Peter Bart: As TV News Reports Look More Like Cop Shows, Viewers Are Left In Cuffs

Media George Floyd
Alex Milan Tracy/Sipa USA (Sipa via AP Images)

Veteran journalists know that the public mood is quirky, so it’s always risky to report “a consensus.” A few days ago, for example, there seemed a “consensus” that Americans had lost confidence in their neighborhood cops. Further, their expectations about cops had been distorted by movies and television.

But then things became even more complicated: Donald Trump decided to mobilize an entirely new police force of uncertain origin and training, dispatching it to Portland, Seattle and other major cities. This left the public to figure out a new way to respond to “authority” and, for the media, a new strategy for covering the incursions.

Yet another complication: Only a year ago, the data reflected a decade-long decline in violent crime. Now suddenly the crime rate was exploding. And the rising numbers don’t begin to include the clashes stemming from new protests prompted by the arrival of Trump’s Troopers.

A confused public understandably believes that some sort of order must be restored – that’s the new consensus. But who is going to be entrusted with the job of enforcing it?

There are presently some 700,000 police officers in the U.S., but that total does not include the shadow bureaucracies looking after borders, guns and drugs, or ominously titled groups like the Federal Protective Service. TV audiences have been schooled to believe the cops, whoever they are, almost always get their man (97% of the time, according to one study). They never kill their suspects and certainly never plant evidence.

Talk to the showrunners and executive producers of the Dick Wolf universe (the Law & Order or Chicago franchises, etc.) and they will acknowledge the mystique of law enforcement that their shows have created. In this world, cops rarely act wrongfully and, when they err, are never prosecuted. Not on television anyway. One study of four crime shows found that, when police acted badly, their mistakes were uniformly justified and hence unpunished. It’s only in occasional movies, like Billy Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A., where cops jauntily cut corners and plant evidence to nail offenders.

Activists like Rashad Robinson have come forth with data demonstrating that police shows downplay violence against Blacks and, further, that their writing and producing staffs are models of non-diversity. In response, of course, some shows like Cops and Live PD have recently been canceled as networks have tried to restore some balance. The fate of the animated show PAW Patrol has even triggered controversy: Kayleigh McEnany, the President’s press aide, wrongly reported its cancellation, which Nickelodeon promptly contradicted, so the PAW team is still policing.

“Dragnet” Universal TV/Dragnet Prod/Mark Vii

The tradition of fealty between cops and their TV chroniclers dates back to 1951 when the stalwartly mono-toned Jack Webb created Dragnet, later followed by Adam-12. The Los Angeles Police Department helped supply Webb’s material and faithfully signed off on all scripts. These early procedurals, to be sure, never went near events like the 1965 Watts riots when 4,000 were arrested and 31 killed.

Cops of that era never seemed to fire their guns in TV accounts, though the data again indicated otherwise: According to one study reported in The Guardian, the number of people fatally shot by police in the U.S. over a period of five days in 2015 was greater than those shot by cops in England and Wales combined over a period of 25 years. To be sure, one in three Americans owns a gun.

In recent years shows like The Wire and The Shield have sought to humanize cops and depict the occasional presence of rogues. Neither dealt with the extraordinary clout of police unions in fending off prosecution, which studies show have all but eliminated the process.

The big-city melees of the moment are challenging the resources of the news media as well as posing issues for the fiction shows. Fox News cameras focus on rioters on attack. MSNBC depicts protestors under siege. Viewers are left with job of creating their own scenario.

The “consensus,” therefore, is one of alarm. And growing confusion.

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