By Tibor Machan
Having been a fan of courtroom dramas since my early childhood — I read 45 Perry Mason novels before I left Hungary at age 14 — I have a hard time denying myself the pleasures of a good legal squabble. So, I have watched TV’s “Law & Order” since it started and even stuck with “The Practice” until it turned into little more than a soap opera where law was but a sideshow.
Now I am giving “Boston Legal” a try, and my patience is being seriously tested. In addition to finding one of the central characters, Alan Shore, played by James Spader, mostly annoying while also somewhat admirable, there is a bigger issue for me. I am now and have for a couple of decades been teaching business ethics courses I try to impress upon my students that the profession is actually quite honorable; there’s no need to apologize for it and its primary goals, namely profit.
You see, in “Boston Legal” the firm for which Shore works represents many big corporations. One way he is made out to be a hero is that he repeatedly denounces these firms for having profit as their major objective. In a recent case, a drug company was funding an experimental study with a promising new drug, but alas the doctor who designed the study got too eager and introduced a significant bit of deception that ultimately hurt mainly her alone and disappointed several dozen others who had to stop taking an experimental drug.
Sure, the hope was to demonstrate that the drug the subjects were using would do millions of people a lot of good. But the subjects were not told the truth, and thought they were actually in a different experimental program. It all came out in the end, with the doctor who perpetrated the deception suffering most but looking merely a little morally shady, while the corporation that funded the study ended up looking terrible.
Why? Because David E. Kelley, the creator and major writer on “Boston Legal,” made sure that viewers were told via Alan Shore that the company was motivated only “by greed.” As if he had actually known the owners, managers, investors, employees who made up the firm.
Still, Alan Shore being the hero of the show, it made little difference that he hadn’t a clue about the motivation of the company — for all he could tell, the money the company would make off the drug would be spent on saving the spotted owl or feeding children in Bangladesh.
But, no, the show’s writer, Kelley — famous for creating and writing for many of TV’s legal shows — just had to stick it to big corporations. Never mind that “Boston Legal” is broadcast on ABC-TV, itself a huge corporation, making it possible for Kelley to peddle his prejudices across the land.
Of course, the general task of businesses is to achieve significant measures of prosperity for those who own them through the production of goods and services that the buying public will value. This, then, makes it possible for these owners to devote their earnings from the firm’s business to whatever they deem has merit, including contributing to innumerable philanthropic objectives, as well as to sending their children to good schools, taking decent vacations, purchasing health insurance and so forth.
Again, neither the fictional Alan Shore nor the actual David E. Kelley has a clue just what the prosperity the company achieves will go to help support. Somehow that is of no concern to them. Bashing big business is.
Back in the ’80s, television personality and attorney Ben Stein narrated an hourlong documentary, “Hollywood’s Heavies.” It demonstrated — as well as such programs can — that Hollywood writers systematically discriminate against corporate managers. Most crimes were committed by them on their programs and movies and none of them ever managed to come off as a hero. The movie “Wall Street” is perhaps the paradigm instance of this, but there are many more.
To this day Hollywood hasn’t changed. As if it was part of a Ralph Nader chorus. I have no idea why, although several reasons come to mind that may well explain it. But I would have to know these people better — Kelley, in particular — to venture an educated guess as to why the very institution that allows them to prosper and to back all kinds of goals and causes is hated by them so much.
Let’s just say, whatever explains it, the outcome is plainly unjust.
Tibor Machan advises Freedom Communications, parent company of this newspaper. E-mail him at: Machan@chapman.edu