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Hollywood's Long History Of Collaborative Police Myth-Making

In a recent interview, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison was asked why it's so difficult to prosecute cases against police officers.

"Just think about all the cop shows you may have watched in your life," he replied. "We're just inundated with this cultural message that these people will do the right thing."

While two of those shows, Cops and Live PD, have just been canceled, Americans have long been awash in a sea of police dramas.

In shows like Hill Street Blues, Gangbusters, The Untouchables, Dragnet, NYPD Blue and Law and Order, audiences view the world from the perspective of law enforcement, in which alternately heroic and beleaguered police fight a series of wars on crime. These shows - and countless others - mythologize the police, ensuring that their point of view has dominated popular culture.

This didn't happen by accident.

As a media historian, I've studied how, beginning in the 1930s, law enforcement agencies worked closely with media producers in order to rehabilitate their image.

Many of the shows proved to be hits with viewers, and this symbiotic relationship spawned numerous collaborations that would go on to create a one-sided view of law and order, with the voices of the policed going unheard.

The FBI's PR Machine

For FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, police served a primary role: to protect a "vigorous, intelligent, old-fashioned Americanism" that was threatened by what he saw as unreasonable demands for civil rights and liberties.

Hoover wanted his agents to reflect his vision of "Americanism," so he hired agents with an eye toward whether they fit the mold of what he deemed a "good physical specimen:" white, Christian and tall. They couldn't suffer from "physical defects" like baldness and impaired vision, nor could they have "foreign" accents.

In the 1930s, Hoover also established a public relations arm within the agency called the Crime Records Division. At the time, the image of the police was sorely in need of rehabilitation, thanks to high-profile federal crime commissions that documented widespread violence, suppression and corruption within police departments.

Hoover realized that broadcast media could serve as a perfect vehicle to disseminate his conception of law enforcement and repair the police's standing with the public.

The Crime Records Division cultivated relationships with "friendly" media owners, producers and journalists who would reliably endorse the FBI's views.

In 1935, the FBI partnered with Warner Brothers on the film 'G' Men. A G-Men radio series followed, made in collaboration with producer Phillips H. Lord and reviewed by J. Edgar Hoover, who "checked every statement" and made "valuable suggestions," according to the series' credits.

A year later, the FBI worked with Lord again on the radio series Gang Busters, whose gunshot-filled opening credits boasted of the show's "cooperation with police and federal law enforcement departments throughout the United States" and its status as "the only national program that brings you authentic police case histories."

Although Hoover and Lord notoriously clashed over the details - Hoover wanted to emphasize the science of policing and the professionalism of law enforcement, while Lord wanted more drama - the focus on the police as protagonists went largely unquestioned.

The FBI's collaborations continued into the 1970s, with the long-running series This is Your FBI (1945-1953) and The FBI (1965-1974).

Like G-Men and Gang Busters, these programs were based on solved police cases and made the most of their ripped-from-the-headlines realism.

Other writers and producers pursued similar collaborations with law enforcement. The iconic series Dragnet, for example, was written with the approval of Los Angeles police chief William H. Parker, who notoriously headed the LAPD during the 1965 Watts riots.

Reactionary Retaliation

The FBI didn't just collaborate on media production. My research on the television blacklist - a smear campaign to silence anti-racist progressives in the media industry - reveals how the agency routinely retaliated against its critics.

When journalist John Crosby criticized the FBI during a 1952 television broadcast, Hoover scrawled a note on the report of the incident: "This is an outrageous allegation. We ought to nail this. What do our files show on Crosby?"

Shortly afterwards, Crosby was denounced in American Legion Magazine as someone who supported supposedly communist performers and artists.

When lawyer and government official Max Lowenthal was completing a book critical of the FBI in 1950, the Bureau wiretapped his phone and planted stories so disparaging that few copies of the book sold, ending Lowenthal's government career.

The Bureau even succeeded in getting at least one writer fired from This is Your FBI merely because it believed his wife was not a sufficiently "loyal American citizen."

Worse was always visited on black performers, journalists and activists, who were subject to far more intense spying, surveillance and police abuse.

Law enforcement's efforts to control its image through production and repression helped create police dramas that seldom questioned their built-in bias. Meanwhile, the dearth of diversity in writers' rooms reinforced this formula.

Of course, some notable exceptions dulled the police drama's sheen, including David Simon's The Wire and The Corner, and Ava DuVernay's recent miniseries When They See Us. These dramas upend the traditional police point-of-view, asking viewers to see the police through the eyes of those most often policed and punished.

Time's Up For The Police Drama?

Periodically, Americans have been made aware of the one-sidedness of these media depictions of police conduct. In 1968, for example, the Kerner Commission explored the causes of uprisings in black communities. Its report noted that, within these communities, there was longstanding awareness that "the press has too long basked in a white world looking out of it, if at all, with white men's eyes and white perspective."

Changing that perspective requires more than recognizing the role police dramas have played as propaganda for law enforcement. It means reckoning with the legacy of stories that gloss over police misconduct and violence, which disproportionately affect people of color.

"We want to see more," Rashad Robinson, the executive director of the civil rights advocacy organization Color of Change, told the New York Times after the cancellation of Cops. "These cop reality shows that glorify police but will never show the deep level of police violence are not reality, they are PR arms for law enforcement. Law enforcement doesn't need PR They need accountability."

Carol A. Stabile is a professor at the University of Oregon. This post is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

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Comments welcome.

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1. From Steve Rhodes:

I wish this piece spent more time on recent and current police shows, including dreck like Chicago PD, as well as show in the aftermath of 9/11 (24), instead of focusing so much on the '30s and Hoover era. The spate of reality cop shows, for example, is legion, including shows focusing on various sheriff departments and jails.

At the same time, the author fails to note that Hill Street Blues and, particularly, NYPD Blue, were innovative. NYPD Blue also portrayed characters with moral ambiguity, particularly Andy Sipowicz, a racist brutalizer with a psychologically complex, justice-seeking sympathetic core.

Such examinations might go beyond the scope of the piece in that these shows may not have been subject to official law enforcement collaboration, but these shows undoubtedly hired past and/or present law enforcement personnel as consultants, thus shaping the viewpoint similarly.

At the same time, while the author mentions exceptions to the traditional police POV like The Wire, he leaves out The Shield, which portrays a rogue special operations unit quite similar to ones we often see in real-world scandals, and Chicago Code, which extended its view to the political influence on police operations.

Again, I realize I'm suggesting a longer, broader and deeper piece, but at least bigger nods to those shows would have brought us up to date and not spent so much time in the distant past.

See also: With 'Copaganda' TV Under Fire, NBC's One Chicago Actors - Past And Present - Take A Stand For Social Justice.

"Earlier this year, Color of Change, a nonprofit civil rights advocacy organization, and USC's journalism school authored Normalizing Injustice, a study detailing how television plays a major role in how police and systemic issues are viewed by consumers.

Chicago P.D. was cited among the series in which "wrongful actions were presented as ultimately good and forgivable actions on the part of 'good guys' in noble pursuit of the 'bad guys' and any limitations or accountability for those actions would only impede the pursuit of justice and the ability of [people in criminal justice] to keep good people safe."

And see also: Dirty Coppers, in which I wrote:

"[Or take a]n argument put forth by the Tribune's [Pulitzer Prize-winning] Julia Keller in the wake of 9/11. Keller, like so many other commentators suddenly developing insight into how our world would change forever, foresaw a dramatic shift in the very nature of police shows that simply hasn't come to be.

"As we continue to contemplate how culture may change in the wake of Sept. 11, I'd like to offer this prediction: Cop dramas will never be the same. It won't happen overnight - cultural products take a good long time to make their way through the various pipelines that empty out on TV and movie screens, in bookstores and on stages - but it's on its way," Keller wrote in October 2001.

"For roughly the past two decades, cop dramas have been dominated by a single idea: moral ambiguity. Cops do a dirty job, see, and the only way to do a dirty job - or so this theory goes - is to get a little dirty yourself."

That dominant storyline (a change in itself from the Dragnet days of righteous policing, I might add) would come to an end, Keller wrote.

Cops would forevermore be depicted as heroic.

It was a bad argument then and it's a particularly bad argument now, one that didn't hold up when it was written and has looks more silly by the day since.

The lack of informed critical thinking by, well, our cultural critics has also played a role standing up television's (and Hollywood's) portrayal of cops. (Even more weirdly, when you think about it, is that in Beverly Hills Cop, the officers who play by the rules are the white ones in a wealthy jurisdiction, while the cop who teaches them that rules are to be broken if you really want to crack cases is the black guy from Detroit. How about a remake switching the races?).

So Hollywood has taught us simultaneously that cops are righteous and play by the book and that violating the rules to get the job done is necessary and honorable. It has also simultaneously taught us that cops are simple, straightlaced nerds and complicated, morally ambiguous creatures.

The one constant, though, is that the point of view is always the cops', and that even the most brutal of them deserve our sympathy. That's liberal Hollywood for you.




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Posted on June 17, 2020


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