Thursday, May 25, 2006

Column on Entertainment & Business

Entertainment & Business

Tibor R. Machan

As I was channel surfing late the other night, having just woken up from
my second nap, I went past one broadcast channel on which I saw and heard
the following sentence uttered by a young woman: ?He was a businessman so
he would do anything to turn a profit.? I caught a glimpse of the name and
it was Law & Order, Special Victim?s Unit. Then I moved on.

But I could not shake the experience so I stopped searching for something
to watch and began to reflect one what I just saw and heard. The sentence
in question was extremely revealing. It gave a rather unambiguous
characterization of how many in the entertainment industry understand
business professionals.

Imagine if someone said on a program, ?He was an artist so he would do
anything to create something aesthetically worthwhile,? or ?She was a
farmer so she would do anything to harvest her crop,? or, yet again, ?He
was a professor so he would do anything to get his students to understand
what they needed to know.? By ?anything? what is meant here, given the
context, is even a heinous crime.

It is imaginable, of course, that an artist kidnaps some model so as to
capture his or her image on canvas given that model?s refusal to cooperate
voluntarily. Or that a farmer might enslave a number of farm hands so as
to get the crop harvested, given that he or she is short of funds to pay
for their work. Or again that a professor would make use of something
illicit, like the torture of some animal or even student, in order to
teach a lesson.

Yet characters who are artists, farmers, or professors in television
shows, movies or other fictional fares are rarely if ever portrayed that
way. Rarely is it said of them that they would resort to anything to
accomplish their professional objectives. It is well understood that they
would instead adhere to ethical and legal standards. Artists are shown to
get their work done, normally, without turning to crime, as are farmers,
doctors, or teachers.

When it comes to how many in the entertainment industry conceive of
people in business, there?s a dramatic difference. Those who conduct
business ?would do anything to turn a profit.? It is taken to be their
nature to have no ethical or legal restraints, not unless they don?t see
how they could get away with it.

As a professor of business ethics this brings to mind the sadly but
frequently heard notion that the very subject I teach is an oxymoron, a
contradiction in terms. People in business simply cannot act
ethically?business itself, like cheating at cards, is unethical. This
notion is in part promulgated by those who produce entertainment fare
around the country, even the world?screenwriters, novelists, dramatists,
lyricists and so forth. And yet nothing can be further from the truth.

It is just as much of a false generalization about business that those
working in the field will do anything to turn a profit as all those other
generalizations I imagined before. Some, of course, will. But some health
care professionals will do anything to accomplish their objectives, as we
have been made aware recently from news reports about how at various
hospitals they have been selling body parts without the authority to do so
or engaging in various other forms of malpractice. (Just check out the
news about what has been going on recently at the hospitals of UCLA and
UCI, for example.) And there are professors who will utilize corrupt
means by which to convey their message to their students, as we know from
all the reports about biased instructions, the exploitation of research
assistants, and so on and so forth.

In every profession there is the potential and there are some actual
instances of unethical and illegal conduct, and this is, of course, true
of business. But what seems undeniable is that those screenwriters,
dramatists, novelist, and lyricist who churn out all the entertainment
products that we see and read have it in mainly against people in
business. For too many of these folks those in business simply ?would do
anything to turn a profit.? Why? Not because there is evidence of
disproportionate instances of unethical and illegal conduct by people in
the profession. (If anything, considering the ubiquity of commerce in our
society, there is not all that much immorality and illegality, not when
one compares it to how politicians are doing.)

There is, rather, a prejudice about business, that?s what explains it.
There is a predisposition on the part of too many people among those
giving us movies, television programs, pulp fiction, and drama to
denigrate business. Even though these same folks are ever so eager to get
their agents to make good deals for them, they regard deal making
detestable, dirty.

The ultimate reason for this, I submit, is that when it comes to
business, no one can deny that most people act in a self-interested
fashion?they want to come out of a deal better off than they have gone in;
they want to prosper from deals, not lose. They are not doing charity. And
that means they cannot pretend to be altruistic as they carry on, not like
farmers, artists or educators who can all make it seem they aren?t in it
to pursue some personal ambition but rather to serve some supposedly
higher good or the public interest.

Which if, of course, bunk.

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