That's Entertainment

When millions of Americans lined up at theaters this summer to see the long-awaited debut of "Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace," they got what they came for: a swashbuckling sci-fi adventure with stunning visual effects and a dash of mystical philosophy. But they also got something they probably didn't expect: a little standard-issue Hollywood bureaucrat-bashing.

That's right: While the mysterious Sith Lords who tap the dark side of the Force are the root of all evil in "The Phantom Menace," they are abetted by a group of feckless bureaucrats in the service of the Republic who dither endlessly instead of taking decisive action to help the peace-loving people of the planet Naboo.

Of course, there's nothing really surprising about "Star Wars" using civil servants as bad guys-it's hard to find a movie that doesn't these days. Government employees are fond of complaining about the knocks they take in the news media, but those are nothing compared to their treatment in the movies and on TV.

In fact, academic researchers have demonstrated that the portrayal of government officials in the entertainment media is going from bad to worse.

Earlier this year, after analyzing more than 1,200 episodes of prime-time television series from the 1950s to the 1990s, researchers at the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington reported 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."

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.

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.

To make matters worse, it's clear that Americans don't view the bumbling or evil bureaucrats they see on TV as mere fictional creations. When the Partnership for Trust in Government-a project of the Ford Foundation and the Council for Excellence in Government-presented the findings of the Center for Media and Public Affairs study, it also released the results of a survey showing that 55 percent of Americans believe public servants are portrayed accurately on TV.

"Once upon a time, we actually had TV characters in government who did good things," says S. Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. The title character of the 1970s sitcom "Benson," he notes, 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, "Seinfeld" mocks postal workers, "The Simpsons" routinely portrays local officials as conniving and corrupt, and in the "The X-Files" the federal government itself is involved in a massive conspiracy to facilitate an alien takeover of Earth.

"I grew up during the era of Watergate," says "X-Files" creator Chris Carter in the introduction to a videotape version of one of the show's episodes. "I distrust any institution that exercises power. Government is an all-purpose bad guy. . . . The government may indeed not be working in our best interests."

Geoff and Julie Peterson, a husband-and-wife team at Southwestern Oklahoma State University, include that quote from Carter in a research paper analyzing the portrayal of government officials on TV shows. "We see a growth in the number of television programs, books and motion pictures that provide inaccurate and often hypercritical portrayals of government and government authority," the Petersons found.

The Petersons divide shows featuring government officials into five categories:

  • Those that portray government authority as a force for good (mostly classic cop shows such as "Dragnet" and "Adam-12").
  • Those that show officials as corrupt, incompetent or both ("Dukes of Hazzard").
  • Those in which authorities pursue the right person for the wrong reasons ("The Fugitive").
  • Those in which government commits or condones illegal acts, even if they are in the public interest ("Mission: Impossible").
  • Those in which government itself is the bad guy ("The X-Files" and the copycat conspiracy shows it has spawned).

In an age of political correctness, it's clear that government is about the only institution left that Hollywood can malign with impunity. "Critics of the mass media spend significant time attacking it for what the critics consider to be frequently inaccurate portrayals of African-Americans, Asians, Hispanics, women, big business and almost every other identifiable group," the Petersons write. "Yet one 'group' that is oft-maligned yet undefended is government."

Tom Shoop is executive editor of Government
Executive.

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