Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Apprentice to Greed

Independent Weekly, Durham NC, 4-21-04

If you've been suffering from Donald Trump overload lately, you're not alone. Maybe you caught him hosting Saturday Night Live, or heard about him trying to trademark the words "you're fired." Maybe you saw the same catch phrase on the cover of Newsweek, or in a Doonesbury cartoon, or walking down the street on somebody's t-shirt or trucker's hat. The Donald's first star turn flamed out around the time the eighties did, but since crony capitalism's back in style, brought to us by Bush, Cheney & Co., even a poster child for excessive greed and tasteless displays of wealth gets a second act.

So it makes sense that Trump's riding the wave of reality TV. He's an opportunist, and there's gold in them hills. Whether you're a Bachelorette or an Average Joe, a would-be Survivor or American Idol, there's a show out there for you. We're slowly entertaining ourselves to death, and reality TV is our current mind-numbing weapon of choice.

The Apprentice is the latest brainstorm from Mark Burnett, the creative force behind Survivor. It stars The Donald, and sixteen pumped-up young entrepreneurs who want to learn, like The Donald's new book instructs, How To Get Rich. By competing to be the last one not fired, one of them will win a job in the Trump Organization, and get to run one of The Donald's companies for a year. This should be a tip-off right away that the show's contestants aren't the brightest bulbs on the shelf. If you finish first in other reality shows, you actually win money. However, as some contestants proved through repeated acts of fawning adulation, there are Americans out there who worship Trump as an icon of business success. It's the public image he has skillfully peddled over the past two decades, and one that's often been at odds with the ups and downs of his shaky financial empire.

But no matter. This season, The Apprentice has consistently ranked among the top ten most watched network TV shows. And that brings us to the problem. Or problems, which go way beyond some common complaints about the show. Not that these complaints don't have merit. There's the issue of how the show's producers set back the cause of women's lib by fifty years in the earliest episodes, when the female contestants shamelessly used their sexual attributes to outperform the men in tasks like selling lemonade on the streets of New York and boosting alcohol sales at a restaurant. And persistent doubts about whether some of the contestants were actors, and how meaningful a job running one of The Donald's companies will turn out to be. According to reports, initially he planned to fob the winner off on an obscure division.

The show does disservice to the idea of corporate citizenship by celebrating The Donald as a model tycoon. At least Bill Gates gives away millions to improve Third World health care. With Trump, we're talking about a man whose most lasting contribution to humanity so far has been buying and redeveloping buildings in order to turn overpriced real estate in Manhattan into even more overpriced real estate. Oh, and bringing us Trump Ice, the bottled water that The Donald assures is the "purest, best tasting water you can imagine."

Let's face it, Trump has an exaggeration problem. He calls it "truthful hyperbole." That means he can say anything he likes to his show's twenty-odd million viewers, such as "I'm the biggest real estate developer in New York," when it's clear by most yardsticks, he isn't. Or that his Trump Taj Mahal casino is "The No. 1 hotel" in Atlantic City, when in reality, the casino and the rest of Trump's gambling empire is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.

Even when it comes to his show's ratings numbers, which have been a bright spot for NBC all season long, Trump can't help exaggerating. While hosting Saturday Night Live on April 2nd, Trump claimed The Apprentice was atop the TV heap. Although the program has been one of the top ten most watched shows on network television, it's also been regularly beaten by Fox's American Idol and Mark Burnett's other hit reality show, Survivor, which airs on CBS. The week Donald claimed to be #1, The Apprentice clocked in at fifth in the Nielson ratings.

It's hard to know where to begin to catalog Donald's many less-than-truthful hyperboles. Trump's latest book is called How To Get Rich, but Trump was born wealthy. In fact, many observers say the majority of his personal holdings consists of the residential and commercial real estate in Brooklyn and Queens he inherited from his father, Fred Trump, who died in 1999. Most of the rest of his empire is co-owned by investors and banks. His casino and hotel business, the only publicly traded part of Trump's holdings, carries $1.8 billion in debt. Last year, its interest payments alone were $228.5 million, versus income of $139.4 million. Overall, the company lost $87.3 million in 2003, and Donald had to forgo a $1.5 million bonus. But he still earned $1.5 million as chairman and CEO of Trump Hotels & Casino, and got to use the corporate jet.

The more you look at the facts behind Trump Hotels, the more it starts to resemble a house of cards a la Enron, WorldCom, or Tyco International. The company has never turned a profit since it first went public in the mid-1990's. Its former auditor was Arthur Andersen, disgraced by its own role in recent corporate scandals. In 2002, Trump Hotels became the first company to be charged by the SEC under new regulations prohibiting abuse of "pro forma" accounting, for including an unusual one-time payment to artificially boost its quarterly results during the third quarter of 1999. Shares of the company, which trade under Trump's initials, DJT, have plunged from a high of $34 in 1996 to approximately $3 today.

Trump ducks any responsibility for the many problems with his casino business. He told the New York Times last month that "this has nothing to do with me, this has to do with a company in which I'm a major shareholder." Indeed, Trump owns 56% of Trump Hotels, but may not be majority shareholder in the company much longer. In order to receive a $400 million loan from a unit of Credit Suisse First Boston, he is being forced to restructure the company's $1.8 billion debt. If he can't reach agreement with his bondholders, which under current proposals would leave him with a 20% stake, the company might file for bankruptcy.

Unlike Trump Hotels, most of Trumps holdings remain private. So there is no accurate way to judge his exact net worth. But while he's been claiming to be a billionaire for nearly twenty years, and told ABC's Cokie Roberts in 2000 that "I made billions of dollars," it's highly improbable he's ever come close. When recently asked by the New York Times to name properties in New York which he owned outright, he listed 40 Wall Street and "many things," but declined further specifics. Again, most of his highest profile projects like high rises and golf courses are co-owned by outside investors who back him in exchange for his property management services and the Trump brand name.

Beyond the real estate he inherited, he's long championed his own development projects as examples of self-made success. Yet in developing his first major "signature" project, Trump Tower, Trump abused tax breaks granted him by New York City that were originally intended to encourage the construction of low-income housing, and instead used them to build $3 million worth of luxury condos. Have you noticed a pattern yet? Maybe Trump is the perfect host of a reality TV show after all, a ringmaster of the fake pretending to be real. It's like the funhouse of the Trump World Tower in Manhattan, which has ninety floors, according to the elevators, but only if you skip eighteen numbers on the way up.

At a time when 2.2 million jobs have been lost in this country over the past three years, The Apprentice makes a mockery of real work by glorifying a phony like Donald Trump. And in a more practical sense, the show also paints a false portrait of how the business world operates. USA Today convened a panel of real-life CEO's and corporate consultants to discuss how true to life were the tasks and problems given to the show's contestants. They mostly agreed the show was way off base.

But the show's absolutely most grievous crime has been...are you ready? Its choice of a theme song. "For The Love Of Money," by the O'Jays, originally released in 1973, is a searing indictment of the culture of greed. Lines like "Money is the root of all evil," "Some people do bad things with got to do good things with it," and "People holding money, don't let money change you," are just a few of the song's socially conscious messages that made it clear which side of the coin the O'Jays were on. All of these lines, predictably, have been digitally edited out by the producers of The Apprentice, leaving instead a few toothless vocal samples singing the praises of "Dollar bills, c'mon now."

Now, I don't blame whoever sold them the rights to this song. Artists have got to eat, especially pioneering soul and funk artists whose gospel-influenced message music is too powerful to be played on today's politically whitewashed, Clear Channel-controlled, national radio airwaves. I blame The Donald, Mark Burnett, the suits at NBC, and their puppet masters at General Electric, for thrusting yet another helping of slickly produced corporate propaganda in our faces.

If we watch enough footage of would-be Apprentices being canned by The Donald in his make-believe Boardroom, we might forget about the corporate scandals still going on in real boardrooms around the country. We might forget that corporate malfeasance is causing hard working employees and investors to lose their jobs, savings, and 401(k) plans. We might forget that George W. Bush is up for re-election this year, and big businesses are salivating at the prospect of four more years of the freedom to outsource and offshore as many jobs as they can. Or the freedom to gobble up competitors in mega-mergers and achieve cost savings through massive layoffs. Or to award their executives multi-million dollar golden pay packages even while denying average workers raises and telling them they're lucky to still have a job. We might forget, in short, that what's good for Donald Trump is not good for America.

Friday, April 9, 2004

Silencing the Non-Profit Lambs

The News & Observer, Raleigh NC, 4-9-04

It must be a giddy time to be a far right-wing Republican. The Republican Party controls both houses of Congress. George W. Bush has turned out to be the most stubbornly conservative, right-wing President ever. Now, along comes the icing on the cake, and they're licking their chops like hungry wolves. Let's face it, extreme-right Republicans aren't crazy about groups devoted to causes like environmental protection, civil rights, and a woman's right to choose. Suddenly they think they've finally found a way to put America's pesky do-gooder non-profit and public interest organizations out of business. Or at least out of the business of speaking out on issues in any meaningful way.

In an ironic twist, the weapon the Republicans hope to use to silence the non-profit lambs ends up being campaign finance reform laws. Specifically, the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, passed mostly by Democrats in 2002 against fierce Republican opposition. Republican Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky actually filed suit to stop the law from taking effect, until the Supreme Court ruled against him late last year.

Like most attempts at campaign finance reform, McCain-Feingold was designed to get big money out of politics. Its main effect was a ban on so-called "soft money" donations to the national parties. Previously, the Republicans and Democrats could solicit donations of unlimited amounts from corporations, unions, interest groups, and wealthy donors, and spend soft money on anything defined as "party-building" activities, from issue-oriented TV ads to get-out-the-vote drives. During the 2000 election cycle, Republicans raised $250 million in soft money, and the Democrats, $245 million. Now, the parties must raise "hard money," in contributions from individuals that are regulated and limited in size.

But McCain-Feingold also had another, largely unintended consequence. It included a directive Republicans are now trying hard to exploit. The law contains language that says any group trying to "influence" federal elections must register as a political committee. Can you see them drooling yet? Following the Supreme Court decision upholding McCain-Feingold, in February the Federal Election Commission (FEC) proposed additional rules for enforcing its provisions. The rules they are now considering, and accepting public comments on through April 9th, are strongly supported by the Republican National Committee. The FEC will hold public hearings on the rules April 14-15, and a final decision could come by mid-May, with the rules to take effect as early as July, 2004.

News coverage of these proposed changes has primarily focused on the threat they pose to the voter mobilization activities of 527 groups like the Voter Fund or Americans Coming Together. These groups get their name from section 527 of the tax code, which covers groups that engage in politics, while not expressly advocating the election or defeat of individual candidates. Less noticed have been the potential these rules have to affect the ability of a broad range of other non-profit groups to communicate with the public. If adopted, they would have a chilling effect on the activities of many established non-profit and public interest groups.

One rule would expand the definition of a "political committee" to include many non-profits who take positions on public policy issues yet do not consider electoral politics their primary mission. A group would be forced to become a "political committee" and allowed to raise only hard money if it spends $50,000 or more in the current year or any one of the past four years on any public communication that "promotes, supports, attacks or opposes" any federal candidate, or on nonpartisan voter registration or get out the vote programs.

What kind of campaign finance reform declares nonpartisan voter registration a partisan political activity that can no longer be funded by ordinary charitable donations? In an era when half of all eligible U.S. voters don't participate in elections, why is the FEC considering making it harder for non-profit groups to conduct nonpartisan voter registration and voter turnout programs?

It gets worse, and again, the devil's in the definitions. Another proposed rule would expand the definition of a federally regulated "expenditure" to include communications that “promote, support, attack, or oppose” not only federal candidates, but their policy positions. So according to the FEC, commenting on a candidate's position statements won't be covered by something called the First Amendment. This is a radical departure from established campaign regulations that have worked well for years. FEC guidelines already restrict non-profits from engaging in "political speech." To suddenly expand this definition to include all speech about all candidates for federal office would be ludicrous.

There's also a retroactive clause thrown in for good measure. If the proposed rules pass, the FEC will "look back" at a non-profit group's activities over the past four years, to determine whether the group should be re-classified as a political committee. Never mind that McCain-Feingold only passed in 2002, and the FEC only proposed these rules this year. Even if a group played by the rules in the past, they'll be penalized tomorrow. If non-profit groups are re-classified as political committees, the FEC will require them to raise hard money to repay old expenses now covered by the new rules. Their activities will be forcibly halted until they've paid in full for supposed soft money sins of the past.

Theoretically, under these proposed rules, groups like the League of Women Voters would be re-classified as political committees if they spent more than $50,000 in 2004 sending letters urging community members to vote because it was their "civic duty." Advocacy groups such as NARAL would be prevented from contacting activists and urging them to call their members of Congress to oppose a bill banning all abortions. Rock The Vote, which works to boost nonpartisan youth voter turnout, would be forced to stop accepting money from traditional charitable sources, including corporations and foundations. A policy oriented group like the Concord Coalition that advocates a balanced budget would be banned from using records of corporate contributions to elected officials to let the public know how candidates stand on budget issues.

It's not just the liberal non-profit lambs who are endangered. In a February letter to the FEC, conservative interest groups including the National Right To Life Committee and the Club For Growth also spoke out against the FEC's proposed rules, claiming that "the issue is democracy, not political or ideological advantage," and "as a matter of principle, all voices should be heard and not reduced to silence by overly burdensome restrictions." All kinds of non-profits are threatened by these new rules, including educational groups, charities, churches, and trade associations.

But on this question, the far right-wing in control of the national Republican party is content to sacrifice its own ideological supporters. They figure there's more liberal non-profits than conservative ones doing troublesome things like nonpartisan voter registration and providing the public with useful information about public policy issues.

It's yet another example of how the old, established rules of civility in political combat no longer apply if you're a right-wing Republican in 2004 desperately seeking to hold onto political power. Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay masterminded the passage of a blatantly partisan redistricting plan in Texas solely designed to elect more Republicans to Congress and help make him Speaker of the House. George W. Bush has used recess appointments to elevate unqualified, right-wing ideologues to the Federal judiciary who couldn't get confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Now the far right hopes to bully the FEC into silencing non-profit groups and calling it campaign finance reform. Concerned Americans of all political persuasions should call it an outrage.

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