Bidding for the Petersen Trial

In a somewhat intemperate rant on Monday based on my reading of an NYT article, I criticized pretty severely the actions of a number of counties in California who were apparently vying for the right to host the Scott Petersen murder trial as a tourist attraction because the money linked to a major league circus like the Petersen trial would be, well, major. $$$Big Bucks$$$.A couple of days ago, I received an email from reader John Donaldson. Mr Donaldson had wanted to post his reply in my comments section but, as we all know by now, the strict space limits of my program didn’t allow it. In fairness to the other side and because Mr Donaldson was deprived of his chance to respond publicly by the space limitations, I’m re-printing the entire letter below.

I wrote to anne leclair and got this back:

I am sending you the email I sent to our members which i hope clarifies things. We were appalled at the impression created, as you were . (pasting below) Believe me, the impression created by the articles and edited news clips are far from the truth.

As you are all seeing/reading, the Peterson trial story has taken on a life of its own and many articles are continuing to say we “lobbied” for the trial and are excited about the opportunity of a trial generated by a terrible crime. Here are some facts for you:

We NEVER lobbied for the trial, and as Sheriff Horsley has said, you CAN’T lobby for a trial. What we DID do is send a professional note to the judge as soon as it was announced that we were a possible venue, saying that IF we were chosen, we would be happy to assist the media. We did NOT include promotional materials, nor did we attempt to “sell” the county or compete.

In terms of our reaction to the event, I have made a point in conversations w/reporters to say that our whole county mourns Laci Peterson and her son and that the crime was awful. (As a mother myself, the crime horrified me and not a day goes by I don’t think about Laci’s family.)

Unfortunately, we can’t change what happened–the trial already exists–and it had to go somewhere. While we were stunned with the announcement of the move to our county, we are in the hospitality industry and no matter what brings people here–good news or bad–it is our job to take care of them.

Our area and hospitality industry can use a shot in the arm after the tough times following 9/11 and the dotcom downturn. If we were/are excited, it’s because filling our hotels again can put people back to work, pave our streets, pay for police and fire and on and on. You all live here and you know how tough things have been.

This means no disrespect to the victim or her family and I am sorry if anyone interpreted it that way. We are in tough times.

In most conversations, the media have asked for an economic impact (anywhere from six to 16 million dollars) and then said, “wow, so what is your group’s reaction to that?” Needless to say, it is great excitement. Our county has been suffering greatly.

We have a lot of stories to tell about this county and having the media here presents a definite opportunity for exposure. It goes without saying that the reason they are here is unfortunate.

We have told the press that we know the county has concerns about the costs, BUT that county officials are willing to step up to the plate as are we–and that we will work together as a team and bend over backward to help them in any way.

Having said all of this, we want the world to know we are a hospitable community. I urge everyone to keep prices down during the trial, so we are generous as we step up to the plate with the rest of the county . >From what I’m hearing so far, this is exactly what you are doing.

Thank you!

Anne LeClair, CAE
President & CEO
San Mateo County Convention & Visitors Bureau
Seabreeze Plaza
111 Anza Blvd.; Ste. 410
Burlingame, CA 94010
Fax: 650-348-7687

There has never been a more affordable time to book a meeting in San Mateo County….the best of the San Francisco Bay Area.

I think Ms LeClaire sounds perfectly reasonable and shows a good deal of sensitivity, and I certainly understand the financial bind in which the county finds itself. But what Ms LeClaire fails to understand is that her troubles are the result of a tax-cutting, tax-eliminating craze that is forcing everyone into the same boat: commercializing what should not be commercialized.

Our penny-pinching, “look out for #1 and screw everybody else” denial of any social responsibility is forcing public programs like schools and county governments to cover their budget shortfalls by trying to woo corporate dollars in exchange for commercial considerations. This trend is fairly advanced already: schools are plastered with ads, a significant chunk of their operating funds often comes from vending machines, some schools have contracts which pay them for broadcasting commercial tv shows in the classroom that are masquerading as “educational programming” and are no such thing, universities are increasingly prevented from offering certain courses or programs when large corporate donors object, professors are prevented by college administrations from publishing papers or books critical of corporate donors on pain of losing their jobs, public libraries are trying to attract corporate sponsors in a desperate attempt to remain open in the face of vanishing budgets. Even commercial operations like cineplexes are selling commercial time–when you go to a movie nowadays, a movie you already paid to get into, you’re forced to sit through anywhere from 5 to 10 mins of commercial ads. And now theater is getting into the act, making deals for “product placement” in plays just like Hollywood does with films.

Bill Marx of NPR station WBUR in Boston, a well-known local theater critic, writes of a new trend just taking shape:

King Lear sits on a heath plastered with commercial logos. Willy Loman swigs a Bud Light before heading out for his last trip. Corporate ads are projected on the curtain and printed on banners hanging in front of the stage. Commercials in between scenes starring the production’s performers, product demonstrations in the lobby, half-time shows during intermission. All this, and no doubt much more, is coming to a theater near you.An article in last Sunday’s “New York Times” about the teaming up of the North Shore Music Theater in Beverly, MA and a sports marketing consultant provides a glimpse of things to come. Like most other theaters, NSMT is experiencing a decline in corporate sponsorship. Stuart Layne has been hired to attract corporations to NSMT by offering them visibility in front of the theater’s high-end demographic via the splashy techniques used in professional sports events. Layne has already put a Chrysler Pacifica on the grounds of the theater. Starting in March, Comcast has signed on as the main sponsor of NSMT’s musical series. In return, the cable company will set up kiosks for “product demonstrations” and use a V.I.P. lounge to entertain clients.

Everybody is overjoyed. “We’re bringing the sky-box mentality to the arts,” says John E. Alexander, the theater’s director for public relations. “We feel we can deliver an audience and value per sponsorship that in a lot of ways is better than what they are getting with the Red Sox.” Words like “judicious” and “tasteful” are used to quiet the objections of “purists.” And Layne is just beginning. Future plans may include a beer garden during the summer (to accompany a production of “Cabaret”?) as well as a sponsored sweepstakes whose first prize would be a chance for NSMT “fans” to win a walk-on role in a show. Other theaters are already salivating at these and other ideas.

So who draws the line? In America, money sets the rules. Professional sports have been manipulated to fit an ever-growing appetite for ads: there’s no room left on a NASCAR auto for logos. Product placement in films doesn’t raise any hackles. For those who never knew any different, that’s the way it is. It could well happen the same way with theater. Ben Cameron, executive director of the Theater Communications Group, says in the article that “our surveys have shown that people who go to professional sports events are the most likely to attend professional arts events. It’s about having a robust social life, and as more people realize that there is a crossover of these two audiences, we’ll see this type of marketing increase.”

With defenders like that, the artistic integrity of the stage experience is in trouble.

What Mr Marx is deploring in theater is equally deplorable everywhere else, for there are very few areas of our lives left that are not inundated by, controlled by, restricted by, or defined by corporate culture. It invades our homes, our schools, and our public arenas. We are moving toward a corporate-controlled culture in which business will make binding decisions on every aspect of our lives, and we are the ones who are making it possible. We’re selling ourselves and our culture to them in return for what? Happiness? Safety? Good health? No. $$$$$$$, that’s all.

So I say to Ms LeClaire, with all due respect, that if we have now reached the point where our justice system is going to be openly sold like corn flakes, becoming in the process just another brand of “entertainment”, then we have gone too far. The tax-cutters have gone too far, politicians have gone too far in trying to appease them, and local govts have gone too far trying to make one $ do the work of 10 rather than fight back. The only time tax-cutters–and voters–seem to understand and appreciate what govt does is when it isn’t there any more.

“You never know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.”–Joni Mitchell

I take Ms LeClaire at her word: if she says San Mateo County didn’t “lobby”, then it didn’t. And if she says all it did was send a letter expressing a willingness to “assist the media”, then that’s all it did. But I must answer that even that letter was too much. It was an unwise and unwarranted interference in the judicial process and should never have been sent. If San Mateo or any other county can’t survive financially without pandering to corporate and media greed in its justice system, then maybe it’s time they…just….shut…down.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s