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Disaster Capitalism: A Duty to Make Money off the Titanic in Grand Rapids and Beyond

February 11, 2013

This article is in memory of Kate Wheeler, former GRIID contributor, who passed away in 2012. Kate wrote an excellent piece last year entitled, The Capitalist Shame of the Titanic, for the 100th anniversary of the Titanic disaster.

On Saturday, the Titanic Artifact Exhibit opened at the Grand Rapids Public Museum, which was cause for the media to contact one of the owners of this collection of artifacts, local bar owner Mark Sellers.titanic-sinking

On Sunday, MLive ran a story with Sellers, entitled, Bar owner Mark Seller reflects on ‘duty’ to protect Titanic shipwreck as exhibit opens in Grand Rapids. The article spending very little time on the exhibit itself and focuses on Seller’s motivation for buying the company that owns the Titanic artifacts, along with some history of the acquisition.

We learn from the MLive story that Sellers company, Sellers Capital Management Inc. (there is little public information about this company), had acquired Premier Exhibitions, the company responsible for the Titanic Exhibit, along with several others such as Bodies Revealed, Real Pirates, Cleopatra, Tutankhamun, America I Am and Dialogue in the Dark.

The MLive story presents some of the controversy around the acquisition and even cites Robert Ballard, the explorer who discovered the Titanic wreckage. Ballard, according to MLive, refers to Premier Exhibitions as “grave robbers.” Ballard has been very vocal in his opposition to taking anything from the wreckage. Here is a longer commit from an article in the National Geographic from last year.Picture 3

Robert Ballard, who has long argued that the wreck and all its contents should be preserved in situ, has been particularly caustic in his criticism of RMST’s methodologies. “You don’t go to the Louvre and stick your finger on the Mona Lisa,” Ballard told me. “You don’t visit Gettysburg with a shovel. These guys are driven by greed—just look at their sordid history.”

Indeed, greed seems to be a theme surrounding the Titanic, from its inception to the profitability of the exhibits. Sellers argues in the MLive story that while the previous owners of the exhibit wanted to take more from the wreckage, since he and his partners took it over they have a commitment to leave the wreckage alone. Sellers even refers to the wreckage as, “sacred.”

However, we should not simply assume that this is what motivates those at Premier Exhibitions. Just look at the cast of characters that make up its board and one can see that profits seem to be the common denominator.

The Board of Directors at Premier Exhibitions is made up of seven white guys, all of which have a long history in investment capitalism. In addition to Sellers, the board consists of Sam Weiser, Bill Adams, Doug Banker, Ron Bernard, Steve Palley and Bruce Steinberg.

Weiser, before coming to Sellers Capital Management Inc, worked for the Hedge Fund Consulting Group within Citigroup Inc.’s Global Prime Brokerage division. Weiser, who also sits on the board of Paragon technologies, was paid $281,250 from Premier Exhibitions in 2011 for his services.

Bill Adams used to work for the Mitchell Madison Group, a global strategic consulting practice, and sits on the boards of Direct Marketing Solutions, Inc., CarHop, McKissock and YLighting.

Picture 4

Doug Banker is currently Vice President of McGhee Entertainment, which manages several musicians, including Ted Nugent and KISS. Banker was compensated by Premier Exhibitions with $150,000 in 2011 for his services.

Ronald Bernard has been involved with several large media companies over the years, as well as the National Football League. He was President of VIACOM Network Enterprises from 1987 – 1993. Bernard was compensated $90,000 in 2011 by Premier Exhibitions for his services on the board.

Steve Palley has also been involved with numerous media companies, most notably King World Productions, Inc., which manages TV shows like Oprah Winfrey and Rachel Ray.

Bruce Steinberg has been involved in the media world in his role as General Manager of Broadcasting at BSkyB and Chief Executive Officer of UK Gold and UK Living TV. Steinberg was also compensated $90,000 for his time on the board of Premier Exhibitions in 2011 alone.

What this look into those on the board of Premier Exhibitions reveals is that they are a well connected company to the world of finance and media, with several board members sitting on other boards, which solidifies inter-locking systems of power. These inter-locking systems of power function in such a way to create a network of private economic power that assures that their collective interests will be maintained.

It seems to this writer that the primary motivator, like that of the people who owned the Titanic before it sank, is greed. Those who own the artifacts and exhibit what has been salvaged seem to be acting, in the words of Naomi Klein, as disaster capitalists…….making money off the natural and human made disasters. In fact, one could argue that it is their duty as capitalists to do so.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Randy Marsh permalink
    February 13, 2013 7:16 pm

    I dont get it. It’s a publicly held company. It’s purpose is to make money. If you want to call that “driven by greed” and be angry about it, so be it. Dont go see the exhibit then. What’s your point, Jeff? Just find an excuse to slam capitalism?

  2. Shawn Ferguson permalink
    February 15, 2013 10:30 pm

    The point, Randy, is that capitalists will use anything to make a buck, which is just about the definition of greed. For more on the topic of disaster capitalism, I’d suggest Naomi Klein.

    Also, as stated at the top, this article was not written by Jeff Smith.

  3. Randy Marsh permalink
    February 19, 2013 4:51 am

    Actually, Jeff did write this. It’s in “tribute to Kate Wheeler,” who wrote about the Titanic last year. Go read the top again.

    I understand what disaster capitalism is. I can understand how people would have a problem with those who make a profit in that way. But it’s not as simple as you or Jeff wish it was. It never is.

    Here’s something to consider: What would you call an ambulance company or a hospital? Are they not disaster capitalists? They make money off tragedy or other people’s misfortune. Should we not have ambulances or hospitals? What about funeral companies? Crematoriums? Tow trucks? Who should pay for those services? You?

    I’m not saying those are the same as Premier Exhibitions, but the argument could be made that they are worth our scorn under the rubric that Smith has laid out. Maybe they are. I dont like tow trucks or hospitals but I recognize their necessity.

    Premier is a company that does salvage. Many companies do salvage. Its a big industry. Are they all disaster capitalists? Do they all deserve our scorn, or just the one that salvages the Titanic because we have strong feelings about that ship?

    Its an ethical dilemma that merits discussion, no question. But I find it interesting that as much as Smith harps on other media outlets for bias, he frequently commits the same sin by failing to give any form of credence to arguments from the other side.

  4. February 19, 2013 1:53 pm

    Randy, the analogy of an ambulance company is not a very good one, since people usually need them because of an injury or serious health condition. Ambulance companies are not driving around looking for accidents in order to increase their profits. I do agree that most ambulance companies are based on the profit motive and I personally think health care is a right and should be accessible to everyone, not just those with insurance.

    A better analogy would be companies making massive profits off of the HIV/AIDS crisis. Of course we need medicines for this, but you have major pharmaceuticals making billions off the suffering of people and in the case of Africa, where countries have wanted to make their own drugs at a much more affordable price, the big drug companies claim under the WTO rules that this is an unfair imposition on their ability to make a profit. Millions die and the drug companies get rich.

    For me the main issue is that Premier is making money off of a disaster, one that was built on greed. Mark Sellers, the primary owner of Premier Exhibitions said it was his duty to preserve the salvaged remains of the Titanic and I am just countering saying that Sellers duty is to make money, something the MLive reporter fails to see.

    When you say I am guilty of the same thing I accuse the commercial media of, not providing both sides, I just have to chuckle. First, GRIID is not a traditional news outlet. We don’t make money from this blog. Second, this story is under the category of New Dissection, so it wasn’t a story we did, it was a response to the cheerleading story by MLive. Third, and this is probably the most relevant, GRIID is not a neutral news & information entity. We make it clear we are biased in favor of those who are most marginalized – workers, communities of color, immigrants, etc. When we report on those who are undocumented and are fighting for justice, we don’t seek out the perspective of those who think anyone without documentation should be deported. We know we have a bias and we are transparent about that. MLive is biased towards power and rich, I just wished they were up front about it, so not as to confuse people that are for everyone.

  5. Shawn Ferguson permalink
    February 22, 2013 1:36 am

    I’d also like to respond, Randy, that your comment implies that only way to provide a service to people is under the capitalist model. This is simply not the case and a very short sighted way of seeing the world. In the case of necessary services (including caring for the sick or disaster relief), a society can use an exploitative model (such as disaster capitalism), or a model of mutual aid. I don’t have time to go down all the historic and contemporary examples of societies using the later, however you should know that greed is not the only motivating factor on earth.

  6. Randy Marsh permalink
    February 24, 2013 5:50 pm

    Sorry Jeff, but while this rather grandly-named blog may feel transparent to you, I don’t see anywhere on your ‘about’ page that clearly states your bias. Every post on this blog is clearly written or copied from a left to ultra-left point of view, but nowhere is that spelled out. There is, however, plenty of gobbledy-progressive speak to wade through about “indy” media and the like. Not exactly what I would call “transparent.”

    That’s all fine and dandy if you’re content to be preaching to the choir, but I wouldn’t expect to persuade anyone with that approach.

    In regards to MLive, I’m sorry but nothing you’ve said here really refutes the fact that you hold them up to a higher standard than to which you hold yourself. Be the change, right? I don’t really see how they are biased toward the rich and powerful, but I don’t approach their website with preconceived notions. Seems like all you can say most of the time is that they didn’t approach a story from the same ultra-left starting point that you would have.

    Shawn, please enlighten me to all these historic and contemporary examples of how mutual aid, whatever that is, can provide necessary services to a nation of 300 million people better than the capitalist model can.

  7. February 24, 2013 6:20 pm

    Randy, as is with many other things, I beg to differ. When I say Indy media, we mean the kind of media that sprang up around the world after the WTO protests in 1999. I assumed that is a given for people, but for those who are not aware here is a link to what I mean. http://indymedia.us/en/index.shtml

    Secondly, I am not trying to persuade anyone. If people read this blog, they can do whatever they want with the content. If they disagree, I don’t care.

    Lastly, we clearly don’t agree about MLive’s bias towards the rich and powerful, but then again you are an apologist for capitalism. That’s fine, but why waste your time on this blog defending a news source owned by the Newhouse brothers?

    I never know what people mean when they say, preaching to the choir? as if the choir is all knowing and never needs any information. If you mean that we write for people who only agree with us, that is definitely not the case and you are but one example of those who do read us and don’t agree. This is another difference between griid and news sources like MLive…….they need subscribers, readers and advertisers. They can’t retain advertisers if their readership drops, so they must write what sells. I don’t care about numbers, not in what I write or how many people sign up for the classes I teach or the workshops I facilitate. It’s not a popularity contest for me, nor a business.

  8. Shawn Ferguson permalink
    February 28, 2013 3:04 pm

    Randy, if you’re actually interested in mutual aid i suggest you take the time to read one of the dozens, if not hundreds, of books written about it. As for me “enlightening” you, reread my the last sentence of my last post.

    Lastly, your sarcastic attitude is damaging to a civil dialog. If you want to debate political ideas, great. If you want to start a fight, go troll Mlive.

  9. Randy Marsh permalink
    February 28, 2013 11:23 pm

    Oh, I get it. No dissenting opinion allowed around here. “Go take it to mlive.” Lol. Just for the record, trolling is generally defined as hijacking a thread away from the organic/intended topic. By that definition, none of this is trolling since the point of Jeff’s story is criticism of capitalism and mlive.

    Dont dish out sarcasm if you cant handle it yourself, dude. And I’m not going to go read “hundreds” of books on this mutual aid thing you’re talking about. Explain it or dont. But dont use it to back up your arguments if you’re too lazy to defend it.

  10. Randy Marsh permalink
    February 28, 2013 11:47 pm

    I understand what Indy media is, but I think your assumption that everyone else who happens across your blog would is a reflection of the radicalist echo chamber you chose to live in, Jeff. It’s a little comical to read sometimes because it’s so different, yet so similar to the angry tea party and secession screeds which populate extreme right blogs.

    I defend mlive because I used to work in a media company and know that others who still do are not engaged in the deception you accuse them of. And this idea that the output of any media organization is non-credible and automatically suspect because it works on an advertising/subscription business model is flawed and false. It betrays your nearly complete ignorance of how journalists and newsrooms actually work, and what their larger goals are.

    There are hundreds, thousands, of examples of the nation’s press exposing wrongs, investigating corruption, defending the working class, and arming people with the information needed to make decision on voting at the ballot box, and voting with their wallet. At some point when I’ve got down time, I’ll post some local examples here on your blog.

    I agree that there are obvious differences between your blog and mlive. But in the end, you are each producing media content designed to inform and enlighten. However, just because you’re a small blog ad they are a large company, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t strive to hold yourself to the same ethical standards that you accuse them of betraying.

    And I’m going to call shenanigans on this unstated assumption that those classes you teach are for pure altruistic benefit. They are your conscription and recruiting mechanism. This Shawn kid is a perfect example.

  11. Shawn Ferguson permalink
    March 1, 2013 4:12 pm

    I have not been sarcastic with you, and I’ve tried to be reasonable. It is not my responsibility to educate you on every topic your unfamiliar with. And calling me lazy because you’re unwilling to read a book, let alone a wikipedia article, is ironic.

    http://lmgtfy.com/?q=mutual+aid

    You calling me a “kid” is not on topic and furthermore is completely inappropriate. You know nothing about me and have no right or leg to stand on in making comments about who I am or what my motivations are. I also find this comment ironic given the overall lack of maturity you’ve displayed here.

    Several commenters have been allowed to have their dissenting opinion published on this blog. You’ve gone beyond dissent and not only made things personal, but also made your comments in a rude, disrespectful manner. You of course have your freedom of expression, but we have no responsibility to publish it on our page, and we certainly don’t have to accept what you’re saying.

    I’ve entertained your critiques and you’ve responded by becoming more inflammatory and unreasonable. I do not intend to engage with you further if this is the way you are going to behave.

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