The chasm between the seen and the not seen

It will take a long while and the insights of many people to understand the forces at play in the precipitate falls from grace of Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, Bill O’Reilly, Harvey Weinstein and others. Since these men exhibited more than a touch of arrogance when they were on high, I feel obliged to offer a few thoughts, in two columns. This one deals with those who were on camera.  The next will look at those who had sway the behind-the-scenes. 

For hundreds of years, and continuing today, we as a society have had to reckon with the chasm between the haves and the have-nots. But in these current scandalous affairs we must confront the chasm between the “seen” and the “not seen.”  It is immense, and of great importance these days because so many people aspire to be seen but are not, and because so many of the seen take advantage of their status. 

Having been part of television productions, I can attest that the seen consider themselves not only to have power over all of the not seen, but also to be superior human beings, because the evidence shows them it is so: special treatment, lives cocooned in luxury, and mass recognition by strangers.   

President John F. Kennedy, on September 25, 1963, in a speech encouraging young people to go into public service, said, “The Greeks once defined happiness as full use of your powers along lines of excellence.” I like that notion of power, and I think most of us try to live that way, using what power we have to do the best we can, and giving little thought to employing it to take advantage of others.

Another insight into power: the Canadian philosopher Lionel Rubinoff, in his book “The Pornography of Power,” argued that if the pornography of sex is pornography, then the pornography of power is violence. He’s right: These instances of famous men violating their subordinates are the pornographic products of their power. 

Power consists of shaping and moving money, attention, artful products, institutions or individuals. It is the grease of the world, but easily misused, as in the frequently observed case where the newly promoted manager in business fires someone just to show that they have the power to do so.  Demonstrating that power by, say, urging on subordinates to greater glory ­— well, that’s much harder to do.

Demonstrating your power as a “seen” person by championing causes, setting an example of good behavior, or directing your employer’s millions into socially positive activities is evidently not satisfying enough. So Lauer and the other stars apparently flexed their power by forcing women to participate, against their will, in sexual activities. Let’s be clear: these escapades were about power, not about sex — in the same way that rape is about power. 

These guys had evidently bought all the expensive toys they could, drunk all the best wines and took all of the wonderful vacations, only to be annoyed at being unable to exercise enough of their power. One description had Matt Lauer feeling terribly confined and constrained by his celebrity, because his fame meant he could not pursue anyone in a public setting and thus was reduced to hitting on his production staff, which the public couldn’t see. I don’t buy it. He had, for instance, enough money to sustain even a very expensive divorce, which would have freed him to date. 

Instead, he allegedly forced young women to engage in sexual acts. And in this instance and that of Rose and O’Reilly, the targets were always young women, not women of equivalent age to the stars. My guess is they obtained perverse pleasure in using their power to force women to do what they did not want to do.

As for those who eventually fired them for their lapses, to use this year’s word, they were complicit. Most addicts — and my read is that these men were addicted to perverse pleasure — require enablers.  

Their enablers were executives who made lots of money for their company (and themselves) from the star-power of the addicts, and so would not readily call them to account. Fox News spent tens of millions of dollars to protect Bill O’Reilly after he had been assailed for wrongdoing, until too much red ink had amassed on the balance sheet and in the public eye, and they had to fire him.  

As for NBC, there were seemingly decades of ignoring and stifling complaints, and for the same reason: to protect the gravy train. To me, these executives failed at the task of managing what journalist Ronan Farrow labeled the “complex cost-benefit analysis” of their investments in very flawed stars. 


Tom Shachtman is the author of more than a dozen American and world histories and of documentaries seen on all the major networks. He lives in Salisbury.