On TV, 'civil servant' means 'bumbling loser'

tshoop@govexec.com

If you think the image of government employees on television shows just keeps getting worse, you're right, according to a new study.

After analyzing more than 1,200 episodes of prime-time series from the 1950s to the 1990s, researchers at the Center for Media and Public Affairs found that every major group of civilian public-sector employees is portrayed more negatively today than in the past.

"Television takes public officials and civil servants and turns them into politicians and bureaucrats who serve their own interests or special interests rather than the public interest," the study concluded. "Government institutions are shown in an even worse light than the individuals who staff them."

The results of the study were presented Tuesday by the Partnership for Trust in Government, a project of the Ford Foundation and the Council for Excellence in Government. The partnership also released the results of a survey showing that 55 percent of Americans believe that public servants are portrayed accurately on prime time entertainment television.

Even groups of public officials that tend to be portrayed positively on TV are less likely to play the part of heroes today, the study found. The ratio of positive to negative portrayals of police officers declined from 5 to 1 in previous decades to 2 to 1 in the 1990s. For teachers, the ratio declined from 4 to 1 to 2 to 1. Public officials have replaced business people as TV's least likeable occupational group.

The downturn in the government's image dates back to about 1975, the study concluded, and negative portrayals have dramatically increased in the 1990s. The researchers couldn't find a single show in the past decade that made the point that public officials serve the public interest.

"Once upon a time, we actually had TV characters in government who did good things," said S. Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. The title character of the 1970s sitcom "Benson," he noted, started as a butler to a state governor, but worked his way up to become state budget director and eventually ran for governor himself.

Now the intrepid investigators of "The X-Files" investigate massive conspiracies involving multiple federal agencies, "Seinfeld" mocks postal workers and "The Simpsons" routinely portrays local officials as conniving and corrupt.

"TV doesn't have much to say about government, but most of what it has to say is bad," said Lichter.

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