Last December, The New Yorker ran an astonishing piece by Patrick Radden Keefe called “How Mark Burnett Resurrected Donald Trump as an Icon of American Success.”
In it, Keefe described in great and cringeworthy detail how, in 2001, in search of a “tycoon” character to topline his new unscripted series, the English reality TV impresario cast Donald Trump, ignoring his ignominious history of failure, bankruptcy, and general malfeasance. At the time, Trump’s reputation within the legitimate business community was a joke. But the fictional narrative created by Burnett’s show blew that well-deserved reputation away, creating in its place an enduring—if utterly false—image of Trump as self-made man and business mastermind.
Just how enduring no one knew at the time, least of all Burnett or Trump.
“The Apprentice” marked the creation of a stunning fiction about a man whose actual business acumen was, to be polite, rather less impressive.
Last month, in a blockbuster story by Susanne Craig and Russ Buettner, the New York Times reported that Trump lost over a billion dollars between 1985 and 1994, the biggest loss by any individual American over that period. Trump immediately tried to spin that colossal embarrassment as a triumph, much as he did during the debates when it was suggested that he paid no taxes—“That makes me smart”—which amounts to saying, “I’m not the worst businessman in America—I’m just a tax cheat!”
(He might be both. Craig and Buettner, along with David Barstow, also wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning story of last October on the outrageous, long-running fraud engaged in by the entire Trump family, including the dodges—some illegal, some merely disgusting—they used to avoid paying taxes on the billion dollar inheritance Fred Trump passed on to his children, including not only Donald but also his sister Maryanne, who until very recently was a federal judge.)
But facts, shmacts. None of that was known to the general public in 2001. And as “The Apprentice” became a runaway hit, Trump was given a new lease on celebrity—the latest in the long string of undeserved lucky breaks that this miserable cretin has gotten since birth.
I think we all know what happened from there. It was like something out of A Face in the Crowd.
(Listen to Mr. Keefe discussing the piece with David Remnick on The New Yorker Radio Hour.)
On the heels of that New Yorker piece, I reached out to three individuals with firsthand knowledge of how that particular rancid sausage got made: a former contestant on “The Apprentice,” a business owner whose company was featured in one of the show’s competitions, and a producer who has worked with Burnett over many years. As they all understandably wish to remain anonymous, I’ll gender-ambiguously call them Mx Red, Mx White, and Mx Blue….
THE KING’S NECKTIE: What did you think of The New Yorker piece about Burnett and the genesis of “The Apprentice”? Was it an accurate depiction?
MX RED: Oh, very much so. I wasn’t surprised by anything in there.
TKN: What struck me as truly amazing was how it pulled back the curtain on this charade. Trump was a punchline, a joke on Page Six, a guy that Spy Magazine used to take down regularly, and now that’s all been completely obliterated by this new vision of him that Mark Burnett created.
RED: Exactly. I remember having a quick conversation with Burnett during the filming. I don’t remember the specifics, but I must have been disputing something that Trump said, and Burnett was very quick to say, “Well, if Trump says it then it’s true.”
TKN: Yikes. Talk about a harbinger of things to come.
RED: Yeah. Sort of acknowledging that, well maybe it’s not actually true, but the reality is that this is “alternate reality.”
TKN: I mean, when the show first aired, nobody thought that this was gonna turn out to be such an insidious and destructive thing—I don’t know of anybody who thought that, anyway. It just seemed like television.
RED: I’m certain this has been written about, but in the past when Trump had entertained the possibility of a presidential run, by and large people didn’t take it seriously. They thought he was just going for publicity and trying to get in the news. I’m a deeply cynical person, so my guess is that his primary motivation for running for president was to enrich himself, or more accurately, to pay off his debts. That would be front and center and nothing else would even matter. But in retrospect, his time on NBC increased his visibility to such an extent that it was the set-up for a real presidential run. Many, if not most of us, associated with the show were shocked when he actually won.
TKN: I couldn’t agree more. To me as just an ordinary American watching this, it seemed like even he never thought it was a real possibility that he could win the presidency. I think he thought it was just a branding opportunity.
RED: Right. But one thing that guy clearly knows is how to do, maybe better than anyone else, is how to get media coverage. The best charlatans do, going back to PT Barnum.
TKN: It’s kind of mind-blowing to think that Burnett was just looking for a frontman, a figurehead, and if he’d picked someone else, the entire course of American history would be different. I mean, that’s the “butterfly effect”—that could be said of anything—but in this case, it’s really remarkable to ponder.
RED: Oh yeah. Trump and Burnett were mutual opportunists feeding off of each other. But one of the other important players, as I’m sure you know, is Jeff Zucker. He was at NBC then and had a major role in the success of the show. I don’t know that it would have been so successful without him. And now, of course, being at CNN, Zucker represents the very essence of “fake news” in the eyes of the president. So it’s kind of funny to see them as enemies now.
TKN: What was Trump like personally?
RED: Well, as one would expect, in individual or small group encounters he was very personable and outgoing and ostensibly interested and caring, but it was obvious that it was all in an effort to get something out of you. I didn’t detect anything genuine about the man. But again, I’m a cynical person.
TKN: One of the things I thought was fascinating in The New Yorker piece were the descriptions of how much the show’s editors had to craft his “character” to make him appear smarter than he was, and making more informed decisions than he did, and so forth. They needed to present him as a tycoon, even if that was at odds with his actual business history. Did that TV persona—the “character” he played on “The Apprentice”—jive with the person that you encountered in real life?
RED: Not very much. I mean, there was very little talk or thought of serious business or operational matters. Certainly he can command a room or a conversation in an absolutely domineering and attention-getting way—that’s without dispute. But he’s clearly not, and perhaps has never been, a serious or thoughtful man. He’s just a complete and utter charlatan and huckster which at least a third of the country doesn’t seem to understand or care about.
TKN: How does one deal on a face-to-face basis with somebody who’s so pathological?
RED: It’s extremely challenging. I don’t know if anybody’s getting it right. I did see a suggestion that the only way to deal with someone like Trump is what someone called a “truth sandwich,” where you point out the truth, then you point out what he has said and how it’s in conflict with the truth, and then you end by again restating the truth and forcing him to respond. But the way that news is constructed, in sound bites, nobody forces those conversations. So if conversations like that are happening, they don’t see the light of day.
TKN: Having had this firsthand encounter with him so many years ago and looking at him now, do you see any change in him?
RED: Oh, absolutely. If you look at CNN footage from thirty years ago, clearly he had a higher IQ back then. He’s probably well into dementia now. It’s quite clear, no question.
TKN: Yeah, I hate to give him any kind of “out,” but when you look at those old clips from the ‘80s or ‘90s he could at least put a coherent sentence together. I think he was still a vile human being, and a racist, and all that other stuff, but it does make you think that he’s now got some sort of age-related neurological problem, because today he just seems—on top of all those other things—also incoherent. (laughs) Not a great combination.
RED: (laughs) Definitely not.
TKN: Were his kids on the show when you were on it?
RED: That came a little bit later, so not while I was on it. But I was in Junior’s bedroom in Bedford, New York while he wasn’t there. (laughs) Part of what they did for the contestants to keep them happy during the quarantine time was to bring them around to various Trump properties and try to impress them. A little bit of wining and dining.
TKN: What was it like being in that quarantine situation?
RED: It wasn’t so bad. For the most part you’re left alone if you wanted to be. Most people on shows like that are in some sort of transition. That’s pretty much the common thread. So at the time I wasn’t missing work or school, so it was an extremely unusual opportunity to have unstructured time.
TKN: What about your relationships with the other contestants?
RED: We were actually quite friendly. The majority of us were in touch regularly for at least a year, and then for some of us longer than a year, although I’m not in regular contact with any of them today. I was even friendly with Omarosa; she actually called me right before the election and I just pressed “send to voicemail” because I suspect she was asking me to show up to some event and show some support, which I would not have done.
TKN: She’s been such an interesting figure, because she was completely villainous—both on the show and as a member of the White House—and then she had a falling-out with Trump as so many people do, and now she’s kind of on the side of the angels, but we’re still a little suspicious of her. But I saw her on TV recently and she was fantastic: just completely eloquent and clear-eyed in her commentary on the current situation. You know, you couldn’t make up that character.
Do you have any sense of what the cast’s thoughts are on Trump’s eventual rise to power?
RED: Certainly at least some of them were opposed. The African-American cast members banded together in protest, and actually asked me to join them in publicly denouncing the candidacy. And I politely declined not due to any views I might have but just because there’s downside to having publicity.
TKN: Did you watch the show after you were on it?
RED: Oh, of course. And a couple of additional seasons as well. I mean, it’s not particularly entertaining or well-done television, but I sort of felt compelled to watch it, having been involved with it.
TKN: How truthful were the storylines as edited and aired, compared to what really happened?
RED: Most if not all storylines are really crafted. They leave a hundred or a thousand or whatever number of hours of footage on the cutting room floor. The editors have full discretion and they can take any element of any discussion or any scene and come up with anything they want. So there’s very little that’s legitimate. As opposed to other shows like “Survivor” where at least you know there’s some transparency in the voting. Regardless of what else may be portrayed, the vote is the vote.
TKN: But as we know, actual vote counts don’t really apply in Trumpworld.
RED: Right. On “The Apprentice” everything occurs behind closed doors in terms of decisionmaking. And again, as you would expect, everything is ratings-driven anyway.
TKN: Did you have any kind of editorial input? Could you dispute anything that you thought had been displayed inaccurately?
RED: Not at all. Absolutely no opportunity for input whatsoever. I maintain even now that the application video which I submitted is far more entertaining than anything I did on that show. And that’s because of the editing choices that were made.
I was naive so I actually believed that there was some meritocratic element to this entire competition. For example, there was one member of our team who was completely abysmal, and everybody could see that, and any camera could see that as well, so I thought it was a given that this was gonna be the person eliminated from the team. But I didn’t count on this person actually being a bit of a ratings juggernaut because he was such a comical guy and could really play to the camera, and was such an oddball that he absolutely didn’t mind being the butt of the humor. And that was attractive to the network, so they wanted to hold him on as long as they could. But that didn’t even occur to me at the time.
TKN: I watched a few seasons of it too, and it seemed to me that, not just on that show but on a lot of reality shows, the casts got geometrically savvier and more strategic from watching previous seasons. It’s almost innocent the first season or two.
RED: I would agree with that. I was just very naive about the whole thing. Most people on shows like this ultimately just want to be on TV, perhaps even for a living if they’re not doing that already, but that hadn’t even occurred to me.
TKN: Needless to say, “reality TV,” as many people have pointed out, is an absolute misnomer. Because they’re really game shows, and mostly rigged ones at that.
RED: Yes. I genuinely believed going into that show, “Well, of course I’ll do well because I have experience developing real estate and that’s what this guy does, so how could that not give me an advantage?” But nothing could be further from the truth.
TKN: Right—because you think you’re in a legitimate competition, when in fact you’re a cast member on a television show that someone is puppeteering.
RED: Exactly. Whereas any show that had ballots cast out in the open would be far more real. So actually, the very essence of the competition itself on “The Apprentice” was not legitimate from the get-go, in my opinion.
TKN: You really see that on dating shows. There’s always a contestant who’s an obvious trainwreck and by all rights should be kicked off immediately, but they aren’t because those people make for good television. So the producers string the audience along for a while before they finally get rid of that person.
RED: I would add one more thing, and maybe this is just a quirk with my attention to language, but even the catch phrase or the tagline for the show, “You’re fired,” is factually incorrect. None of the cast members are “hired” in the first place. So it’s just a lie. You actually never were hired, so you can’t be “fired.”
TKN: Much worse tag line, though: “We’re not going to hire you.”
RED: And, of course, the job itself—as you can read in any number of articles—is not even a real job, it’s just basically to be a brand ambassador for one of his latest midlevel buildings.
TKN: What advice would you give people who have to deal with Trump today?
RED: Well, in a business context, my advice would be “don’t.” Just walk away. At a minimum you’ll be unpaid or screwed in some manner. His real estate—the little of it that he actually owns—is so obscenely overpriced that it attracts only stupid money.
For people that might entertain the idea of working for him politically, I would just think about the long-term consequences of your career versus any short-term boost or notoriety it might give you. I’d be a little wary of this administration closing doors for you versus opening them.
TKN: Do you have a guess about how the rest of his tenure in office is going to play out?
RED: I have no particular insight into that other than the dominos keep falling and I just wonder how many more people can be taken down, indicted, or jailed. Sooner or later it’s got to come down to Trump himself, even if it’s not until his four years are done. Let’s hope it’s only four.
It’s an interesting and terrible time to be alive.
TKN: If you could talk to Trump now, what would you say to him?
RED: I just wouldn’t even want to have the conversation.
THE BUSINESS OWNER
TKN: How did the producers of “The Apprentice” find you?
MX WHITE: Through a consultant who represented my business. They’d gotten a call from one of the “Apprentice” producers, and they told me about the idea, and I said, “OK, I’m interested—send them my way.” (laughs) I wasn’t in any position to say no..…why would I? And lo and behold, what door did it open?
TKN: How did you figure in the show?
WHITE: It was just one episode. The contestants are divided into two teams and my business was featured in one of the competitions between them. And the team that worked with me won.
TKN: So that exposure boosted your career?
WHITE: I don’t know about my career, but it did end up being very lucrative. A hundred million people saw it. People were buying all my stuff the very next day. Customers converged on my shop; I had people lining up. I mean, I was a big winner in the eyes of America, right? (laughs) I got 5000 emails the first week after the episode aired. In fact, my email crashed. I had people trying to reach me four times before they finally got through. I couldn’t believe the response. I was making like ten, twenty grand a week for a while.
TKN: And that wasn’t something that you expected?
WHITE: I didn’t know how it was going to turn out until the night before it aired. I was sitting with a bunch of friends, watching this thing, not knowing the outcome. I really didn’t. My mind was blown; I kept pinching myself every day after, just to make sure I wasn’t dreaming all this. My business was doing fine before, I was making a living at it, but then I began making a much better living at it. Much much much better.
The whole experience led me to meet very interesting people from all over the world: England, Hong Kong, Sweden, you name it—people I’m still in touch with. Some of them were very famous or successful, but I didn’t really know who they were until I took the time to look. I was too busy working! But then these people come to my office…..coming from Los Angeles, Texas, Cincinnati—everywhere. People in nineteen piece suits waiting for me. And it was funny—I thought, “Wow, you’re groveling for me for a change.” It was a real turning of the tables; I never thought it would happen like that. And my stuff wasn’t even on the screen that long—maybe a minute or two in total. I was on camera too, maybe that helped. I don’t know. But it was a mind-boggling experience.
TKN: How long did that effect last? Or is it ongoing?
WHITE: It lasted longer than me or my friends or my family ever thought. I still don’t believe it, but the checks did clear so I guess I do! (laughs)
I would say it lasted for eight or nine years. For the first three or four years it was very strong and then it began to taper off. And then of course in ‘08 the crash happened, and people who would normally buy my products now were wondering if they had enough money to retire on. Their priorities shifted. Luckily, I’d saved enough for that kind of situation, so I wasn’t shaking a cup on the street.
TKN: Did you meet Trump in the course of being on the show?
WHITE: Yeah, he came by for a meet-and-greet. Nobody had any idea of where this thing was going to go, of course.
TKN: I don’t think even he did. So what did you think when, all these years later, this thing that started as a TV game show wound up shaking the whole world?
WHITE: I still don’t believe it’s real. It feels like this is all some kind of Truman Show. Are there words in the English language to express this kind of disbelief? I’ll use all of them for 50 points.
There are no words, really. The guy who should be separated from society, who should be put on an island all his own, in a cage, instead is in the most important job in the world—the exact opposite of where you want him.
I try not to think about it, to be honest….even though I subscribe to the Times online, and I keep one eye open just to see what he’s done next.
TKN: You have to, just in self-defense.
WHITE: Correcto. Everything he does is just to drive the price of his properties up, whatever they might be, to artificially inflate them so the value is raised and make it look worth more than it is.
TKN: No doubt. I’m not shocked he does that, but it’s still despicable.
WHITE: I’d be shocked if he didn’t do that! (laughs)
TKN: It’s an unfair question, but where do you see us going from here, politically?
WHITE: Well, I think the blue team has a chance if they don’t shoot themselves in the foot. I’d like to think they’ll unite instead of divide, like always seems to happen. What do you think?
TKN: I agree with you 100%. I’d vote for a tree stump over Trump, because I genuinely believe the stump would make a better president. Some of the Democratic candidates that have announced so far I like better than others, but ANY of them would be fine with me, and preferable to Trump.
But it’s worrying that we might eat our own instead of coming together. Obama just warned about the dangers of this obsession with purity; like they say, “Perfect is the enemy of the good.”
WHITE: For sure. People like Bernie, they like Buttigieg….but it’s kind of early. Bottom line is, somebody’s got to beat his guy. If it’s someone we really like that’s even better, but we just need the most viable candidate to beat this sonofabitch. But it’s so early.
TKN: The Truman Show that you mentioned before is an apt analogy, because that’s what it feels like we’re in. It’s fitting that Trump got a second act on a so-called “reality” TV show—or a third, or a fourth, or whatever it was after all his bankruptcies—and of course he’s obsessed with TV and the entertainment industry, and ratings. And now we’re all living in this nightmare reality TV show.
WHITE: The Real World of Make-Believe.
TKN: Trump gets all the attention, for obvious reasons, but in his own way Mark Burnett is the accidental Mephistopheles behind all this.
MX BLUE: I find it really interesting to think about Mark in terms of where he came from. He told me—and I have no reason to disbelieve him—that he came from a very working-class background. He went into the army. He was a paratrooper. And Trump of course evaded serving in the military, so there’s an irony there (laughs). But there’s a connection in that Trump never felt that he was part of the New York society either. Not really.
TKN: Except Trump was born into wealth and luxury. His “self-made man” narrative is total bullshit. It’s true that he’s always had a chip on his shoulder because he was from Queens and never felt accepted by the Manhattan elite he so desperately wanted to be part of, so I agree with you there. But he wasn’t an up-from-nothing bootstraps type like Burnett.
BLUE: Right. But both of these guys are outsiders that have that same sense of, “I’m a bit of a fake. I’m not really supposed to be here, but look: I’ve managed to pull it off.”
I think where Mark was at his best was when he came up with the idea for the Eco-Challenge. That was something that was truly authentic to his experience, because he’d done all that kind of survival training, and he knew all about the Raid Gauloises, and he realized there was an opportunity there. But the Raid Gauloises was such an inside-baseball race. His vision was for something bigger. Eco-Challenge may not have evolved into something that was so huge, but it spawned “Survivor,” which is his biggest success. And that really is to do with him being his authentic self. Can you tell me anything that Mark’s done since then that was such a big success?
TKN: Well, “The Voice,” but he didn’t invent “The Voice,” he just brought it over from Holland. And even “The Apprentice” I don’t think was ever as big as “Survivor.”
BLUE: No. It’s kind of interesting, because I feel like when he was more true to himself and what he really knew how to do, he really did his best.
But look what Mark has achieved. He is a talented guy. He’s a bit of an “It Guy.” You know how you talk about an “It Girl”? He’s an “It Guy” because if you are with him he’s so charming. He really has these eyes that are just are so captivating. His enthusiasm really comes through. He has an ability to seduce people. He’s so convincing. You want to be in his orbit. And I think he’s obviously talented at recognizing things in people that he can exploit.
TKN: In a way Burnett himself would have been a better choice to be the tycoon on “The Apprentice” because he was all the things they were claiming Trump was: self-made man, a salesman who has that charisma, that ability to size you up, built an empire from nothing, really came from the working class, etc. Whereas Trump is a complete fraud in all those ways.
BLUE: It’s almost like Mark’s own lack of experience about the world of business that “The Apprentice” portrayed made him choose someone like Trump for it. It was Trump’s vanity and narcissism and deluded self-confidence that perhaps Mark saw as a hit. He recognized the appeal of the Barnum & Bailey persona. But really, how could he have thought that a show featuring this sort of vulgar, New York Post-obsessed, failed real estate guy, that’s gonna be a television hit?
TKN: But it did become a hit. Because Burnett created the illusion of Trump as a genuine tycoon and business genius, which was a complete crock. The truth was he was a spoiled little rich kid who had everything handed to him, and still managed to fuck it up. But Trump eagerly bought into that fake image because that was and is the exact image he wants to project.
BLUE: True. Mark told me how when he first came to the States, he worked as a nanny. He knew that that was very unconventional. You had a man being a nanny—but he brought so much more to it because he’s this ex-paratrooper, so your children were gonna be safe with him. But I feel like working as a nanny somehow informed him dealing with Trump on TV, because he behaved like a babysitter with him.
BLUE: Mark has great people skills. So in dealing with Trump and sort of letting him have the lead all the time, he had all of this in his background and part of that was his training in the British army.
TKN: But do you think Burnett had any inkling that “The Apprentice” would lead to anything other than a hit TV show? Nobody really thought Trump had any potential beyond that….if even that, as you say.
BLUE: No. I don’t think he had any vision of Trump being president. I probably think he’s a bit shocked by how things turned out.
I do have a soft spot for Mark, though. I admire what he did, coming from the kind of background he did. I just think he overcame so much that could have constrained him. From what I’ve seen he seems pretty mercurial, but you can’t change your core values.
From what I’ve read, he did become very religious, though. I never discussed religion with him, and I’m not an authority on Mark Burnett at all, but I’m assuming that coming from the UK he wouldn’t be that religious, so I wonder about that. I just find it a little bit strange.
TKN: Maybe it’s the wife. I’ve heard that. Though she’s British as well—for those of you who still consider Northern Ireland part of Britain.
BLUE: I read something from somebody who knows him better than me saying that he tends to adapt to who he’s with.
TKN: Like Zelig. If Zelig were a British paratrooper.
BLUE: Which again speaks to his great survival instincts. He adapts constantly to the situation.
TKN: You’ve interviewed Trump yourself, yes?
BLUE: I did. It was so easy to get an interview with Trump at that time: he’d do anything to be on TV. I’d been told he was a germaphobe, so the first thing I did of course was put out my hand just to see if he would shake it. He spent quite a lot of time checking how he looked. He was quite particular about that.
And then the interview was not long at all. By that time he was already quite a professional inteviewee and he understood how the game worked. He wouldn’t answer any questions he didn’t like; he had a script in his head for what his comments would be and he wasn’t going to change that. In the end he was like, “All right, are you done?” I wound up not using any of it.
TKN: Why’d he do the interview then, if he had no intention of answering?
BLUE: Because it got him in the paper. Anything that’s going to get him in the news, or on television…. you know, all publicity is good publicity.
TKN: I think that prior to Trump the average American had no problem with Mark Burnett. They admired all those things you said: came from nothing, immigrant story—which we’re supposed to be all about, right?—built this empire, very smart, etc. Regardless of whether you think “Survivor” is a highpoint of Western culture or not, it was a success. I don’t think people even blame him for Trump per se, because like you said, it was such a fluke.
But what I think people do blame him for, people on the left anyway, is how he’s dealt with it since then. He didn’t say, “Oh my God, I’m horrified at what I unleashed.” He didn’t even hint at that. He continued to be close with Trump. He helped with the inauguration. He’s kind of tried to have it both ways, and I think that really rubs people the wrong way.
BLUE: He hasn’t spoken out, that’s true. I remember seeing something where his wife Roma had said that Trump had always been very nice to them, and very polite. I think this was after the “pussy grab” tapes came out. They’ve defended the indefensible. But I think that Mark would say he’s not a political animal.
TKN: But that’s such an incredible cop-out. We’re all in this thing, and “Which side are you on?” is the question that he has to answer. Especially because he’s at least partially culpable.
BLUE: I know….
TKN: If you ask the man on the street, “What do you think of Trump?” and that guy says, “I’m not a political animal,” fair enough. But if you were in business with him, if you built him up into the thing that enabled him to launch his political career, you do have something to answer for. And by not saying anything negative, by trying to have it both ways, Mark appears to be endorsing it or condoning it.
BLUE: Part of that is his working class roots. “Serve the establishment.” Those kinds of political things are for those people “up there” who get to decide that stuff.
TKN: But let me play devil’s advocate. I think it’s the opposite. He is that guy “up there” now. Now he’s this super-successful, ultra-rich guy and it’s really hard for those people to throw a wrench into the system. He’s not gonna shit on the President of the United States, even if he doesn’t like him. Or maybe he does like him; we can’t tell. That’s the problem.
And then conversely, people are still doing business with Mark Burnett. This is like the old joke that Hollywood would do business with Hitler if there were money to be made. Not comparing Mark to Hitler by any stretch, of course, but just to take it to the extreme. As much as some people in showbiz don’t like Trump, or Burnett because of his association with Trump, they’re not turning down his shows. And they won’t until they stop making money.
BLUE: Of course not.
TKN: And it’s also true that there are more Trump supporters in Hollywood than the general public realizes. Closeted maybe, but still.
BLUE: (groans with weltschmerz)
I do think maybe you’re saying that he is that guy. He is that really successful guy. But I wonder if, at some level, Mark doesn’t really see himself that way, even now, with all his success.
TKN: Yeah, I’m sure he doesn’t see himself that way. I’m sure he sees himself as this regular lad still. But he’s not.
BLUE: I’m a sentimental kind of person. I’m just finding him a sympathetic character. Many years later, I happened to be at a meeting and Mark saw my name on the list and came by to say hello. I have the impression he is tremendously loyal to friends and colleagues. So I respect that. He is a mensch in that sense.
TKN: Fair enough. I don’t know him at all, of course, but what makes him interesting to me is that he doesn’t appear to be a pure villain. There are plenty of pure villains in Trump’s orbit that are just so over-the-top evil you could never dream them up, even if you were writing a Disney cartoon. But Burnett has all these positive attributes that you’re talking about, and that’s what’s maddening and frustrating and sad.
I do think he must have some soul or he would just be a flatout Trump supporter, right? It would do him better with a certain segment. Or maybe he’s trying to play both sides. I don’t want to say he’s tortured, but I suspect in the dead of night, he feels some responsibility, and it appears that he’s wrestling with that.
BLUE: I don’t know. I don’t know how much he’s wrestling with it, but I think that he’s not all villain. Far from it. I think he has a lot of very good qualities.
TKN: (surprised) Now I’m giving him more credit than you are, in terms of his introspectiveness. Why don’t you think he’s wrestling with it?
BLUE: I think he’s an incredibly disciplined person and that probably allows him to compartmentalize things in such a way that he might not be tossing and turning trying to go to sleep at night. And that discipline in so many other situations is a real asset.
TKN: But in this situation it’s a massive rationalization that allows him to let himself off the hook.
BLUE: It’s an amazing quality. Who knows what’s going on in his mind?
TKN: We’ll see how this all shakes out. I heard a podcast with the author of that New Yorker piece, Patrick Radden Keefe, who said that the first line of Burnett’s obituary is certainly gonna be, “This man helped get Donald Trump elected president.” And that’s a hard thing to live with, unless you like Donald Trump.
BLUE: True. I don’t think that’s what Mark would want as the first line of his obituary.
TKN: The irony is, if it wasn’t for that, he would be celebrated as this success story that we were talking about—this Horatio Alger figure. He might be blamed in part for the rise of reality TV and the toxic dumbing-down effect it’s had on Western society, but he wouldn’t be held significantly responsible for the total collapse of American democracy.
BLUE: Yeah, although again, if you put that question to Mark, “How responsible are you for Trump?”, I think he would say that he’s responsible for making Trump into this star of a reality show, but ultimately the people of America are responsible for having elected him.
TKN: Well I don’t disagree with that. It’s just like the Russian interference: the fact of that does not relieve the America people of our own responsibility. I’m not looking to lay it all on Mark Burnett or Vladimir Putin or anybody else except the American public. The only people we can really blame are ourselves.
But If Burnett had come out during the campaign and said, “This is a joke; this guy was a clown. We made him what he is, or what he wants you to think he is,” it might have had an effect. I’m not saying Mark would have ever done that, for many reasons; it would have been extraordinary for him to do that. I wouldn’t have expected that of anyone, really. But it would have had an effect.
BLUE: In some ways it’s sort of like working on a documentary, because you spend a lot of time with a given person, cultivating them, their family, you’re involved in that kind of way, and to then turn around and do that would sort of say, “Everything about me is fake.” It’s not just about betraying Trump and his family, it’s about betraying the whole illusion of what Mark makes his money from.
Maybe it’s going to be one of those end-of-life things, much later from now, when ol’ Mark Burnett’s time as a TV movie mogul is done and all he’ll have is his memoirs.
TKN: But then it’s like McNamara, and then people really get angry when twenty years go by and there’s nothing at stake anymore, and you say, “Yeah, you know what? I kind of made a mistake.” That really pisses people off.
BLUE: But I also think that his intense sense of loyalty to people, as I mentioned, comes into play. He’s been in the trenches with Trump and I don’t think he’s gonna turn on him. Even if he thought he was an asshole, I think that would be overridden by his sense of their shared experience.
TKN: But at a certain point—and I’m not saying where that point is—but no matter how close you were with somebody or what you went through together, if that person became, say, a serial killer, I might say “Yeah, my friend Blue’s great, but I don’t support that ‘killing people’ thing they do.”
BLUE: Exactly. In the end that’s something only Mark Burnett can answer for himself.
Photo: Allocca/StarPix/Rex Features/Shutterstock. ©2004
Transcription: Sherry Alwell, firstname.lastname@example.org