Last month, Kenneth D. Lewis took a Bank of America jet from Charlotte, N.C., to New Jersey. ABC News captured the flight.
It could be called “To Catch a Rich Guy.”
The celebrity Web site TMZ and TV shows like “Extra” and “Inside Edition” are expanding their coverage of starlets and Hollywood break-ups to include billion-dollar business scandals and the economic collapse.
A camera crew for “Extra,” the syndicated entertainment show, huddled alongside the BBC and The Associated Press outside the courtroom as Bernard L. Madoff pleaded guilty on Thursday. That night, the show started by calling him “the most hated man in America.” The previous evening, “Inside Edition” profiled one of Mr. Madoff’s victims who testified in court, a 60-year-old woman who lost millions and had to go to work as a maid.
The tabloid media, of course, have always peered into the excesses of the rich and famous with a mix of puritan disapproval and voyeurism. But these outlets and other news organizations are now recording troubling uses of taxpayer money at country clubs, private airports and glamorous retreats and, in so doing, explicitly tapping into a fierce populist anger at corporate America, and even pressuring Congress to hold companies accountable.
TMZ, a Web site better known for unflattering paparazzi shots of Britney Spears and Rihanna, drove mainstream coverage and Congressional outrage with a blog post late last month that exclaimed, “Bailout Bank Blows Millions Partying in L.A.” The site reported that Northern Trust, a bank that received $1.6 billion in taxpayer money, had hosted hundreds of clients and employees at a golf tournament and a series of parties in Southern California. “Your tax dollars, hard at work,” the site wrote.
Northern Trust never sought the bailout funds, but agreed to take them last fall at the behest of the government. Regardless, the photos of Tiffany gift bags and the grainy video clips of Chicago and Sheryl Crow performing for the group angered readers —as well as Congressional Democrats, who demanded in a letter that Northern Trust repay what the company “frittered away on these lavish events.” The bank said it would do so “as quickly as prudently possible,” news that earned four exclamation points from TMZ.
Harvey Levin, the editor of TMZ, who called the story “the most important thing we’ve ever done,” knows his readers don’t come to the site for a dissertation on mortgage-backed securities. “It’s hard for people to wrap their heads around $800 billion in bailout money. It’s too big a thing,” he said. “It’s much easier to understand paying for a Sheryl Crow concert."
“Britney is fluff,” said Rory Waltzer, a photographer for TMZ, “but the stories about Northern Trust and Madoff and politicians in D.C. really have an impact on the country.”
Tabloids aren’t the only ones wagging their fingers. In recent months, network news divisions have relied more heavily on watchdog segments that, producers believe, resonate with viewers who are angry about their own economic status.
Sharyl Attkisson, an investigative correspondent who contributes weekly “Follow the Money” segments for the “CBS Evening News,” said visual proof of what could be excessive spending “taps into a lot of outrage” that Americans feel about the economy.
Tracking the private jets, lavish junkets and other trappings of what the ABC correspondent Brian Ross calls “corporate royalty” are now full-time jobs for reporters at the network news divisions. Next week NBC News will show a three-part investigative series in prime time titled “Inside the Financial Fiasco” and reported by Chris Hansen, the “Dateline NBC” correspondent who hosted the network’s “To Catch a Predator” franchise for years.
For the reporters, the heightened interest in corporate spending means long hours staking out places like Teterboro Airport in New Jersey, an airport that is frequently used for private travel into New York. On the last Friday in February, the ABC producer Asa Eslocker was on assignment outside the airport, armed with a miniature camera and searching for a corporate jet belonging to a troubled insurance company.
While there, Mr. Eslocker discovered that a jet belonging to Bank of America was on the move. A $50 million Gulfstream G5 was about to shuttle Kenneth D. Lewis, the embattled chief executive of Bank of America, from Charlotte, N.C., to Teterboro.
ABC scrambled camera crews at both airports, and by the time Mr. Lewis touched down, the network had a helicopter hovering above to film his expensive arrival.
“The corporate jets never cease to disappoint,” said Rhonda Schwartz, the chief of investigative projects for ABC News. “It’s like they never get the message.”
The video clips of Mr. Lewis exiting his private plane were featured on “Good Morning America” the next day, along with the amount of government support the bank has received ($45 billion), the number of jets in the bank’s fleet (nine), an estimated cost per hour to operate the G5 (at least $5,000), and a listing for a comparable commercial flight at the same time ($440).
Perhaps the most memorable tale of corporate excess came in November when ABC reported that the chief executives of the three biggest American automakers had flown to Washington on private jets to plead for infusions of taxpayer money. That revelation prompted tongue-lashings by members of Congress and long rides back to Washington by the executives in hybrid cars in December.
“Some people said, ‘What does that have to do with the larger, overriding issue of the economy?’ I think it reflected their attitude of entitlement and failure to adapt to the times, a kind of a tin ear to what’s going on,” Mr. Ross said in an interview.
Incriminating pictures stop the companies from denying the stories, essentially catching them in the act, Mr. Ross added. Rather than trying to induce shame, he said, “what we reveal is that there’s no shame.”
Gee, I hope Chris Hanson gets to continue with the other program - it's too lol-tastic to quit