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Archive for Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A prophet of dark profits on ‘Frontline’

October 20, 2009

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“Frontline” (8 p.m., PBS, check local listings) producer Michael Kirk has found a great human-interest story at the heart of the financial meltdown and profiles several villains of the swindle whose names do not include “George,” “W.” or “Bush.”

A political nobody in charge of a miniscule agency, lawyer Brooksley Born headed the obscure Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) during the Clinton administration. As early as 1993, she warned of the dangers of the unregulated derivatives market, a Wild West of private deals conducted largely in secret.

Her efforts to rein in this furtive market earned her the wrath and official rebuke of Fed Chairman Alan Green-span, Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and Clinton adviser Larry Summers, three men dubbed “The Committee to Save the World” on the cover of Time magazine who all believed that free markets would police themselves.

The documentary shows how Born spent her whole life fighting male condescension. Her father had so wanted a boy that he named her after his best friend, Brook. She became the first female to head the Stanford Law Review, but the faculty didn’t think she could handle it. Briefly considered for attorney general, she was overlooked because Bill Clinton found her “boring.”

But in 1998, Born was proven right when the hedge fund Long Term Capital Management exploded and almost brought down the world economy. And by 2008, derivatives were at the heart of the financial system, and its precipitous collapse.

A story as old as Homer’s tale of the unheeded prophet Cassandra, with a little contemporary feminism thrown in, this “Frontline” is not to be missed.

• Sports filmmakers love a dead league. Films about the AFL and ABA abound. Now filmmaker Mike Tollin presents “Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?” (7 p.m., ESPN). Tollin is a tad close to his subject, having worked for the short-lived football league during the 1980s.

He makes a strong case for its survival, citing exciting players, classic games, good attendance and decent TV ratings. He also profiles some of the characters involved in USFL team ownership, most notably Donald Trump.

Some here contend that Trump bought the New Jersey Generals football franchise only to make his way onto the sports pages of New York’s tabloids and dumped the league like a broken toy once he was ensconced on the front pages.

The league, and this film, end with an acrimonious suit against the NFL, accused of violating antitrust laws (remember them?) in their efforts to stifle the infant organization. The legal wrangling includes footage of Trump with his legal representative — the notorious lawyer and political fixer Roy Cohn — a clip more than worth the price of admission.

Tonight’s other highlights

• The Yankees and Angels meet in Game 4 of the ALCS (6:30 p.m., Fox).

• “Nova” (7 p.m., PBS, check local listings) explores the world of exotic monitor lizards.

• A defense contractor, bearing secrets, expires on “NCIS: Los Angeles” (8 p.m., CBS).

• Part 3 of “Monty Python: Almost the Truth” (8 p.m., IFC) recalls fights with censors.

• Alicia takes on a company that blames its victims on “The Good Wife” (9 p.m., CBS).

• A vacation proves to be a victim’s last getaway on “The Forgotten” (9 p.m., ABC).

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