Ever since the trial of O.J. Simpson took the nation by storm in 1994, we as a society have become almost completely mesmerized by the hype that surrounds high-profile cases, the media's endless attempts to get family members to combat each other and take sides. Of course, we're even more consumed if the story itself is so out-of-the-box that it seems as if it could've only come from the mind of some Hollywood hot shot. But what happens when the media crosses the line? When does all of it become too much simply to get that little juicy piece of information no one else has? When do we cross that invisible line where we've become more of the monster than those we've prosecuted?
The Story Of A Man Consumed By Greed
In late 2008, the media fired up their engines once again when news broke that former NASDAQ chairman and founder of Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities had been, since the 70s, committing an elaborate Ponzi scheme that robbed over 13,000 people, groups, companies, and charities of nearly every cent they had. The total sum of money lost added up to around 20 billion dollars. Many people believed the total was much higher than that, but it turned out to be merely another scheme run by Madoff to make his investors believe the company was worth far more than it actually was.
Because Madoff refused to fully cooperate with investigators and name his accomplices, he was given the maximum sentence of 150 years in a federal prison. What spoke volumes to the judge, when it came to sentencing, was Madoff's inability to produce any letters of mitigation from friends or family to testify to Madoff's good deeds. Years later, during his first prison interview, he finally offered an apology to those he'd wronged but he came across as only cocky and arrogant to the interviewers.
But His Wife Will Never Get Back What She Lost
Ruth Madoff didn't earn her notoriety through accomplishment. She earned it through the unfortunate misdeeds of her husband. And because of that, she faces a life of criticism, endless questions, and suspicions that will never go away. Many believe there was no way Ruth couldn't have known. She was, after all, an employee of her husband's company for some time. Ruth was never charged, never investigated, and she cut off all ties to Bernie and maintains that distance even to this day. Not only did he ruin his life and hers, but he ruined the lives of their two sons — something no mother could ever forgive.
In the years following the scandal, Ruth moved away from the city and spent time with her sister and grandchildren. She eventually settled in Greenwich, Connecticut where she has been allowed to retain $2.5 million of her family's wealth.
I stumbled upon a video from February of this year of Crime Watch Daily stalking Ruth, hounding her at her doorstep, and badgering her with questions they had no right to ask — eight years after the trial. Check out the clip below and see for yourself what the internet considers to be investigative journalism nowadays.
This is not journalism. This isn't even slightly professional. If I were her, I'd have swung my bag at them, too. Ruth was never held accountable for the crimes of her husband, and whether she actually knew of his schemes or not, there'll never be any excuse that warrants this. To seek her out, to treat her so shamefully because they can't get access to her husband is, for lack of a better word, disgusting. And it gives real, respectable journalists a bad name. It makes the profession look like starved hounds willing to destroy one another - or an innocent - for even the smallest scrap of meat.
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It's not that this is anything new. Yellow journalism has been around since the late 1800s — sensationalism always sells. But the combination of yellow press and social media has led to a type of pitchfork-and-torching that is an entirely recent phenomenon. In the past, the innocent family and loved ones of an infamous criminal could eventually move on with their lives after the scandal, but the permanency of the internet prevents that now. And the overwhelming vitriol from all sides can lead to the destruction of lives that should have been rebuilt.
The Tragic Repercussions: Foreseen And Not
Thousands of people lost everything because of Bernie. But the victims of his fraud were not the sole sources of tragedy that came in the titanic aftermath of his crimes. Madoff's eldest son, Mark, committed suicide by hanging on the second anniversary of his father's arrest. Madoff himself has stated that this is something he has to live with every day and it's part of the reason why his wife begged him to forget about her.
Ruth asked Bernie to let her go. She hasn't spoken to him since. She lost her son because of what happened and that's not fair. Those are Bernie's own words. In an interview with Barbara Walters, he explained Ruth never knew about the money, she was a wife and mother and cared only about her family. Though the two of them may still love each other, their life could never be as it was. In him, she would've only ever seen her son. Even as most of his victims have started to rebuild their lives and receive financial compensation (at roughly 60 cents on the dollar), Ruth can't ever get back what she's lost — and continued to lose: In 2014, her youngest son, Andrew, lost his life in a battle with lymphoma. Imagine coming face to face with the reality that you've lost everything that once gave your life meaning. Everything you worked so hard to protect, to nurture, that you were willing to die for. Take all that in and you'll know what it means to be Ruth Madoff.
Where Is That Invisible Line In Journalism Now?
Does it even still exist? Has the need to become famous, to earn the admiration of the viral scene, the pressures to succeed on social media destroyed any and all boundaries originally set up by basic human decency? If you've come to the conclusion that the only method to get a story is to shove an iPhone in someone's face and hurl questions at them like they're being interrogated, you've lost sight of that professional line.
It's already hard enough to get people to take the majority of journalists in our modern age seriously. It becomes that much harder when people see videos like the one above blasted all over Youtube. Just because you have an expensive camera, it doesn't make you a journalist.
HBO Might Change Ruth Madoff's Narrative
In 2017, we'll once again be told the story of the rise and fall of Bernie Madoff in HBO's Wizard of Lies. This time, the shoes of Ruth and Bernie will be filled by Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert De Niro. With this film, I expect we'll be seeing what it was truly like in the Madoff home immediately following the revelation to Bernie's family of what he'd done. HBO has always adopted a balanced, respectful look at these real life stories, as they did with 2012's Game Change, for example.
Then again, HBO has earned a fantastic reputation when it comes to showcasing the personal and often destructive sides of those infamously plagued by controversy. Like Game Change, their Liberace biopic, Behind the Candelabra, achieved this balance. These are the stories that should be reported on, showing the truths, the tragic lives, of these people haunted by mistakes of the past.
Just Because It's Easy, It Doesn't Make It Right
The easy story isn't always the best option. If you have to work harder to get something, it's almost always going to be far more worthwhile. That's why HBO will always have a leg up when it comes to this sort of thing. They take the time to show respect for both sides of the story, not just the scandalous bit that sends shivers down our spines or becomes clickbait for those seeking juicy celebrity gossip. If you want to interview someone, don't do it by stalking them at a grocery store and following them home. Be respectable, politely ask the person if it's okay to sit with them for a few questions. Ambushing someone with deeply personal questions will almost always get you shut out forever and may even forcibly end with the police being called.
What I'm saying is this: Take into account both sides of a story. Imagine what it has to be like for people like Ruth Madoff every single day. She will never be able to be more than what she is now. Her estranged husband's name and scandalous notoriety will forever hang above her head - a burden unending on such frail shoulders - and that's all anyone will ever be able to see.
Unless we show them a better side to the story.