Friday, June 29, 2007

How the Media and Corporate America's Class Prejudice Gave Us Chris Benoit

I know I'm a few days late on the Chris Benoit story, but there are some important things that have still not been said in the ridiculous media coverage. First, a little backstory. I was a wrestling fan when I was a kid, culminating in my high school years, which coincided with late-90s wrestling boom when it suddenly became sorta-cool to watch it.

Wrestling's decline coincided with my going to college, and I quit watching, though I still kept up with the business through the websites of pro wrestling's two major legitimate news sources: Wade Keller's Pro Wrestling Torch and Dave Meltzer's Wrestling Observer. Why did I do this? Because I knew something like the Benoit case was coming one day. It was amazing to me that a publicly-traded company like the WWE could get away with rampant abuse of its employees and never be called out for it. I knew one day things would hit the fan, though of course I never imagined it would be in such a tragic way.

WWE was allowed to get away with such foul business practices for so long because wrestling occupies a peculiar space in American culture unlike any other cultural product with the possible exception of pornography. It is a multi-million dollar business that everyone wants to pretend doesn't exist. The mainstream media can pretend wrestling doesn't exist and more or less ignore the premature deaths of 60+ wrestlers in the past two decades because they have convinced themselves that wrestling is only of interest to toothless hillbillies and hyperactive children and that the wrestlers who die don't deserve their pity because they are nothing more than roid-raging circus freaks.

However, thanks in large part to Vince McMahon, wrestlers are no longer performing at county fairs for the toothless hillbillies and on Saturday mornings for the hyperactive kids. WWE's primary show, Monday Night Raw, is consistently one of the highest-rated prime-time shows on cable. Raw airs on USA, the country's most-watched cable network. USA and its sister station Sci-Fi Network, which also airs WWE programming, are both part of NBC Universal, which is of course famously owned by GE.

So, wrestling is not a county fair sideshow, but a major show on a major cable network owned by a major entertainment conglomerate. Now, let's play with a hypothetical situation for a moment. What if several stars of Law & Order, another NBC Universal show, had died prematurely during the close to 20 years that show has been on the air? Additionally, what if there was strong evidence that the horrible working conditions on Law & Order, which included near-mandatory drug use in order to keep one's job, had been a major contributing factor in these deaths? Do you think NBC Universal would have allowed this to continue for such a long period of time without at least sitting Dick Wolf down to discuss the situation? Do you think the media would have allowed NBC to stick its head in the sand for so long?

This is exactly what has happened with WWE. NBC Universal and WWE's other corporate partners, which includes CBS Corp. (whose CW network airs WWE Smackdown), all major cable and satellite systems (who carry WWE's pay-per-view events) and a myriad of other video distributors, toy manufacturers and arena operators, have allowed McMahon to operate unchecked because they don't want to admit that they are making money off pro wrestling. Meanwhile the media, which doesn't want to acknowledge pro wrestling's existence, is silently complicit.

And we all know why. Because wrestling is strongly associated with the last group in America that it is socially acceptable to discriminate against: poor rural whites. Wrestling is perhaps the loudest and most embarrassing example of white trash culture. This somehow makes it acceptable for the media and corporate America to try and pretend it doesn't exist, even while they are quietly profitting from it.

Well, now that a young child and his mother are dead, it appears things might actually change. There are reports of WWE programming being cancelled in international markets and there is even talk of the board (remember, WWE is a public company) ousting McMahon as chairman and demoting him to stictly creative role. I don't ever see this happening, given McMahon's own history of steroid-fueled erratic behavior, but there will be major changes. It is a shame that class prejudice made it necessary for such a horrible tragedy to set these changes in motion.

No comments: