A journalist vs. the First Amendment

The Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg:

Like many other industries, entertainment companies have issued statements of support for the protests against racism and police brutality now filling America’s streets. But there’s something Hollywood can do to put its money where its social media posts are: immediately halt production on cop shows and movies and rethink the stories it tells about policing in America.

For a century, Hollywood has been collaborating with police departments, telling stories that whitewash police shootings and valorizing an action-hero style of policing over the harder, less dramatic work of building relationships with the communities cops are meant to serve and protect. There’s a reason for that beyond a reactionary streak hiding below the industry’s surface liberalism. Purely from a dramatic perspective, crime makes a story seem consequential, investigating crime generates action, and solving crime provides for a morally and emotionally satisfying conclusion.

The result is an addiction to stories that portray police departments as more effective than they actually are; crime as more prevalent than it actually is; and police use of force as consistently justified. There are always gaps between reality and fiction, but given what policing in America has too often become, Hollywood’s version of it looks less like fantasy and more like complicity.

There’s no question that it would be costly for networks and studios to walk away from the police genre entirely. Canceling Dick Wolf’s “Chicago” franchise of shows would wipe out an entire night of NBC’s prime-time programming; dropping “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and a planned spinoff would cut even further into the lineup.

But the gap between what some companies and executives have promised this week and what they have done in the past cannot be ignored. As reality television critic Andy Dehnart points out, at ViacomCBS, cable networks chief Chris McCarthy pledged “to leverage all of our platforms to show our ally-ship.” One of those platforms also airs “Cops,” a decades-old reality show with a troubled history of participating in police censorship and peddling fear of black and brown criminals. If McCarthy means what he says, canceling “Cops” would be a start.

But simply canceling cop shows and movies would be easier than uprooting the assumptions at the heart of the problem.

Say writers made a commitment not to exaggerate the performance of police. Audiences would have to be retrained to watch, for example, a version of “Special Victims Unit” where the characters cleared only 33.4 percent of rape cases, or to accept that in almost 40 percent of murders and manslaughters, no suspect is arrested. If storytelling focused on less-dramatic but more-common crimes such as burglary and motor-vehicle theft, the stakes would shrink — along with the case-clearance rate.

In addition to revealing the world as it is, art has the power to show us the world as it can be. But when reform doesn’t seem like a real possibility, even modest optimism risks souring into mockery.

The closest thing to a reformist police show right now is “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” a sitcom that alternates explorations of the policies and identity politics of the New York Police Department with fantastic gags and one-liners.

Series co-creator Dan Goor told me in 2016 that he hoped that the show was “Modeling what a good police-community interaction would be like.” I’ve never doubted his care in pursuing that ideal. This week, Goor and the cast donated $100,000 to the National Bail Fund Network and announced that they “condemn the murder of George Floyd and support the many people who are protesting police brutality nationally.”

Still, as Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk put it this week, the show can’t escape what it is: Neither the show’s good intentions and genuine good work nor “its silliness … change the way it prioritizes police perspectives over anyone else’s,” VanArendonk wrote.

One way forward might be to emphasize the dialogues, and sometimes fierce struggles, that take place within police departments. “The Shield,” which aired on FX from 2002 to 2008, follows the reign and eventual downfall of corrupt Detective Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) and his Strike Team, based on the division at the center of the real-life Rampart scandal in Los Angeles. In the finale, Claudette Wyms (CCH Pounder), Mackey’s longtime colleague and a truly decent officer, wins a small victory. Mackey, in exchange for his cooperation in an investigation against the surviving members of his team, is not prosecuted for his crimes, but he is required to spend three years in a deadening desk job at Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

It takes seven seasons to even achieve that much on “The Shield.” It’s been almost six years since Michael Brown was shot and killed by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo., and no one can be blamed for feeling like national reform has moved at a similarly petty pace. If the entertainment industry truly believes change can no longer wait, it should start with its own storytelling.

Rosenberg’s anti-police idiocy prompted these comments:

  • While we’re at it let’s burn books and send those who disagree with so called progressives to re-education camps.
  • Great “article “; please tell us which books at the library we should burn.
  • Perhaps we should also get rid of televised sports? Grown men and women beating each other up for money like 21st century gladiators? The owner class throwing money at the entertainers like…yeah, you get it. Somehow I doubt you’d get a lot of advertisers buying time on “ESPN’s Wide World of Poetry”.
  • Ridiculous.  People don’t break out into song to explain their feelings.  Cancel Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist.  Keeping up with the Kardashians?  Only the 1% lives like that.  Not realistic.  Cancel it.  Brooklyn 99?  Please.  Cancel it.  Don’t even get me started on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Bottom line?  The common folk can’t distinguish between fantasy and reality.  Our betters need to protect us from it.  Thank God Alyssa Rosenberg is here to lead us out of the morass.
  • Let’s assume I agree with the writer (which I do not). How would one address the nearly 250,000 a year malpractice deaths ? Or alchohol related deaths ? Cancel any show that has booze or doctors saving lives ? Maybe make a show called “Law and Order: Malpractice” or “Law and Order: SJW”, oh wait SVU is already too political. Fact is, television and movies and video games are ENTERTAINMENT. They aren’t there to provide life lessons, ideology or political commentary. They are an escape from real life, which is horrifying enough. Thankfully, neither the writer or anyone commenting here will change the way hollywood does things. It’s about the money… 
  • Yes stop all tv and movies you don’t like now. They brainwash everyone who can’t reason or think for themselves. Right. In my experience intelligent people don’t have a view of real world reality primarily from fictional tv shows or movies. Tv and movies are by design full of intentional drama, caricatures, intentional exaggerations and beyond the pale provocation.  Sometimes they hit the mark and do reflect the life experience of many, but much is exaggerated farce. Thinking people know “reality” to the degree they can from life experience and all the ways we can educate ourselves from many sources. Only unthinking people get their view of reality primarily from fiction. Censorship per the thought police is not the way. Education through life experience, self effort and self reflection is. Most people know that.
  • Sure.  Censorship is always a good idea in a free country.  The Supreme Court has already opined on this matter.  Read about it.
  • Plato uses the same logic in the Republic when he demands that the poets be banished. Is entertainment properly understood propaganda for the masses? How do people get paid to write this stuff?

The last comment is the question of the day.


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