decent chances that you have a psychopath in your extended family. There are even better odds that at some point you ran across one or will encounter one in your life. Perhaps it was a boyfriend who seemed perfect at first but turned out to be an abusive sex addict. It may be a difficult boss who makes work unbearable for his employees. Or maybe it was a manipulative professor who became a minor despot in the department. Perhaps it was a teacher who got too chummy with his students and even seduced some of them. Or perhaps it was a friend who appeared to be kind and loving, only to repeatedly backstab you. Maybe it was a conartist who took your elderly mother’s life savings, or a portion of her hard-earned money, and vanished into thin air. Moreover, any psychopath can cause you physical harm and endanger your life. It doesn’t have to be one predisposed to rape and murder. Scott Peterson and Neil Entwistle were not sadistic serial killers. They were your garden variety charismatic psychopaths who found marriage a bit too inconvenient and incompatible with the new, wilder paths they wanted to pursue in life. Their incapacity to regard others as fellow human beings renders all psychopaths extremely dangerous. As psychotherapist Steve Becker explains,

“Commonly, the psychopath is upheld as the incarnation of the murderous bogeyman. While it’s true than many cold-blooded killers are psychopaths, most psychopaths are not killers. The majority of psychopaths would find a messy murder too inconvenient and personally unpleasant a task to assume. This—the personal inconvenience and unpleasantness, not empathy for the slaughtered victim—explains why a great many more psychopaths than not, with chilling non-compunction, are more likely to target your life’s savings than butcher you, and dispose of your remains in several industrial-strength Hefty bags. This doesn’t make the non-murderous psychopath ‘less psychopathic,’ or ‘more sensitive’ than the murderous psychopath; it merely reflects the calculus psychopaths apply in their decision-making: how can I get, or take what I want, for maximum instant gain, at minimum personal inconvenience?” (powercommunicating.com)

Since empathy, moral principles and the capacity to love don’t play a role in any psychopath’s decision-making process, the transition from sub-criminal to criminal psychopath can be fluid and unpredictable.  Just about any psychopath could easily engage in violent behavior. My main point here is the following: learning about psychopathy is not a matter of technical psychology research or of abstract theories that are largely irrelevant to the general public. This information is highly pertinent to all of us. It’s far more useful than learning all the technical details about how your car works, to return to the analogy I offered earlier. You will never need to rebuild your car from scratch. At most, you may need to learn how to change a spare tire. But it’s likely that you’ll need to defend yourself, at least emotionally and psychologically, from a psychopath who touches your life and aims to undermine your wellbeing. A basic knowledge of psychopathy can save you years of heartache at the hands of a spouse or lover whom you can never please, who never stops lying and cheating on you and who keeps you dangling on the hook. It can spare you a lifetime of struggles to save an incorrigibly bad child from his or her own misdeeds. It can help you avoid being scammed by con artists who are great at their game. It can give you the strength to move on from a job where your boss keeps everyone in terror by constantly oscillating between sugar-sweetness and abuse.

Obviously, such knowledge can’t protect you from all harm caused by evil individuals. Even if you’re informed about psychopathy, you may still have the misfortune of becoming the victim of a random crime or of being part of a society ruled by a psychopathic dictator. But at least a basic knowledge of psychopathy can help those of us who are fortunate enough to live in free societies determine that which lies largely within our control: whom we choose to associate with and whom we choose to avoid or leave. It can help us recognize the symptoms of this dangerous personality disorder so that we don’t invite a bad person into our lives with open arms. It can give us the strength to end a toxic relationship with an emotional predator for good, once his disorder becomes obvious to us. In other words, knowledge about psychopathy constitutes the best defense that the general public, not just those who have been personally harmed, can have against evil human beings: to avoid them whenever possible and to escape them whenever we become ensnared into their webs. Needless to say, even those of us who become well informed about psychopathy won’t be qualified to clinically diagnose them, unless we acquire professional training in this domain.  But we can become capable of recognizing them well enough in real life to want to get away from them. For all practical purposes, that’s what matters most.

Claudia Moscovici, psychopathyawareness

Dangerous Liaisons: How to Identify and Escape from Psychopathic Seduction