Marie Brenner is an author and Writer-at-Large for Vanity Fair. She has covered the Bernard Madoff trial for her magazine and previously penned an expose on the tobacco industry, which was the basis for the 1999 movie The Insider. She talks to PRWeek about the long road ahead for the financial sector's PR recovery.
PRWeek: In covering a story full of unexpected twists, what has been the most surprising to you?
Marie Brenner: It's the questions that people don't ask. This idea that the ultimate con man – the biggest fraud the world has probably known in this century - could just be out there without anyone really asking the questions. Many journalists did raise questions asking if Madoff was a fraud. Barron's did and some other publications did, but his victims had blinders on. [People didn't notice that Madoff] had his office next to a pedicure place in a shopping center. That's not normal. The absolute credulity of people to believe something that, on its face, is absolutely impossible. Somebody said to me, if I don't understand something, I won't invest in it. This is a basic rule. How could anybody invest in something they don't understand, as if there is some black box of magical thinking?
PRWeek: Since you said the media did report on this, you're referring to the questions the public or his investors didn't ask?
Brenner: The public didn't really know about Madoff; he operated pretty much under the radar - cleverly so. Some of the big banks in Europe had warned their clients about him. But it's his 13,000 victims. Great con men always tend to take on the costumes of the people they are trying to scam. He moved into this nice old money building and lived more or less discreetly, trying to stay off people's radar. [But] my favorite detail is, if you had had a second opinion looking at those trades, you would have known. The trades he made didn't even trade at that price during the day. As long as your sheet showed a profit no one checked and no one said “Hey, this Apple stock wasn't $62 on March 19, it was $42 – what is this?”
PRWeek: The public is obviously outraged, but should they be outraged at the investors for not being more curious about their investments?
Brenner: People hire investment people to advise them and invest them for a reason - they are not sophisticated financially. But that doesn't mean these men should be con men. We turn to investment people who we think we can trust and there is nothing wrong with that. But in this particular case, the fact that the securities were held by Madoff was a red flag. Nothing about what Madoff did really passed the smell test.
PRWeek: You called Madoff “this century's financial Jeffrey Dahmer.” How do you think this scandal will be remembered?
Brenner: Oh, they'll be talking about Madoff for decades - the breathlessness, the sheer overwhelming social engineering of this. I'm just waiting for the wife and sons to possibly be indicted. That's going to be the next great drama. And the entire circle around him, I can't imagine the feds aren't going to be able to close the loop on them.
PRWeek: Do you think Madoff has become a poster boy for all the financial scandals happening, especially since he is a person rather than a corporation?
Brenner: Madoff has performed a kind of public service for us because he's put a face on the financial fiasco. He's like a Jungian archetype of all of the greed of the decade -- the madness, the delusion, the idea that you can pull money out of the air. Madoff gives this is a storyline. I think it's a great service to the American public, not withstanding the 13,000 that lost their money and all the charities that have been disseminated by this horrible man. But Madoff has allowed anyone who did not invest with him seem smart. It's like, oh my goodness, in this thunderstorm of bad news, here is something that spared this particular house.
PRWeek: I don't think Madoff can be at all redeemed in the eyes of the public. But do you think his image might change, in the court of public opinion as more information comes out?
Brenner: Redeemed? No. But what could help is if people somehow found enough money to at least give restitution to the victims. But what could that possibly be, when you think about these charities and what they lost and people's circumstances? People in their 70s and 80s have lost their houses, are having to move in with their families. No punishment could be bad enough.
PRWeek: What about the financial industry as a whole? What can that profession do to repair its standing to the public?
Brenner: AIG could immediately give back all the bonuses - that would be the first thing. There could be all kinds of emergency college funds set up by some of these corporations. The CEOs of these corporations, who have made so much money, could turn over money to their customers, clients, or people who lost their homes. But on another hand, no one told a person, who didn't have the money, that buying a mortgage you couldn't afford was OK. You can't just blame the banks. It's as if a mass delusion took over everyone – the regulatory agencies, the companies, the banks, and everyone else.
PRWeek: What have you noticed about the public's perception of these scandals? Has it shifted?
Brenner: We're going through the five stages of grief. We've passed through rage and people are now into anxiety and depression. We're grieving for a way of life that has now passed and will not come again for a long time.
PRWeek: Vanity Fair writes a lot about the upper echelons of society. Do you think your readers' appetite for news about this class of people has changed?
Brenner: Vanity Fair has always been very good about following the news – whether it's the Iraq War or the Bush administration. It always takes you behind the news. This month's issue is really strong because you have everything from Iceland and Madoff dissected. But, yes, the wealthy have had to hide under covers. Showing your wealth is the new pornography. Sack cloths are in.
PRWeek: Are there any public perceptions about the wealthy that are way off?
Brenner: From a historical perspective, the wealthy, once upon a time – and not so long go – were the pillars of the public service. The transformational aspect of this is the positive that I see right now. We are getting back to a moment when public service has once again become fashionable. I peg that the demise of values to the rise of Donald Trump in New York. When he arrived in the 1970s, there was so much scorn, derision, and contempt. By the 1980s, by the time the [the late President Ronald] Reagan had come into office, Trump had elevated himself, and over the next 20 years became a mega-celebrity. His name was grotesquely painted on every building. If one said positive things about Trump in the 70s, it was considered crass. Then we went into a 20-year amnesia and we forgot who we were as a culture and moral police. Now we are getting it back again.
PRWeek: What was it like to do an expose on the tobacco industry? Do you think issues like that are still getting coverage?
Brenner: That was unusual because it was one of the rare times when the story was breaking around us. As it was happening [tobacco whistleblower Jeffrey] Wigand was in hiding and suicidal. It wasn't after the fact. But also it was before the Internet had really taken over. Right now the 15,000-to-18,000-word form is out of fashion. There is not the space, advertising, and perhaps the readership for it. Because of the Web, people want shorter and faster stories. It used to be that you would come in and tell your editor that you had interviewed 100, 70, 60 people and these narratives would be laboriously put together over long stretches of time. That was the golden age of magazine writing – so many of us were so lucky to be a part of it. Now so much has changed and it is incumbent upon us to write cleaner, faster, more precisely. But I adore writing for the Web. It is fast, immediate. It reminds me of working at a newspaper.
Name: Marie Brenner
Outlet: Vanity Fair
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