NBC’s Law & Order, a gritty police and legal drama set in
New York City, advertises the fact that it often presents cases
"ripped from the headlines" — dramatic episodes based on current
news topics. The stock market, particularly the remarkable
performance of many Internet and technology stocks, has been a
frequent topic of recent newscasts, as the nearly half of all
households who own shares of stock have seen their portfolio values
rise dramatically over the past several years.
But in a recent episode of the Wednesday night program, the
writers seemed intent on presenting the market as a risky and
terrifying place. The stock market itself was portrayed as a
gambling casino rigged by insiders, while brokers were shown as
coldly calculating greed machines who bilk customers with "pump and
dump" Internet stock frauds.
my colleague Brent Baker has written, Law & Order producer
Dick Wolf has in the past used his program as a forum to advance
several liberal positions, including
gun control themes and
thinly veiled attacks on Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr. In
the episode that aired on March 1, Law & Order went after
Wall Street, as several of the characters were given lines that
evoked themes of class warfare or were designed to portray brokers
as manipulative and corrupt.
For example, the first scene of the show depicted a fictional
broker trying to persuade a woman to buy stock she obviously doesn’t
want. He assures her over the phone that it is a "sweet deal." After
a pause, he admits, "Last week’s deal was very sweet, too, but this
one we’re only offering to a few very special clients, Mrs.
Skolnick," emphasizing the word "special" and pausing at the end so
he can look up her name on his computer monitor. This particular
character was uninvolved in the ensuing crime story, so the scene
was an apparent attempt to show how sleazy ordinary brokers are. His
hard sell is interrupted by the sound of gun shots, and he emerges
from his office to see one of his colleagues collapse and die.
The victim in this story is Shawn Alvarez, a young broker who
worked at Braddock and Todd, a fictional New York brokerage firm. As
detectives Lennie Briscoe and Edward Green begin investigating the
murder, they talk to another young broker, Randy Cush, who was a
friend of Shawn. Randy tells the detectives that he and Shawn both
"thought it was never too early to establish alliances." Detective
Green seems astonished. "Alliances? Sounds like a pretty ruthless
The alleged ruthlessness of the brokerage business is reinforced
a few minutes later when the detectives return to the brokerage firm
to serve a subpoena. Detective Briscoe sees a janitor scrubbing the
floor where Shawn died. "Didn’t waste any time with the Mop ‘N’ Glo,"
he observes. Shawn’s supervisor, Bruce Valentine, responds that
"Some of the brokers found the sight of blood a little unsettling."
"I’d think that around here they’d be used to it," says Green.
Randy tells the detectives that Shawn was interested in becoming
a "market maker, someone like Valentine, you know, with a network of
customers who could create their own market for a stock," implying
that investors were easily manipulated. Randy tells them that Shawn
thought the "real money" was in IPOs, or the initial public offering
of a company’s stock, and that Shawn told him that he and Valentine
were working on "a stock called HealthRight2000.com, some medical
Internet thing. Said Valentine was working a pump and dump."
"Pump and dump?" asks Briscoe, apparently unfamiliar with the
"Buy it, hype it, dump it," Green tells his partner. Thus
enlightened about Wall Street’s seamier side, the detectives
investigate the stock and found that, after an initial price surge,
it lost practically all of its value. Speculating that a disgruntled
customer may have blamed Shawn for the financial disaster, they
obtain the firm’s client list and begin interviewing investors. But
the two investors that the detectives questioned next were
apparently written to portray the market in the most cynical
The first investor scoffs at the notion that he should be angry
at Shawn. "In the great scheme of things, $30,000 really isn’t a lot
of money, detective."
"Yeah, I know," Briscoe acidly rejoins. "That’s what I’m going to
have to live on when I retire."
The second investor was bitter, blaming Shawn for failing to
provide him with the inside information he needed to sell his stock
at the right time. "What I needed was someone to tell me when to get
out. Shawn didn’t," he complains to the detectives.
"Maybe Shawn didn’t know," Briscoe offers.
"Money always makes money," this investor lectures. "That’s why
one percent of the world controls 99 percent of its wealth."
"Are you saying Shawn had inside information?" Detective Green
"The stock market should never be a guessing game," the investor
After investigating several leads, the detectives find one of the
firm’s clients, a man named Mitchell Simms, dead of what appears to
be a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Simms is later identified as
Shawn’s killer, but the D.A.’s office continues the investigation.
Prosecutors Jack McCoy and Abbie Carmichael find out that Simms
used a margin account to trade at Braddock and Todd, and that he put
a second mortgage on his home to provide collateral. Simms failed to
make any mortgage payments, but the firm of Braddock and Todd
mysteriously gave him $45,000 to pay off the second mortgage.
Armed with this information, McCoy and Carmichael interrogate
Carl Braddock, a partner in the brokerage firm, in a scene that
gives the writers a chance to directly equate investing with
gambling. Braddock tells the prosecutors that he authorized the
payment because Simms had complained about losing money, and that
the firm was partially responsible.
"Bruce [Valentine] allowed the man to trade when he shouldn’t
have....Simms had a gambling problem." Braddock states. "Bruce knew
it, but let Simms trade on margin anyway."
Further emphasizing the shady nature of the firm, Braddock added
that "The last thing I needed was a bunch of federal regulators
rehashing old trades I’d already lost money on."
When told of the firm’s payment to its disgruntled client,
District Attorney Adam Schiff snorts, "A benevolent broker. Where
were these people in ‘87?"
Further investigation by the D.A.’s office reveals that Bruce
Valentine had used his firm’s resources to create several phony
Internet companies, and then cashed in by hyping each stock in
Internet chat rooms as it went public. Worried that his protege,
Shawn, knew too much, Valentine coerced Mitchell Simms to kill the
young broker, and then Valentine himself killed Simms and staged the
suicide scene. After a sensational courtroom confrontation, the jury
convicted Valentine of both murders.
The final scene provided one last swipe at real-life investors.
Jack McCoy was working at his desk when District Attorney Schiff
entered the room. "The jury gave Valentine the death penalty," McCoy
tells him. "They were out for less than an hour."
"Nothing redeemable about Wall Street," Schiff responds with a
Obviously, Law & Order is a fictional program, and its
producers and writers can take dramatic license with the facts in
order to create an interesting story. But a compelling drama can be
far more persuasive than any news report, as its biases are directed
more towards viewers’ emotions than their reason. And Hollywood’s
notion that most businessmen are corrupt has been reinforced by
repetition over the years. As Timothy Lamer and Alice Lynn O’Steen
pointed out in
Special Report for MRC’s Free Market Project, TV routinely
portrays businessmen as crooks and ignores the positive effects of
"If confronted with research proving that prime time television
was portraying teachers or social workers negatively, is there any
doubt that scriptwriters and executives would take action to address
these biases?" they asked. It’s a good question, and one made all
the more relevant by TV’s continuing effort to portray businessmen
as bad guys.