Phil Spector · The Soprano State · American Greed

Plus art looters, Bigfoot, and more soothing longreads than you can shake a stick at

We took yesterday off for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and we’re taking tomorrow off for the inauguration. Although we can provide an open thread for y’all to camp out in if you need it — let us know!

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But thanks to this schedule, our content budget doc is doing an outstanding imitation of Joe Gould’s manuscript, so today is mostly quick hits, plus a review from Dan Cassino and some timely distraction suggestions from Margaret Howie.

Hang in there, everyone. — SDB

ICYMI, Phil Spector died of natural causes over the weekend. The tweet above is getting gigged pretty thoroughly in the replies — and I was happy to pile on myself — for characterizing Spector’s murder conviction as an unfortunate blemish on a legendary career. Keith Harris in the obit also struggles to balance the two aspects of Spector’s “legacy”:

Spector’s life was tumultuous and ultimately tragic; as groundbreaking as his studio accomplishments were, those achievements were all but overshadowed by his 2009 conviction for the murder of actress Lana Clarkson.

On the one hand, it’s Rolling Stone, so couching Spector’s place in history as “a groundbreaking producer who also killed a woman,” versus “a murderer and abuser who also created some great pop songs,” is understandable given the publication’s logline. On the other hand, it’s evident that the culture has a ways to go in terms of balancing genius and felonious behavior; we saw this when Kobe Bryant died, and honestly, I don’t have the answer. I do know that a lot of obits get pre-written years in advance, and it might behoove managing editors to go through that pre-morgue and gut-check the ledes, but our society still has to find a way to convey in text that a person and his life was complex and often ugly. Maybe there’s just no “good” way to remember a bad guy who made cool shit. — SDB

As a proud New Jerseyan, I was a little nervous to re-visit Bob Ingle and Sandy McClure’s 2008 best-seller The Soprano State…

The crime
The book tries to encompass the rampant governmental corruption in New Jersey, with a focus on the bizarre, scandal-plagued tenure of Governor Jim McGreevey, but winds up being a numbing litany of illegality, anecdotes in search of an argument.

The story
For its flaws, though, the book’s nothing if not entertaining, and the anecdotes alone are worth the price of admission.

The biggest issue is that the authors show us how corrupt the Garden State is without telling us why. They rattle off potential causes, but don’t really engage with any of them. The portrait it paints is damning, but better organization and a cohesive argument would make it compelling. One of the main purposes of true crime is empowerment: by understanding crime and criminals, we can protect ourselves, we can put into place policies to make ourselves safer. The Soprano State isn’t doing that: it shows how bad things are without giving a road map for repair. 

When the catalog-of-absurdities approach works, though, it really works. Take the judge who escaped censure for shoplifting two watches worth $58 from TJ Maxx, an action she blamed on diminished mental capacity caused by a bad wallpaper job and “ungodly” vaginal itching. Or the mayor who destroyed all the documents relating to an apparent deal to have the nation of Kuwait fund the construction of a new police station in Lake Como, a town of less than 2,000 in Monmouth County. Others are less absurd than seemingly nonsensical, like legislators being paid by state agencies to lobby themselves, or corporations covering the salary of the lawyer negotiating with them on behalf of a municipality. Some of these sections have to be read and re-read to be understood, as the normal business of government shouldn’t involve quite so many reflexive pronouns. It’s almost a relief when we get to sections on corruption in the expected places, like the Casino Control Commission or the board controlling professional boxing.

The authors have good material to work with, but they’re not content to let it stand on its own, and feel the need to swerve from a straight recounting. Too often, they follow up an especially egregious story of corruption with an “only in Jersey, amirite?” aside. They’re particularly fond of any time a report refers to something as being like The Sopranos: if a reader were to take a shot every time every time they make a reference to the show, they’d be getting their stomach pumped by Chapter Four. Groaners, like the mobster who is said to have taken “a permanent vacation,” abound. McGreevey, who resigned the governorship after revealing that he was both gay and having an extra-marital affair with his homeland security advisor, isn’t “saying things with a straight face,” a line they feel the need to lampshade.

When the book is more subtle, it’s more effective. If there’s a better way to demonstrate that a state Attorney General is trifling than to have him bragging about pictures with William Baldwin, I can't think of it.

Two of the ten chapters shift the focus from government corruption to the Mafia, especially in Atlantic City, and the authors draw heavily on previously unpublished interviews with a bagman for the Bruno crime family. These sections feel very much like a throwback: it’s bizarre to see references to the Bonannos and Genoveses outside of a historical context. But these sections also serve to show how far the mob has fallen in recent years: if anyone likes to talk about The Sopranos more than the authors, it’s actual mobsters, and at least one as quoted seems to think that the Bada Bing is a real place. 

The authors are more interested, though, in the parallels between the Mafia and the New Jersey government. In both, the lure of easy money without much accountability is too much to resist, and while there are long-running fights about which faction is going to control the action, it makes little difference to the people on the ground.

Although Ingle and McClure don’t really give us a theory of why New Jersey is so especially corrupt, they throw out some ideas. There isn’t much of a statewide media presence to monitor government here: with minor exceptions, TV stations are based out of either New York or Philadelphia, and the dire state of the print news industry means that the state’s biggest paper, Newark’s Star Ledger, is little more than five guys at four desks. They also implicate the sheer amount of government in New Jersey — 566 municipalities, nearly 2,000 taxing entities, 616 school districts, some of them with school boards and superintendents but without any actual schools — as a factor; there’s simply too much government to keep track of. They talk about the problem of having the centers of political power arise from a 19th-century county-boss-based system, run by often unelected power brokers, without reckoning with why such a system has survived here in New Jersey when it’s long been buried elsewhere. 

As much as all of these factors contribute to the problems, the authors reserve special vitriol for state Supreme Court rulings that funnel billions of suburban tax dollars to poor school districts in predominantly black cities, arguing that the money is wasted anyway, and that a lack of accountability to the people being taxed both leads to corruption and violates the principle of “no taxation without representation.” There’s no evidence, though, that the cities on the receiving end of the money are any more or less corrupt than anywhere else, and calling a system that serves to redistribute money from wealthy white areas to poor black ones “Soviet” and un-American is not, to put it mildly, a good look.

Organizational issues also make the book less effective than it could be. The authors want to start with some really shocking examples, like the widespread corruption in the state’s only dental school, but this means that we have several chapters referencing Jersey political bosses, or various Supreme Court rulings, before readers get any context as to what they are.

What’s especially interesting, reading The Soprano State today, is how familiar much of it seems. Many of the people referenced — Christie, Kushner, Trump — have become national figures in the intervening years, even if we’re not used to seeing Chris Christie portrayed as a crusading anti-corruption prosecutor. The litany of scandal after scandal, and the underlying idea that three scandals a week is functionally equivalent to no scandals at all, is something that’s now familiar to anyone who’s been paying attention to national politics. While the authors don’t identify it, the real enemy here is political apathy. The book may not offer much of a way forward, but the intervening years have, as awakened suburbs have handed major defeats to entrenched power structures. Things may not be as unfixable as they once seemed, and an update of the book that reflects this would certainly be welcome.

Dan Cassino is a professor of Government and Politics at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, New Jersey. He once got a call from a U.S. Senator’s office upset that he said a scandal involving Medicare fraud and underage sex workers “looked a little shady.”

Ready for a big old link roundup? Let’s do this!

  • Night Stalker ended Bridgerton’s hammerlock on the #1 spot on Netflix over the weekend. (When I checked just now, Outside The Wire was in the lead, followed by Night Stalker and Bridgerton respectively.) [Forbes]

  • The International Documentary Association announced its 2020 award-winners on Saturday. I was pleased to see Last Chance U pick up a win, but although a true-crime limited series did win “Best Multi-Part Documentary,” I’d have opted for City So Real over Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered. [IDA]

  • Can’t cope with Richard Ramirez or Wayne Williams right now? The first of Margaret’s recommended “longreads that aren't too grim/deep-diving into what [x] crime means for us a society” is a piece from last November about Shaun MacDonald, aka Jay Mills, aka Boaz Manor, a crypto-currency start-up bro (no, that is not in fact the crime in question, but I had the same thought). Leah MacLaren lets you know what you’re dealing with right up top: “The man who called himself Shaun MacDonald is a great financial opportunist, a brilliant confidence man, a nerd in search of a cult. Over the course of two decades, he convinced thousands of trusting investors to give him their money, and he did this not once but twice.” It also strikes a good balance when it comes to explaining crypto without getting too micro. [Toronto Life]

  • Next up from Margaret is a report from Matt Robinson and Benjamin Bain on the record increase in whistle-blowing now that everyone’s working from home: “The isolation that comes with being separated from a communal workplace has made many employees question how dedicated they are to their employers, according to lawyers for whistle-blowers and academics. What’s more, people feel emboldened to speak out when managers and co-workers aren’t peering over their shoulders.” What’s more, narcing on colleagues is often a lucrative endeavor, and in this economy… [Bloomberg]

  • And finally, a crackpot palate-cleanser in the form of Larry Farwell’s “Brain Fingerprinting system.” Is Farwell merely a loon, or did he actually invent a reliable lie detector? [OneZero]

  • Get ready for another Joe Berlinger clusterbomb of content: Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel hits Netflix in just a few weeks, and Samuel Little docuseries Confronting a Serial Killer is set to debut at SXSW in March. [Realscreen; The Wrap]

  • I don’t actually know if the Duplasses’ Sasquatch project belongs in this newsletter, but it’s still a triple homicide even if a cryptid did commit the murders, right? And the Hulu three-parter’s got a great pedigree: the Duplasses have HBO’s The Lady and The Dale premiering in a couple weeks, and series director Joshua Rofé helmed Amazon’s Lorena. [Deadline]

  • Nina Siegal reviews Jonathan Petropoulos’s Göring’s Man in Paris: The Story of a Nazi Art Plunderer and His World. Petropoulos set out to take an oral history of Nazi looting from one of its surviving practitioners…but then blundered into the story his own self when he tried to help find a stolen Pissarro. [New York Times]

  • Katie Heaney’s investigation for The Cut into the ugly and contested beginnings of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation is fantastic, but it’s a bleak and wearing read as well. I couldn’t get past the subhed for a day or two, tbh: “Jennifer Freyd accused her father of sexual abuse. Her parents’ attempt to discredit her created a defense for countless sex offenders.” [New York]

  • And last but not least, American Greed premiered its fourteenth (!) season last night with an episode on Michael Avenatti. It’s probably up on demand by now, and if you’re not NXIVMed out, next week’s episode is the show’s take on the cult. [CNBC]

Later this week on Best Evidence: New true crime from the UK, reviewed by Margaret; and the latest podcasts, rounded up by Eve!

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