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On 'Dursting': Why Media Prey Go on Camera

03/20/2015 11:20 am ET | Updated May 20, 2015

We've all heard that the camera adds 10 pounds, but when it comes to damage control, it subtracts 50 IQ points. The interview of homicide suspect Robert Durst on HBO's recent broadcast of The Jinx, which likely led to his latest arrest, has provoked questions in the community of crisis management specialists and amateurs alike.

The main question I've been asked since The Jinx bowed last Sunday is why do people in trouble feel the compulsion to go on camera -- I'll call it "dursting" -- when nothing good can come from it?

My three decades in crisis management would suggest the following four reasons:

1. Those who unwisely go before cameras believe in their own powers of seduction more than they believe in the power of others to seduce them. They think -- sometimes with good reason -- that they are special in their capability to disarm.

We hear about the mendaciously self-entitled that "they think they can get away with it." This is incorrect. Those who are blessed with above-average charm and resources often do get away with more than the less-gifted. Until they don't.

Manipulative charisma need not come in the form of beauty or sex appeal. It can derive from perceived vulnerability, the implication of a psychic bond, or the hypnotic draw of exotic creepiness. Some of the most lethal manipulators operate from pity: Think how hulking gangster Tony Soprano was reduced to a hyperventilating toddler in the presence of his mother, Livia, as she sobbed into her handkerchief praying for the Lord to take her.

I don't think Durst is the calculating genius some believe him to be. He strikes me as someone who amorally blunders his way in and out of trouble, his spaced-out and elfin mien convincing people not to take him seriously when perhaps they should.

Former Senator John Edwards leveraged unctuous charisma into a fortune as a trial lawyer and politician. As I explain in my book Glass Jaw, it is a rich irony that he was brought down by an affair he had with his campaign videographer, Rielle Hunter, who, no doubt, whispered assurances to him about his physical perfection and historical significance as the camera rolled.

So confident was Edwards in his persuasiveness that he "dursted" himself in an interview with ABC's Bob Woodruff and mistakenly thought he could get away with lying directly about his affair with Hunter and his paternity of their child.

2. Manipulative people are easily manipulated. The paradox is that they fall for the same techniques that they deploy against others, believing that only their powers are strong enough to do damage.

While it was Durst who initially reached out to The Jinx filmmaker Andrew Jarecki after seeing his fictionalized account of his relationship with his first wife, All Good Things, it was Team Jarecki that upped their seduction in securing a second interview with Durst. It was a cunning effort that they had the integrity to document in their show.

Any would-be interviewee should watch Team Jarecki scheme to get Durst back on camera where they could finally nail him with the handwriting samples that prompted his most recent arrest. It will confirm what seasoned crisis managers know: A reporter or investigative producer's job is to take down their subject. Forget the tripe about "getting the truth" or allowing them to "tell their story," which is incidental: Somebody's has to be on the losing end of the trade.

Durst's younger brother, Douglas, wisely refused to let Jarecki interview him for The Jinx. Why would he? In All Good Things, the Douglas-like character was portrayed as having tried to nix a law enforcement investigation into the disappearance of his sister-in-law.

Michael Jackson was repeatedly advised against speaking with interviewer Martin Bashir in 2002 after years of facing allegations of child molestation, but he dursted himself anyway, disclosing, "I have slept in a bed with many children" and that doing so was "a beautiful thing."

The documentary triggered a criminal probe of Jackson's interactions with children, which led to his arrest. While Jackson was acquitted of all charges, stated one of his managers about the Bashir interviews, "It broke him. It killed him. He took a long time to die, but it started that night. Previously the drugs were a crutch, but after that they became a necessity."

3. Even awful people want to be appreciated for being the wonderful people that they are not -- and to differentiate themselves from those they feel are truly bad. I have interviewed murderers who took pains to point out that their victims were louses, or that they were simply acting as soldiers in a war the common mind could not fathom. As drug bandit Omar Little explained in The Wire, "I never put my gun on nobody that wasn't in the game."

Whether we are talking about killer or a CEO who was managing an enterprise when conditions turned sour, the compulsion to explain and to differentiate wickedness from misfortune is intense and unrelenting. In Durst's case, one expert opined that if he killed his friend Susan Berman, he rationalized that he had the decency to send the telltale alert about the body to the "Beverley [sic] Hills Police" that got him nailed.

4. People in trouble self-promote when it is against their interests because the promise of being (or remaining) famous transcends any rational assessment of the risks. In recent years, the hunger for celebrity has gone from being a common, but immature, impulse that many of us have felt to being a pandemic. As journalist Christopher Heath observed, "I'm not sure that we aren't seeing the emergence of a society in which almost everyone who isn't famous considers themselves cruelly and unfairly unheard."

In our times, fame is believed to conquer all. Robert Durst was at his best when he had sense enough to vanish. But when he saw Ryan Gosling portray a character like him in All Good Things, he had to pick up the phone and call the director, which ignited his downfall.

I once worked with an embattled tycoon who was approached by a notoriously aggressive news magazine television show. The famous host/interviewer approached my client, telling him he was getting railroaded, assuring him of a fair hearing, even stopping to admire a statue of him. My guy enjoyed being in the presence of this legendary TV star, their bonding appealing to his sense of destiny ("Why, yes, I should be hanging around other legends..."). Against all advice, he went on the program and was shredded. He's in prison now.

The PR industry bears some responsibility for "dursting" its own clients. While flacks serve their clients in theory, in practice, many see their true loyalty as being with the journalists who will be in their lives far longer than any single client. Accordingly, some advise their clients to meet with their executioners under the banner of "telling your side of the story." Rarely is this is an acceptable risk.

On-camera self-immolations beg the question "Will they ever learn?" The answer is no -- because human beings don't learn from the collective experience of mankind. Rather, people base their judgments on their own experiences and senses of self. While the camera may be a relatively recent development in human history, the sins of narcissism, hubris and self-delusion are ancient and everlasting.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this post incorrectly identified Douglas as Robert Durst's older brother. Douglas is Durst's younger brother.