Netflix is turning towards investigative journalism, and two of its new series reveal the depths of corporate crime and corruption. But how should we respond to crimes that are seen as “business as usual”?
When faced with the decision of what to watch on a given evening, Netflix users invariably choose true crime. About four years ago, Netflix began responding to this demand by investing in the genre. Netflix originals have since included The Keepers (2017), an investigation into sexual abuse and murder within a Catholic school, The Confession Tapes (2017), a damning look at coerced confessions, and the audience favorite Making a Murderer (2015). The studio has also re-examined well-known criminal investigations, through recent documentaries on Ted Bundy and Amanda Knox.
There’s science behind why true crime is so tantalizing. Psychologists have argued that we have a built-in fascination with evil, in large part because we’ve evolved as a species to pay attention to potential threats. We get an adrenaline rush from witnessing people breaking the rules, as well as from the process of mystery-solving – a process augmented by the exciting narrative arcs of true crime shows.
Despite this, I’ve always been unnerved by the ways that the genre plays on viewers’ deeply-rooted biases and anxieties. Augmented by the 24/7 news cycle, it makes crime seem omnipresent, pathologizes those accused of crimes, and frequently presents law enforcement officials as the unquestioned “good guys”. But perhaps most of all, I’m unnerved by how it skews the popular image of what a crime and criminal look like – something which Netflix is beginning to rectify, through some of its shows and a turn towards investigative journalism.
With its docuseries Rotten (2018) and Dirty Money (2018), billed as “alternative true crime” series, the company has dipped its toes into investigative reporting, playing the consumer watchdog. If there’s one theme that Rotten and Dirty Money share, it’s this: power and greed corrupt, and this has systemic, but traceable effects. Produced by Zero Point Zero, Rotten goes deep into the global food industry, exposing the corruption, lack of transparency, and safety risks in the food supply chain. Dirty Money takes a broader approach, investigating scandals in industries as diverse as pharmaceuticals, banking, and the Trump real estate empire. Both shows have six standalone episodes, each with its own cast of memorable characters and dizzying plot twists.
These shows are emerging at a time when capitalism’s popularity is perhaps at an all-time low. One Harvard University poll showed that 51 percent of millennials do not support capitalism. Having grown up during the aftermath of the financial crisis, people of my generation are relatively fed up with letting the status quo go unquestioned. We’re not just looking to understand the world around us, we’re making a to-do list of things about the world that need to change.
As implied in its title, Rotten sets out to show the ways in which our food system can go desperately wrong. Each episode of Rotten focuses on a different food product, and weaves together interviews with farmers, restaurant owners, lawyers, and other food industry professionals.
At its best, Rotten shocks, exposes, and educates. The docuseries expertly combines stories of individual people who work in the food industry with statistics and high-level industry overviews. The episode “Garlic Breath” especially stands out for its investigation of the US-China garlic trade. We meet garlic farmers in New Mexico and the enterprising owner of a garlic peeling company in Pennsylvania, who travels to China to find out why one Chinese conglomerate’s garlic is so cheap. The answer? The company (which also operates in the United States, under a different name), is illegally using prison labor to peel and package garlic. But Rotten doesn’t stop with these shocking revelations. It also explores the history of garlic use in cooking, tracing its journey from marginal to mainstream ingredient. In essence, it implies that demand is part of the problem.
“Big Bird” similarly looks at the winners and losers in the chicken industry, revealing the cutthroat incentives for chicken ‘growers’ to sabotage each other’s operations. While the chicken industry is very consolidated at the top, chicken growers (the small-scale operators who raise chicks into chickens) face increased pressure to compete because of a curved ranking system that pits them against each other. The lowest-performing growers don’t just get less money – the system forces them to operate at a loss. This has resulted in some rogue actors brutally sabotaging other growers. In three words? Mass chicken slaughter.
Rotten leaves the viewer at times with an overwhelming feeling of hopelessness about the state of the modern food industry. Criticism of the food industry is nothing new – see Food, Inc., Cowspiracy, What the Health, Fed Up, and countless other documentaries that talk about the health and environmental effects of different modes of farming and food products. Even other food content, such as the stunning Chef’s Table, examines the relationship between food and personal and collective identity, and compares traditional and modern foodways.
Rotten is exposé, not activist. That’s not to say that there aren’t some “bad guys”: in “The Peanut Problem”, we learn about a British restaurateur who is in prison for ignoring diners’ instructions about nut allergies. The struggling dairy farmers in “Milk Money” turn to the alternative revenue source of raw milk, a fad which poses tremendous risk to the young children who consume it. However, the series doesn’t give the viewer a single person to blame, an action item or an easy solution. It merely embraces the investigative journey, asking the viewer to understand the whole picture.
Perhaps this reflects reality more than activist documentaries, which often have the effect of shaming the viewer into believing that individual action can address the big issues of our age. A viral infographic from a few years ago mapped out the ownership of the world’s top brands. It showed an incredible amount of industry consolidation, especially in food and consumer goods. The recent IPCC report on climate change similarly revealed that most environmental damage has an easy culprit: 100 companies are responsible for nearly 70% of global carbon emissions. The problem is bigger than us, and, as Rotten implies, it’s systemic, hidden, and complex. Although consumers are in part culpable, we are also powerless.
A Vulture review called Dirty Money a series about “capitalism without remorse”. Although they share an investigative spirit, Dirty Money, created by Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney,cuts across industries in a way Rotten does not. It investigates a number of instances in which powerful people game the system to their advantage, hiding truth in order to maximize profits.
Dirty Money spins the true crime concept on its head, exploring a wide spectrum of unethical behavior, both legal and illegal. One of the most interesting episodes is “Drug Short”, which narrates the dramatic rise and fall of Canadian pharmaceutical company Valeant. A favorite investment among hedge funds, Valeant’s soaring stock prices and TV-savvy leadership hid a darker reality of financial instability. The biggest issue was Valeant’s main business development strategy: incessant acquisitions, slashing research and development (R&D) budgets, and raising the prices of niche, but life-supporting drugs by up to 1000%.
Raising the prices of life-saving drugs by 1000% is 100% unethical. There’s a reason why the world was so critical of “pharma-bro” Martin Shkreli, who purchased the patent to a highly-effective HIV medication, made the prices inaccessibly high, and then laughed about it on international television. This behavior shouldn’t need to happen in a pharmaceutical company. It shouldn’t happen at all in a company with a social responsibility mandate. But it does happen, and it’s totally legal. In fact, drug companies do it all the time – and that’s part of the problem identified by Dirty Money. Unethical behavior is frequently the business model of our world’s most powerful organizations. And if the laws aren’t ethical to start, we shouldn’t be surprised that it’s easy to justify going just a little bit further.
Just look at Volkswagen’s “clean diesel” scandal, the topic of the Dirty Money pilot. After it was discovered that VW had purposely cheated on emissions tests, the German car manufacturer pled guilty to criminal charges. Half of the outrage, though, was not about the cheating; it was about Volkswagen pretending to be “green”. Or look at “Cartel Bank”: the British bank HSBC was found to be knowingly bankrolling drug cartels through a number of small Mexican banks which it had acquired. This stuff should be shocking, except Dirty Money tells us the truth: it’s actually just part of capitalism.
Crime looks a bit different when the bad guy wears a suit, or when it’s committed via spreadsheet. Perhaps it’s conceptually hard to see corrupt business dealings in the same light as murder, or drug dealing. But criminal justice systems also reflect this imbalance. White-collar criminals (read: rich, often white, people) frequently walk away with less jail time than poor black and brown people who have committed low-level offenses. Just recently, Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, was sentenced to 47 months in jail for defrauding banks and the government, and tax evasion on millions of dollars. Meanwhile, Crystal Mason, a black woman in Texas was sentenced to five years for attempting to vote while on probation, 3000 people in the US are serving life sentences without parole for things like shoplifting, and Juanita Peralta, a mother of six got 15 years for drug possession.
That obviously shouldn’t be the case. Maybe society’s obsession with psychiatric evaluation of the criminal psyche is part of the problem, for it drives us away from considering other culprits. It stops us from looking at people and organizations that perpetrate systemic harm, via coverups and powerful connections, lobbying and “disaster capitalism”. Why is it that we’re shocked when someone shoots another person in cold blood, but not when a bank funds transnational criminal organizations that kill thousands? Why is the former crime so visceral, so unbelievable, and the other just “business gone wrong”?
It’s almost poetic that the final episode of Dirty Money is about US President Donald Trump. Uniquely, Dirty Money does not try to explain Trump as an political anomaly, but rather emphasises his normality. One commentator argues that Trump is guided by a “little voice inside his head” that convinces him of his own superiority, correct judgment, and inability to fail. Like the show’s other characters, he’s a man caught up in his own voracious ambition, narcissism, and greed. These are the same things investigated in the rest of the show – and in Rotten – the prioritization of self-interest, at all of our disadvantage.
Although I may never become an aficionado of regular true crime shows, I welcome Netflix’s turn towards the investigative genre. It’s crucial to have educational content about the world around us, especially at a time when investigative journalism has been hard-hit by the financial pressures of the digital media landscape. But for Netflix to properly fill the role of consumer watchdog, or investigative outlet, it’s necessary that it have an independence of content creation and look beyond user demand. Did Netflix produce these two docuseries because of a genuine interest in telling these stories, or because true crime and food investigation are popular genres? How did the topics of each episode get selected, and what’s the balance between entertainment value and educational value? Perhaps, as a product of my generation, I’m also looking for answers and solutions, and for the subject of the next protest. But these shows fill me with existential wonder: is anything “safe” anymore? Is ethical consumption possible? And what can we do to change things?