Fear and Loathing

Cheap to produce and popular among audiences, reality TV shows like
Cops and America’s Most Wanted exploded in the 1980s.
But while they present themselves as informative and even helpful,
critics say the shows promote racial stereotypes and celebrate
police efforts to hustle the disenfranchised off to jail.

As Robin Anderson argues in
Alternative Press
(Summer 1995), reality shows advance a law-and-order
ideology by presenting crime outside of a larger economic and
political context. Blacks, Latinos, and inner-city residents are
routinely depicted as criminals, while themes of prevention,
education and the elimination of poverty — not to mention white
collar crime — are ignored. The brutal message, says Anderson, is
that aggressive behavior by cops toward suspects is necessary to
protect law-abiding (white) citizens from dangerous minorities.

While COPS provides viewers with the vicarious thrill of
watching their tax dollars in action, AMERICA’S MOST WANTED drags
the police state through the tube and into the living room by
inviting viewers to dial the FBI with tips about criminals on the
lam. According to Anna Williams in Camera Obscura (Vol. 31)
the show reinforces white suburban fear by focusing on violent
attacks against white heterosexual women, even though domestic
abuse within the home is far more prevalent. Hate crimes, including
racist attacks on people of color and gay bashing, have no place on
the show.

As Mark Jurkowitz reports in
(Summer 1994), serious crime is not skyrocketing in
this country, but one would be hard pressed to reach that
conclusion after viewing a night’s worth of reality TV. But given
that in our media culture perception can be everything, it’s safe
to say that the social cost of shows like COPS and AMERICA’S MOST
WANTED is what media scholar George Gerbner calls the mean-world
syndrome, or a general feeling of insecurity and dependence which
leads to a demand for protection and punishment. No wonder public
concern about crime is on the rise. It’s just too bad that the
shows about it don’t accurately portray that facts about how safe
we really might be.

Original to Utne Reader Online, September

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