It is an odd thing we do here in America. People who get wrapped up in scandal often become elevated to celebrity status.
You know the type of people I’m talking about — those who are caught up in sex or drug scandals, criminal suspects or some other type of social misfit who’s every move is followed by reporters. Cameras are there as they hustle into court, show up for their community service or just try to dodge embarrassing questions about their problematic behavior.
These folks become famous for being infamous. Think Kato Kaelin, whose dodgy testimony at the murder trial of O.J. Simpson got him branded as “hostile” to the prosecution. Monica Lewinsky, the White House intern who engaged in sexual relations with President Bill Clinton. Florida murder defendant Casey Anthony, acquitted of murdering her 2½-year-old daughter. And now the former governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, who has admitted that he was, indeed, guilty of corruption after denying it for years.
I call them the Cult of the Disgraced and the Misplaced — a cult that attracts media honchos who are eager to exploit scandal for ratings. Hardly anyone in the cult seems to be out of bounds.
After his 15 minutes of fame at the Simpson trial, the mop-haired Kaelin got a radio show and appeared on several TV programs. Lewinsky was chased by all the major networks, newspapers and magazines for her first exclusive description of illicit sex in the White House. (ABC’s Barbara Walters won that race, snagging what turned out to be the highest-rated news broadcast ever.) NBC vigorously pursued Anthony and tried to fashion a book deal for her in exchange for her first TV interview. And Blagojevich? Well, he fit right into this cult and eagerly took the bait when TV producers came to call.
Three years ago when federal prosecutors revealed they had recordings of the governor (nicknamed Blago) arrogantly attempting to sell the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President Barack Obama, Blagojevich came out swinging. He vehemently denied asking for money in exchange for his appointment to the seat. He also denied that he lied to the FBI and had shaken down constituents for campaign contributions. He called it all a political conspiracy, and then instead of hunkering down for the fight of his life, Blago took meetings with top TV bigwigs.
Not even Blagojevich’s impeachment by the Illinois Legislature in January 2009 slowed down the offers. NBC was knocking on the door for Blago to star in the “reality” show I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!
In a petition to the court in the spring of 2009, the disgraced governor, pleading poverty, asked the judge for permission to travel to Costa Rica for the filming. The request was denied. Ultimately, Blagojevich’s wife, Patti, took the job and was seen on one episode eating a dead tarantula.
Humiliation heaped upon humiliation, I’d say.
But watching his wife forced to ingest insects to pay their bills didn’t seem to give Blago pause. After hosting a radio talk show, he went on to make a deal to appear on Celebrity Apprentice hosted by Donald Trump. More recently, he was hired to be the face of Wonderful Pistachios, which admitted they were looking “for some buzz” to attract people to their nuts. There’s a joke in there somewhere.
But this celebration and rewarding of the scandalous baffles me. Has the concept of shame ceased to exist in America? If I were criminally indicted or caught up in a disgraceful episode playing out publicly, I think I’d hibernate until it passed. Although I suppose the lure of the money and the idea that sins can be erased if one is seen on TV is too much temptation for some.
The job of media executives is to get ratings, and apparently these kinds of shows — highlighting these kinds of people — attract viewers. Why? I’m at a loss to explain, except maybe we watch the notorious to make sure we are nothing like them. Maybe we want to see them be shamed on some level.
When Blagojevich appeared in court earlier this month for sentencing (he was found guilty of 17 corruption charges), he suddenly dropped his past denials and admitted his criminal behavior.
“I caused it all,” he said to the judge. “I was the governor, and I should have known better. I am just incredibly sorry.” He was then sentenced to 14 years in prison. Blagojevich’s admission laid bare the phoniness of those who rationalized giving him a shot at the public airwaves by saying, “Well, he hasn’t been convicted of anything …”
We had all heard his voice on that recording made years earlier blatantly trying to trade his public position for personal gain. We knew the real story from the get-go.
Blago must serve almost a dozen years before becoming eligible for parole. Let’s hope by then we’ve all come to our senses and decided that TV programs featuring disturbed, addicted or criminal players are simply not acceptable. Maybe by then TV executives will stop rewarding the least deserving among us.