Column: MTV's Miley Cyrus mess, Donald Trump and the law, and who benefits from federal fines

Reuters News
Posted: Sep 03, 2013 1:21 PM

By Steven Brill

1. Ask about the Miley Cyrus sleaze:

In the wake of MTV's universally-panned decision to feature 20-year-old Miley Cyrus in a cringe-producing sex pantomime with 36-year-old Robin Thicke during the telecast of the MTV Video Music Awards, reporters ought to be sticking microphones in front of producers and executives at MTV and its parent Viacom.

Using what the New York Daily News called "a foam hand as a sexual prop," Cyrus's act was characterized this way by Mika Brzezinski on MSNBC's Morning Joe: "That was not funny. That was really, really bad for anybody who is younger and impressionable. And she's really messed up, so I don't think they should have put her on stage. They should be ashamed of themselves…."

MTV's target demographics are teens and pre-teens. So reporters should start with a simple question: Would the producers and executives responsible for Cyrus's performance have wanted their own teen or pre-teen children (or grandchildren or maybe great-grandchildren in the case of Viacom's 90-year-old founder and chief executive Sumner Redstone) to have watched the show?

So far, MTV seems unembarrassed, at least officially. As of this writing its website featuring a recap of the Video Music Awards proudly headlines the show this way: "Miley Cyrus Twerks, Gives Robin Thicke Some Tongue At VMAs." The write-up goes on to call Cyrus's act a "festival of booty."

Are the people in charge of the "festival" really that crass?

Beyond Redstone, high on my list of people who should be questioned — even chased down, Mike Wallace style, if necessary — would be MTV president Stephen Friedman. His bio on the MTV website says he "launched mtvU's Sudan Campaign to fight genocide in Darfur" and that before joining MTV he "served as a Director for the PEN American Center (the international human rights organization)." Seems like a sensitive soul whose thoughts on his programming decision ought to be interesting.

2. Tallying a scorecard on the Donald and the law:

On August 27th, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman sued Donald Trump for $40 million, alleging that a school for aspiring real estate moguls that Trump launched to characteristic fanfare in 2005 engaged in "persistent fraud, illegal and deceptive conduct." According to the Attorney General, Trump's unlicensed school "promised to teach Donald Trump's real estate investing techniques to consumers nationwide but instead misled consumers into paying for a series of expensive courses that did not deliver on their promises. More than 5,000 people across the country who paid Donald Trump $40 million to teach them his hard sell tactics got a hard lesson in bait-and-switch."

Trump has denied the charges and promises to fight them.

That last sentence, it seems, could be written about dozens of civil suits over the years that have charged Trump with all varieties of misconduct and misrepresentation in running his far-flung businesses.

Indeed, search "Donald Trump lawsuits" and you get 394,000 Google results. Of course, many of the Donald's legal battles produce hundreds or even thousands of these search hits because they are so widely publicized. Besides, Trump seems to sue as much as he gets sued, regardless of how serious his grievance. For example, he sued HBO's Bill Maher for welching on an offer Maher made during a comedy riff to donate $5 million to charity if Trump, a relentless Obama birther, would produce his own birth certificate. (Trump soon dropped the case.)

Trump has also successfully defended many claims against him, such as the verdict he won in May after being sued for not paying cash incentives that he promised investors in a Chicago condominium. The jury found that a clause in the contract gave him the right to withdraw the incentive.

With all of these ups and downs, it would be great for a reporter to dig up the court records behind those web search results and give us a Trump scorecard. Is he more often found to be an unfairly accused deep pocket, or is there a string of settlements and verdicts that suggest that Schneiderman may be going after a recidivist con man? Either way, a good story.

3. Federal fines: Where does the money go?

The Financial Times reported last week that the U.S. Federal Housing Finance Agency is demanding that JPMorgan pay a fine of $6 billion "to settle allegations it mis-sold securities to government-backed mortgage companies." Even in Washington that's a lot of money — about four times the SEC's budget and about 75 percent of the FBI budget. In fact, with other fines looming, JPMorgan could end up coming close to funding the entire FBI this year or covering two years of the Federal Reserve's net operating expenses.

The FT report reminds me of a story I think about whenever I read about the millions or even billions in fines lately dropping into the government's coffers. A few other examples: the SEC is said to be seeking $600 for JPMorgan's conduct in the London Whale trading fiasco; UBS recently agreed to pay the Federal Housing Finance Agency $885 million; drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline agreed to pay $3 billion last year for various marketing misdeeds; and BP received a record $4 billion criminal penalty apart from its far larger settlement of claims related to the damage it caused in the Gulf.

So where does all that newfound money go? What's the total for the current year? How much has it been increasing? How much, if anything, did the Office of Management and Budget anticipate this year? Assuming there's a multi-billion-dollar surplus, which lucky government agencies get it? I bet there's a lot of Capitol Hill and bureaucratic wrangling about all that.

(Steven Brill is a Reuters columnist. Opinions are his own)