Jewish World Review August 1, 2002/ 23 Menachem-Av 5762

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Election-year handcuffs


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | I don't often disagree with The Wall Street Journal's editorial page-aside from its continuing campaign to erase the 1960s-but last Friday's lead edit stuck in my craw. n The paper said: "You can argue that handcuffing a 78-year-old man at his home at 6 a.m. after he had agreed to turn himself in voluntarily is prosecutorial overkill. And yet the arrests of former Adelphia CEO John Rigas, his two sons and two other executives were useful public theater."

It's not often that the Journal-even reluctantly-joins the rest of the media in applauding the "public theater" of satisfying the bloodlust of Americans who require a photo-op of a likely white-collar felon being treated like an armed rapist. John Rigas and his associates knew the jig was up; that the septuagenarian was led away in cuffs-not to mention having his ties, belt and shoelaces removed by the feds-was a disgrace, and never would've happened in an election off-year. The Rigas family is kaput, and if the charges against them are true, which doesn't seem in doubt considering the evidence of rampant fraud presented by the government, they'll have plenty of time to ruminate their fate behind bars.

Giving the Journal its due, it's critical in the current witch-hunt atmosphere in Washington that individuals are held accountable and jailed, rather than simply let an entire company be liquidated. For example, there was no reason, other than headlines, to destroy the accounting firm of Arthur Andersen. Yes, by all means those guilty at the company deserve their upcoming judicial punishment, but at least 95 percent of the Andersen employees had no complicity in the firm's conflict-of-interest crimes. Some of those people will hook onto other enterprises; more will be out of work for a long time. The same principle applies to Enron and WorldCom: Innocent employees with no knowledge of the fraud practiced by their superiors are now at home watching afternoon soaps and have the resume-stain of having once worked at those corporations. Guilt by association.

These companies could've been saved, no matter how much the media distorts the scandal. Not everyone who worked at Enron, for example, was a 65-year-old janitor who didn't understand the benefits and responsibilities of a 401(k), and anyone who followed the firm's falling stock prices could've cashed out a long time before a "hold" was put on such transactions. There was no need to destroy a company employing thousands when it could've been retooled with new management.

HYPOCRITE$ EVERYWHERE

But that quibble about The Wall Street Journal off my chest-and it is a mere quibble about a daily that has consistently provided the most balanced views and common sense about the current crisis on Wall Street-let's look at the hysteria for what it really is. Politicians, looking to the November midterm elections, have been more shameless than usual, and that includes both Democrats and Republicans. House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt gleefully dreams of his party grabbing up to 40 seats this fall, paving the way for his expected presidential run in 2004. That's mere cheerleading, of course, for due to redistricting and incumbents making sure their own seats are safe, there won't even be 40 competitive contests.

Besides, with ethics (whether corporate or political) appearing to be the theme of elections, barring an early invasion of Iraq both parties have their own peculiar problems. Even though his Senate colleagues are treating senator Robert Torricelli with inexcusable deference, not even calling his chief accuser, the convicted felon David Chang, in for testimony, the voters of New Jersey, already smarting from the election of the awful governor James McGreevey, aren't likely to give the "Torch" a free ride in his race against Douglas Forrester. Likewise, any politician in Texas who received money from Enron (almost all of them, not surprising given the fallen corporation's Houston headquarters), like GOP Senate contender John Cornyn, will have to overcome voter resentment.

As for the media, National Journal's William Powers, in a July 26 column, skewered his colleagues for the rank hypocrisy that's splashed across front pages every day.

He wrote: "For journalists, the ruined stock market isn't just an awesome story; it's a chance to show what we really think about the business world. There's a gigantic culture gap between the news tribe and corporate America, one that comes down to different views of money. Basically, we subscribe to the biblical view that money is the root of all evil, and our job is to expose that evil through news stories about bad companies like Enron and WorldCom.

"Most of the time we keep this view well-hidden. The economy is a top-shelf story, after all, and there's no sense alienating the powerful corporate execs who run it, not when they're riding high. But when they're down and out, business types look a lot less intimidating, and our real views start to creep into the coverage, along with a certain smug satisfaction. Now, with Wall Street in so much trouble, we are not above telling the public we knew it all along: Business is a dirty game with a lot of very dirty players."

I can accept this jaundiced and prejudicial view of Big Business from a man or woman earning a middle-class income in the employ of a chain newspaper with tight-fisted owners; it's not objective, but journalists certainly aren't immune from jealousy. What really slays me, however, is the outrage heard daily from the Beltway media cream-top-bracket pundits and editors from the Times and Washington Post, network anchors and talk show hosts whose salaries are in the millions. It's somewhat analogous to the Major League Baseball players' union (a joke in and of itself) complaining that the minimum salary for a big-leaguer is a meager $200,000 and that it must be doubled.

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JWR contributor "Mugger" -- aka Russ Smith -- is the editor-in-chief and CEO of New York Press (www.nypress.com). Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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© 2002, Russ Smith