Ultra wealthy portrayed as both supervillain and saintly patron

On the eve of an election that could establish Mitt Romney as perhaps the richest man ever to become president of the United States, the media continue to exhibit a complicated relationship with the economy’s .001 percent.

Romney’s wealth and history running a private-equity firm have made him a target, both during the Republican primaries and the general campaign. At first blush, this appears to reflect a media hostile toward the super-rich, having substituted power-mad moguls into the role of Bond-style villains since the Cold War. For an example witness the new CW series “Arrow,” where a father tasks his privileged son with taking on the corrupt moneyed interests ruining their city.

Nevertheless, a conflicting image of the benevolent billionaire lingers, even in jaded newspaper circles. Dreams persist of embattled old-media assets being rescued by wealthy philanthropists who recognize journalism’s unique community service and are willing to operate papers unfettered by niggling concerns, like earning a profit. (Of course, if said benefactor is Rupert Murdoch, with his history of leveraging properties to advance his business interests and political views, be careful what you wish for.)

By happenstance, this week also marks the return of “Undercover Boss,” the CBS reality series that transforms wealthy CEOs into Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas morning. Made aware of employees’ financial struggles — including, in the premiere, one residing in a shelter — the bosses express surprise that anyone might be laboring to get by on minimum-wage salaries and immediately reward grateful subordinates with generous gifts that reduce everyone to tears.

Of course, subjected to somewhat more rigorous analysis, the bosses might actually seem out of touch for not previously grasping the disparity between top and bottom rungs of the corporate ladder. For the program’s purposes, though, the series deftly fosters the heartwarming impression that when bosses possess clear eyes, full hearts and even bigger pocketbooks, their needy staffs can’t lose.

Nobody exemplifies the mixed emotions the rich inspire more than Donald Trump, whose success with “The Apprentice” spawned shows featuring other moguls like Mark Cuban and Richard Branson.

Although one can question why the wealthy would be so eager to add a mere TV paycheck to their portfolios, with Trump, at least, there’s no mystery whatsoever: His hunger for the spotlight borders on addiction. Coupled with his propensity to say outlandish things — from feuding with other celebrities to plunging into politics — Trump has become an almost irresistible commodity in media circles, even if it’s merely as an object of derision.

Few billionaires court attention so aggressively, but the left and right each have billionaire bogeymen — George Soros to inflame conservatives, the Koch brothers and casino mogul Sheldon Adelson as fodder for liberals — fueled by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, which has drawn attention to money’s influence on politics.

Yet for all the talk about “class warfare” in this election cycle, the historical fascination with the rich hasn’t really deviated. Indeed, cabler History picked this fall to air “The Men Who Built America,” a docu-series exalting industrial titans of the past, like Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan, who mercifully lacked the temptation of posting their own YouTube videos.

Hollywood has also produced its share of colorful billionaires, and November brings the PBS special “Inventing David Geffen” — an “American Masters” documentary that paints a flattering portrait of an impresario at least as famous for the fortune he’s amassed (and how he wields it) as for the music acts or movies he assembled.

Granted, in a perfect world one might hope there’s room for portrayals of rich businessmen between the media poles of supervillain and saintly patron, but such griping ignores the exaggerated nature of entertainment and drama — and a news culture heavily infused with both. It’s no accident J.R. Ewing is reeling in audiences again with “Dallas,” 34 years after we first met him.

Weighing all the evidence, it’s simplistic to contend that the media demonize the privileged elite, whose members are often lionized on one hand while being derided on another.

To fully appreciate the nuances of the media’s relationship with the mega-rich requires something the latter, perhaps wisely, are usually reluctant to provide: a thorough and detailed accounting.

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