No More Perry Mason: TV Crime Shows Arrest Civil Liberties, "People Want Vengeance," Says New Book by UB Media Critic

"Law and Justice as Seen on TV" chronicles evolution of TV cops, criminals and lawyers

Release Date: February 4, 2004 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- In TV's portrayal of law and justice, civil liberties have become public enemy No. 1, according to a new book by a nationally known media critic at the University at Buffalo.

"Law and Justice as Seen on TV" (New York University Press), written by Elayne Rapping, UB professor of media study and women's studies, examines the social and political impact of TV law and crime shows over the past 50 years -- from depictions of saintly public defenders to modern portrayals of tough-on-crime, heroic prosecutors.

Crime, criminals and terrorists, according to Rapping, are being bunched together on TV as the enemy against whom Americans can most passionately unite at a time when fear, alienation and social fragmentation are increasingly serious threats to the national spirit.

Indeed, says Rapping, some television programming strongly implies that those who seriously threaten our security deserve no rights or liberties and need only to be stopped in their tracks, violently, by all-American heroes.

"Television has taken on the more serious task of convincing us that the extension of government and judicial powers, at the expense of civil liberties, is necessary if we are to save ourselves from the terrifying creatures pushing at our gates or already hiding inside our porous borders," adds Rapping, who has studied the media, and television in particular, for 30 years.

The need for dramatic conflict both in news and entertainment -- the "them vs. us" theme -- remains constant and dominant, Rapping contends. In the 1950s, the "them" was Communism. Later it became the "War on Crime." Today, "them" has become "The War on Terror."

Rapping's book weaves together the various strands -- media history and analysis, legal history and policy, and the national leaning toward the political right in the past decades -- that not only started the trend, but have kept it growing and thriving.

"We are living in an age when people are more and more fearful of crime, and we are seeing harsher penalties for criminals," says Rapping. "People want vengeance, not rehabilitation."

While law and crime stories have aired for as long as television has existed as a medium, Rapping says the focus of those shows has done an about-face from the days of Perry Mason, who never had a client who wasn't falsely accused and never lost a case to the sleazy district attorney who always opposed him.

Rather, today's television prosecutors are tough on crime, and public defenders are, at best, morally questionable in their efforts to help criminals beat the charges against them, guilty-until-proven-innocent be damned.

The idea for her book was born, Rapping says, when her son, a lawyer, became a public defender.

"People have a very negative view of defense attorneys, and public defenders in particular," she says. "Because of my interest in television and culture, I started watching all these law shows, and realized that the representation of defense attorneys is very negative."

Her interest piqued, she began researching the history of law programs on television.

"From 1948 to 1976, there were many, many law shows, and they all were about defending the underdog," Rapping said. "What has happened in our society that has made defense attorneys so maligned?

"I felt a responsibility to write this book because, through my son, I was privy to a whole different world, and a lot of the stories he's told me are the opposite of what you see on television."

In fact, most television lawyers would be disbarred if they were practicing in a real court. Society's interest in law and crime stories has made the world appear to be a very dangerous place. "But crime actually is going down, despite what people think," Rapping says.

The problem, she explains, is that "as a culture, television has become our main source of information, and many people get all of their information from television. And most people do, in fact, believe what they see on television.

For example, most people think that being a police officer is the most dangerous job in the world, when, in fact, police officers' jobs rank ninth. The most dangerous job in the world is construction work on scaffolds.

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