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Official stories: media coverage of American crime policy.

Crime, it seems, will always be with us. A dozen years ago, Ronald Reagan launched new, "get tough" policies on crime which unleashed police departments across the nation. These policies were rationalized in the name of crime victims; more law and order--a tougher official stance--would protect victims and end the scourge of crime. Seven years later, George Bush defeated Michael Dukakis after painting him as soft on crime" with his notorious Willie Horton ads. During the Bush administration, a federal crime bill was enacted, further escalating our violent response to crime.

Almost four years after Bush's election, Los Angeles exploded in riots--the result of years of official neglect toward the social victims of American culture. The riots were sparked by yet another incident in a long pattern of police brutality, itself a product of the American government's promotion of official violence. Rather than convict the offending officers (whose videotaped beatings so conclusively proved their guilt), the Simi Valley jury instead saw in Rodney King their worst fears: Withe Horton redux, another black man terrorizing white cops and white communities. As the city erupted, George Bush solemnly deplored the violence he had helped incite to win an election.

The "decade of the crime victim," launched by Ronald Reagan's 1981 presidential task force and continued by the Bush administration, produced more victims than ever--more crime, more fear of crime, more racism and sexism, more desperation. Despite all the promises of the last dozen years, Americans are still the victims of crime in unprecedented numbers, and further from any real solutions than ever before.

In the face of each succeeding crime wave, we get the same old answers, from Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives alike. There's only one way to confront it: with force. We need more police, greater firepower, and harsher punishments, even though we already lead most nations in exercising this kind of force. Conservative Republicans like Reagan and Bush are not the only ones supporting get-tough strategies against crime. In 1991, liberal Democrat Joseph Biden successfully | sponsored a Senate crime bill; Biden proudly announced that it was the "toughest ever." The bill provided no new strategies; instead, it merely intensified what had already been tried and shown to fail: building more prisons, curbing defendants' rights, stiffening penalties, and so on. Yet despite such draconian measures, crime rates continue to rise, and the fear of crime has reached staggering levels. Nor does the Clinton administration's crime bill, recently passed by the U.S. Senate, offer any fundamental changes; instead, it will put hundreds of thousands of new police officers on the street and may even extend the death penalty to 50 new crimes.

Is this truly the best we can do?

Media Amnesia and Crime

The press corps is like a pool of stenographers with


--I. F. Stone

Read Time and understand.

--TV commercial for Time magazine Over the years, U.S. crime policy has remained remarkably consistent, with get-tough strategies used to fight periodic "crime wars." Just as consistently, these strategies have failed. Yet policymakers continue to support them, shunning the systemic changes needed to undo the adverse social conditions which generate most crime and most victimization. These policy, makers are understandably reluctant to admit the historic failure of US. crime policy, for which they are in no small part responsible.

How can they perform this sleight-of-hand? As with most public policy, Americans learn about government crime policy largely through the media. The press provides our window on public problems, on the government's strategies to solve them, and on how well those strategies succeed (or fail). If Americans were to read the criminological literature, the failure of our crime policy would be clear enough. Since most of us don't have the time or the inclination for such study, we rely upon the mass media to do it for us.

Yet, with few exceptions, the media have uncritically reproduced official, conservative, "law-and-order" perspectives with little fundamental analysis of their success or failure. They have also repeatedly covered and promoted "crime wars" and "drug wars" which inevitably fail but which are periodically resuscitated (with the media's help) as if these wars had never been fought -- and lost -- before. The media fail to hold policymakers responsible for strategies which predictably don't work. Indeed, they help make the problem worse; the media's amnesia, unwitting or not, encourages people to support policies which actually promote the growth of crime.

One telling example of this is the coverage devoted to crime policy by the three major newsweeklies--Time, Newsweek, and US. News and World Report. When they are not getting their news from network television, millions of Americans rely upon these magazines for information about their world. To determine just what kind of information about crime and society Americans have received from the newsweeklies, I examined every general crime story appearing in Time, Newsweek, and US. News and World Report from 1956 to 1991. The result of this study is a comprehensive picture of crime in America, as well as the government's policies to address it. This picture has much to tell us--albeit in ways the newsweeklies didn't intend.

Defining Crime

The bias of the headlines, the systematic one-sidedness

of the reporting and the commentaries, the catchwords

and slogans instead of argument. No serious appeal to

reason. Instead a systematic effort to instill conditioned

reflexes in the minds of the voters--and for the rest,

crime, divorce, anecdotes, twaddle, anything to keep

them distracted, anything to keep them from thinking.

--Aldous Huxley

First, the newsweeklies faithfully reproduced government definitions of crime, despite abundant evidence that officials define crime discriminatorily: focusing primarily on lower, and working-class behavior, and excluding harms (such as corporate wrongdoing) which are far more costly, both in lives and in property lost or damaged. Thus, the newsweeklies helped to promote--and also legitimize--the official definition of the crime problem, its seriousness, and its cure.

This bias produces some insidious distortions. Without a crime, there can be, officially, no victimization. Only those behaviors defined as crime are eligible to be treated as victimizations; and among those victimizations, only those pursued seriously by law enforcement get their due attention. Thus, we are obsessed with drunk drivers, even though far more accidents are caused by safety defects and shoddily engineered automobiles; and we are obsessed with child abductions (though quite rare), while slighting the immensely larger problem of child abuse. Because the media prefer not to question official crime categories, many genuine victims and victimizations are ignored--cast out of the public's consciousness and out of the realm of public assistance.

Even when the newsweeklies covered white-collar crime (as the endless scandals of the late 1980s made it almost impossible to avoid), the biases remained. White-collar crime was never portrayed as a structural or systemic problem but, rather, only as a matter of deviant individuals like Michael Milken or Charles Keating. And while the newsweeklies advocated tougher punishments for street criminals, for corporate criminals just getting caught was punishment enough. Newsweek, for example, repeatedly argued that drug dealers and other common criminals must be "mercifully destroyed" yet claimed that, for white-collar criminals, the "harshest penalty is the one they inflict on themselves"--and this despite the fact that white-collar and corporate criminals produce far more economic and human damage. In fact, unlike their coverage of crime in the streets, the newsweeklies' coverage of crime in the suites was bland and restrained: no pictures of tearful victims, no outraged editorials, no fanciful theories about how Milken's or Keating's laziness or bad upbringing caused his criminal career.

Government and law-enforcement officials also criminalize behavior which arguably produces no direct harm to others. For example, enforcement of "vice" laws drains valuable resources (about one-half in most urban police departments) that could be put to better use on crimes producing real victimization. These priorities do a disservice to actual crime victims and to the community, and the media only compound this disservice by legitimizing rather than questioning them.

Aside from victimless crimes, the newsweeklies, like the government, conceptualize crime as one-on-one offenses committed by strangers, even though most violent crime--and much property crime--actually occurs between people who know each other. Within that realm, the newsweeklies stress the exceptional over the commonplace: sensational but unusual crimes get far more attention, even though this distorts the nature of most crime that occurs. Alternatively, crimes like mass murder or serial killing get extensive play by the newsweeklies even as they miss the real story: that is, that most mass murderers and serial killers are men, and most of their victims are women. Finally, the media typically treat crime in simplistic, Manichaean terms: victims are innocent good people and offenders are guilty bad people, even though many offenders have themselves been victimized--by specific crimes such as child abuse, and often by the unremittingly harsh environment of their past.

Who gets defined as a criminal relies, in the first place, upon how we have bounded our understanding of crime. We consider as criminals only those kinds of people committing the behaviors officially defined as crime." But within this already biased sample, do we really consider as criminals all the people who commit these acts or only some of them? Not surprisingly, the newsweeklies conceptualize as criminals only a portion of those committing official crimes. In this, they take their cues from law enforcement, reporting only on those people who police departments define and pursue as criminals, whether or not they are responsible for most of the official crime. Nonwhite minorities, for example, are the ones arrested in most drug busts, even though whites consume more illegal narcotics. Drug laws and crackdowns have historically followed the changing drug-use patterns of minorities, not the seriousness of the drugs themselves; criminality is largely manufactured for certain groups. The newsweeklies also periodically (and condescendingly) lament the high level of "black-on-black" crime while ignoring not only its causes but also the higher level of "white-on-white" crime. In short, the media do practically nothing to second-guess or correct our conventional (and inaccurate) conceptions of crime and criminality.

Who do we find portrayed as criminals in the newsweeklies over the last 35 years? Well, it's changed some: first it was Negroes, then it was blacks, and now it's African-Americans. Blacks and other nonwhite minorities were described and pictured in the newsweeklies' crime coverage most frequently, even though these groups do not commit the majority of crimes (even as selectively defined). In contrast, the newsweeklies described and pictured victims mostly as white people. Consider the sensational coverage of the Carol Stuart murder case, as the media cheered on the Boston police's "search and destroy" mission to hunt down the allegedly black assailant. Never mind that she was actually murdered by her husband Charles Stuart, a far more likely suspect, who made up the story of the black assailant; never mind, too, that the real story here was yet another female victim of domestic violence.

What emerges from my study of the newsweeklies is a pattern of discrimination in which criminals are conceptualized as black people and crime as the violence they do to whites. Yet this didn't prevent Newsweek, for example, from running a post--L.A. riot story which claimed to discover that the public, the media, and politicians have all been engaged in a "conspiracy of silence" by refusing to admit they associate crime with blacks. Given the way the media have regularly contributed to and reinforced such racist notions of crime, is it any wonder there are such terrible race problems in our country?

Who confronts this scourge of alleged African-American crime? Accurately enough, the newsweeklies show white police officers on the front lines. But do they lament the suspicious racial confrontation this represents? Do they question what pits black offenders not only against white victims but also white cops? No--instead they lament the institutional constraints that are imposed on the police. Police officers them, selves are frequently portrayed as victims--first of government bureaucrats who never give them enough resources (even though law-enforcement appropriations actually keep rising), then of liberal courts which hobble the police and allow civil-rights "technicalities" to create a "revolving door" in the system. This message gets transmitted into the public consciousness despite abundant evidence to the contrary: for example, a General Accounting Office study showed that less than 2 percent of the convictions in criminal cases in the 1970s and early 1980s were reversed because of civil-rights violations.

Yet the media routinely omit other perspectives on the relationship between the police and crime. For example, despite persistent cases of police brutality and misconduct over the years, almost no reports claim that the police cause victimization. Even the videotaped beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police produced only mild (and safe) rebukes from the newsweeklies at the time. Rather than examine King's beating as a symptom of a systemic problem, the media focused instead on deviant officers and the frustrations of police work: if good cops "occasionally" get out of hand, it's just the inevitable result of the losing battle they're being asked to fight.

Experts Right and Wrong

In ways which journalists themselves perceive only dimly

or not at all, they are bought, or compromised, or manipulated

into confirming the official lies: not the little ones,

which they delight in exposing, but the big ones, which

they do not normally think of as lies at all, and which

they cannot distinguish from the truth.

--Andrew Kopkind

According to the newsweeklies, crime is caused by evil people, often abetted by misguided do-gooders. Bad characters inevitably exist; some people are naturally evil or are led down the path of wrongdoing by permissiveness and bad upbringing. Thus, we'll always have criminals; all we can do is to remain vigilant against them. But beware! We cannot leave this task to the "bleeding-heart liberals" in our society. According to the newsweeklies, it is these fuzzy-headed do-gooders who subvert the tough measures required to get the job done. Instead of the "revolving door," we need more draconian penalties, including the death penalty (the only language the "savages" and "monsters" among us understand) --not compassion and a concern for human rights.

Yet the newsweeklies never really examine the "causes" or "sources" of crime at all; even when they use such words, they consider (at most) only crime's symptoms. Rather than examining whether something might be wrong with our laws, our society, or our fundamental institutions, the newsweeklies conceptualize crime as an entirely individualized problem: everyone has the opportunity to avoid becoming a criminal. It's your choice-except, of course, for those irretrievably evil people among us who simply must be put away.

To reinforce these ideas, the newsweeklies consulted a variety of law-enforcement "experts." In the last 35 years, they printed dozens of anti-crime speeches and lengthy interviews with people who supposedly have the answers. Yet in my examination of these interviews, I found the experts often unqualified and the expertise routinely dubious. To start with, the ideologies presented were almost unremittingly right-wing. In the more than 85 interviews completed by the newsweeklies over the last 35 years, only one expert--Alan Dershowitz--fell left of the middle of the political spectrum (a man, no less, who's regarded as increasingly conservative himself). Indeed, these interviews hardly revealed anyone we might call even a moderate on crime policy; virtually all the interviews were conducted with people who had strongly conservative (if not reactionary) "law-and-order" views on crime control. Ideology aside, almost all of the experts consulted held government positions, usually in some aspect of law enforcement; only 11 percent weren't working for the government at the time they were interviewed.

What government officials, specifically, do we hear from? We hear the most from various heads of the FBI, led prominently by one interview after another with the ubiquitous J. Edgar Hoover. We hear from a variety of conservative senators, particularly John McClellan, who fueled an entire career based upon get-tough crime policies. We hear from several U.S. attorneys-general, with the notable omission of the only genuine liberals in the last 35 years--Ramsey Clark and Bobby Kennedy. Instead, we read interviews with Richard Klein-deinst, William French Smith, and repeatedly with John Mitchell (before his own imprisonment for violating the law). Somehow, the only presidents having sufficient law-and-order expertise to warrant interviews were Richard Nixon, who resigned from office to avoid impeachment, and Ronald Reagan, who presided over the most criminally indicted administration in U.S. history.

The newsweeklies also interviewed numerous police superintendents and battle-weary police sergeants, various hard-line district attorneys from America's largest and most crime-ridden cities, and a sampling of conservative judges (invariably condemning their own weak-willed colleagues), ranging from local judges like Seattle's William Long to Supreme Court justices like Warren Burger. Interviews were routinely conducted with the heads of various Department of Justice divisions like the Criminal Division and Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, with affiliated agencies such as the Customs Bureau and Civil Aviation Security, and with various drug enforcers like the Drug Enforcement Administration, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, and the State Department's International Narcotics Bureau.

Who counters the overwhelmingly uniform and conservative government perspective provided by these official experts? Those interviewed from outside government included a handful of psychiatrists, lawyers, law professors, sociologists, college presidents, and clergy. Virtually without exception, they echoed instead of challenged the official line. The psychiatrists attributed crime to evil individuals; the sociologists claimed we were too soft on crime; and the clergy decried our society's permissiveness and declining moral fiber.

Yet most of those interviewed by the newsweeklies would be hard-pressed to demonstrate their expertise on the crime problem they were so eager to discuss. Expertise is somehow conferred by virtue of one's political appointment, status in society, or hard-nosed views on the subject, even if that person actually has little or no background in the field. Moreover, the few experts who did possess such qualifications were clearly selected for their willingness to endorse the status quo. The newsweeklies repeatedly interviewed conservative or reactionary criminologists like James Q. Wilson and Fred Inbau, yet criminologists with a liberal, progressive, or humanistic critique to make of current polices, such as William Chambliss and Elliott Currie, are never allotted space in their pages. By suppressing such alternative views, the media reproduce-indeed, embody--the consistently unsuccessful crime policies we've used for most of this century.

Crime Wars As Propaganda

In our country people are rarely imprisoned for their ideas

because we are already imprisoned by our ideas.

--Marcus Garvey

We can see even more glaring examples of old ideas paraded as brilliant new solutions when we examine the newsweeklies' coverage of the "wars" on drugs and crime launched by the Reagan and Bush administrations. With few exceptions, the newsweeklies eagerly embraced these wars, running story after story breathlessly reporting the escapades of our anti-drug warriors--so much so that even the mainstream media eventually began to wonder whether it had overdosed on drug-war coverage. The drug war and crime war were both presented as bold new approaches: since we had never tried declaring war on these problems before, here was a chance to pull out all the stops and finally get them resolved.

Unfortunately, we have launched drug and crime wars before, repeatedly--at least a few in each of the last three decades. And when we examine the newsweeklies' coverage since the 1950s, we discover that they have functioned faithfully as cheerleaders for these policies, reporting each new drug war or crime war as if it hadn't been around for the previous one a few years earlier. As in George Orwell's 1984, inconvenient information gets tossed down the memory hole, to be replaced by official stories. So formulaic has the newsweeklies' coverage become that crime stories are repeatedly recycled; contents and headlines have been almost interchangeable, both within and among the newsweeklies, for more than three decades. (U.S. News and World Report even ran the identical picture of a Los Angeles narcotics arrest twice-10 years apart!) The extraordinary (and willful) duplicity of this coverage has helped conceal the fact that each of these wars has failed, and faded miserably. The media's institutional amnesia robs us of our own history, as well as the ability to learn from past mistakes.

In our repeated wars on drugs and crime, "war" is not merely a strategy, it is a cultural psychology. "Declaring war" is a sign that we take the problem seriously. We are a culture of violent solutions, even if our violence--from the Persian Gulf to our city streets--solves nothing. In fact, we "solve" the violence of crime by committing more violence, however counter, productive--and when random official violence won't suffice, only the organized violence of war will do.

Analyzing our language of "crime prevention" shows how deeply seated our war psychology is. Consider the following words and phrases, repeatedly used in the newsweeklies' coverage: war, arms race, drastic measures, dead zones, boot camp, plague, wimp, feel the noose, slaughter, trenches, battle strategies, up in arms, target, clampdown, taking aim, menace, punishment, smashing, counterforce, scores, battle, battle cry, frontal assault, strikes back, harden hearts, firing line, front lines, attacking, get tough, busting, mission, enemy, crackdown, struggle, dead on arrival, crushing, curse, invasion, shoot, hard-line, all-out attack, cutting, search and destroy, bombs, kills, monsters, meltdown, force, scourge, savages, confrontation, fighting crime, fights back, fighting the war, big guns, striking, stings, enveloping evil, potshots, peril, alert, curb, armed forts, blood, and war at home.

(At the same time, law-enforcement officials and policy, makers have taken steps to coopt the language of peace. For example, the police routinely bear the title of peace officers even as they become progressively more violent.)

Judging just from this language, much less our attendant behavior, what kind of lessons are we teaching about violence? What kind of response are we encouraging? When the media reproduce our warlike language, they reflect the violence of official strategies and behavior; but they also invent and em, bellish that language, searching for new ways to represent the violence upon which we so routinely rely. Given this cultural bombardment, it is not surprising that opinion polls repeatedly show the general public calling for blood--a sham of democracy paraded as "the voice of the people," without any acknowledgement of how that voice is manipulated and shaped by the media's representations of crime policy.

Since, according to the newsweeklies, "the people" are ultimately responsible for preventing crime, these magazines also featured articles on what ordinary citizens have been doing to "fight back." Most of these articles shared a similar narrative strategy. First, the public's heightened fear of crime is stressed (although the question of whether or not the newsweeklies' own coverage artificially enhances that fear is never addressed). Next, citizens are portrayed as being at the "end of their tether," usually disgusted by the criminal-justice system's unwillingness to get tough on criminals. Finally, we learn how citizens have taken matters into their own hands.

How then, according to the newsweeklies, do people take control of the crime problem? Well, one thing they never do is to resort to vigilantism, since that would be going too far--even if the newsweeklies have repeatedly created the environment for just such a response. Instead, citizens adopt various self-protection strategies or buy various security measures, including guard dogs, armed guards, lighting systems, foolproof locks, walkie-talkies, and dozens of other crime-control gadgets. They must also take self-defense classes and learn "avoidance" behavior--that is, learn how to substantially reshape their lives and life-styles to avoid crime. Citizens form or join crime-control organizations such as Crime Stoppers and Neighborhood Watches, and they must systematically monitor judges, police, and other officials to make sure they're being tough enough on criminals. All this the newsweeklies tell us is not only what citizens are doing but what they must do to check crime.

Never mind that vigilantism does routinely emerge from this environment, or that crime-control gadgets are either too expensive or too inefficient (despite creating huge profits for the security industry). Never mind that these strategies do nothing to address and eliminate crime's fundamental sources and ask us instead to adapt to an inevitably criminal society. Never mind that most citizens' organizations are created and run by officials as public-relations gimmicks to supplement their traditionally unsuccessful crime-fighting s trategies. Never mind that Crime Stoppers and Neighborhood Watches have little or no impact on reducing crime, or that we already have the world's toughest criminal-justice system. With the newsweeklies' encouragement, "the people" do fight back--but without the knowledge they need to actually address the problem. Instead, they are merely enlisted as foot, soldiers in the on-going (and endless) official war on crime.

Wars, however--even if we entertain the possibility of "just wars"--are inherently immoral and routinely counterproductive. Declaring "war" on drugs or crime teaches lessons that directly contradict our most cherished values. A peace movement against crime would reflect a significantly different culture--one dedicated to justice and human rights, the absence of which stimulates most crime and violence. A society which takes victimization seriously is best equipped to take crime and crime's victims seriously; such a society would not routinely promote war and then enlist the wounded in a new round of violence. People can and should take back crime control and prevention from an establishment which has historically shown itself unwilling or unable to take crime seriously. People can and must fight back. But to be successful, they must adopt alternative strategies which address crime's actual sources. Successful crime reduction requires a fundamental change in American culture--not merely the minor tinkering of a Bill Clinton but, rather, a substantial reform of our inequitable and unjust political, economic, and social structures. People can launch that change in their own communities--but only through organizations controlled by them, not by officials who have everything to lose from such changes.

In the next issue of The Humanist, I will discuss what a "peace movement" against crime would look like.

Robert Elias is professor of politics and chair of legal studies at the University of San Francisco. He is the author of The Politics of Victimization (Oxford University Press, 1986) and Victims Still: The Political Manipulation of Crime Victims (Sage Publications, 1993), from which this article was adapted.
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Title Annotation:Race, Crime and the Media
Author:Elias, Robert
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Jan 1, 1994
Previous Article:One more prison should do it....
Next Article:No justice, no peace; an interview with Jerome Miller.

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