Programming

Networks Try to Reel In Madoff

Chase is on for first jailhouse interview with America's most infamous criminal 7/13/2009 11:00:00 AM Eastern

Bernard L. Madoff—the investor who bilked hundreds of clients out of billions of dollars—has become the face of the wretched avarice that wrecked the financial system.

Now that a U.S. District Court judge has slapped the septuagenarian with a terminal 150-year prison sentence, media organizations are working the angles to land the first sitdown with the most hated man in America. ABC, CBS and NBC are all engaged in the delicate wooing process, executives and producers confirmed.

“We're definitely interested,” says Jim Bell, executive producer of NBC's Today.

“There are so many stories surrounding the Madoff case,” says Jeff Fager, executive producer of 60 Minutes on CBS. “It would be fascinating to hear from him.”

“We have a coordinated effort,” says Tom Cibrowski, executive producer of ABC's Good Morning America, adding that the network's “deep bench” of anchors, including Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters, would relish the opportunity to cross-examine Madoff.

For high-profile gets where the race to be the first interlocutor means a guaranteed ratings windfall, network bookers work the traditional angles, cozying up to clients' lawyers and spokespeople. But brand-name anchors bring the star power, and have the critical personal connections. As Cibrowski points out, “It's your personal contacts that do the legwork for you.”

“I'd go through the sons,” says one veteran producer, referring to Mark and Andrew Madoff, who worked in their father's investment firm. “I would be on Nantucket [where Mark Madoff has a vacation home]. I would be living with the sons.”

“A lot of it is patience and fortitude,” says Victor Neufeld, who spent 10 years as executive producer of ABC's 20/20. “[An interview] might not happen for a year or two or three. The person who gets it will be the person who stays with it.”

But whether Madoff will ever be motivated to talk, either to deflect blame from his family or to attempt to recast his own legacy, is an open question. Robert Bennett, a former federal prosecutor who represented Bill Clinton in the Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky cases, believes a media mea culpa would clearly yield no legal benefit for Madoff.

“He may well decide there is nothing he can do for himself, but maybe he can help others,” Bennett says. “Of course, that depends on what all the underlying facts are. He may determine that it's in the interest of his family that they fade into the woodwork.”

Madoff's lawyer Ira Lee Sorkin said on July 9 that he would not appeal his client's 150-year sentence. Nevertheless, network producers will attempt to cater to Madoff's ego and his own interpretation of how history should judge him.

“This is a guy who did strive to be socially accepted,” says one news executive, “and so you work on that. You find that part of the story that would be in his interest. He knows he's a villain; the question is, does he care enough to go on camera to get people to believe that he's a human being?”

News producers are also pursuing Madoff's sons and his wife, Ruth; all are considered long-shot gets. Although none of them has been targeted by the federal investigation, and Ruth Madoff reached a deal with the government to keep $2.5 million, they all face civil lawsuits that will likely keep them quiet for some time.

A Madoff sitdown would hardly be a precedent, as jailhouse interviews are a staple of television news. Tom Snyder's riveting interview with a jittery Charles Manson for NBC and Ed Bradley's debrief with Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh on 60 Minutes are among the most memorable. Several white-collar criminals have also submitted to prison interviews, including Tyco CEO Dennis Kozlowski, who appeared on 60 Minutes in 2007. Ultimately, the maddening isolation of prison and the hubristic and narcissistic tendencies of many criminals make them sing, according to Bennett.

“I know this is going to sound silly, but sometimes people who are in jail and are in for a long time just welcome the opportunity to get out of their cell,” he says. “Others have deep psychological issues, or are narcissistic, and the worst thing is to be forgotten. They want the attention.

“My guess,” Bennett continues, “is Bernie Madoff doesn't spend one minute thinking about the Jewish charities or the old Jewish people who gave him their life savings. And so, it's entirely possible that Madoff, who has lived his life not with admiration but adoration, will go on [TV] because he just can't stand being out of the limelight.”

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