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On Cop Media

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Alyssa Rosenberg has a very interesting piece noting at how a century of cop films and then television shows has served as propaganda for the fascists running amok in our cities today.

Like many other industries, entertainment companies have issued statements of support for the protests against racism and police brutality now filling America’s streets. But there’s something Hollywood can do to put its money where its social media posts are: immediately halt production on cop shows and movies and rethink the stories it tells about policing in America.

For a century, Hollywood has been collaborating with police departments, telling stories that whitewash police shootings and valorizing an action-hero style of policing over the harder, less dramatic work of building relationships with the communities cops are meant to serve and protect. There’s a reason for that beyond a reactionary streak hiding below the industry’s surface liberalism. Purely from a dramatic perspective, crime makes a story seem consequential, investigating crime generates action, and solving crime provides for a morally and emotionally satisfying conclusion.

The result is an addiction to stories that portray police departments as more effective than they actually are; crime as more prevalent than it actually is; and police use of force as consistently justified. There are always gaps between reality and fiction, but given what policing in America has too often become, Hollywood’s version of it looks less like fantasy and more like complicity.

There’s no question that it would be costly for networks and studios to walk away from the police genre entirely. Canceling Dick Wolf’s “Chicago” franchise of shows would wipe out an entire night of NBC’s prime-time programming; dropping “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and a planned spinoff would cut even further into the lineup.

But the gap between what some companies and executives have promised this week and what they have done in the past cannot be ignored. As reality television critic Andy Dehnart points out, at ViacomCBS, cable networks chief Chris McCarthy pledged “to leverage all of our platforms to show our ally-ship.” One of those platforms also airs “Cops,” a decades-old reality show with a troubled history of participating in police censorship and peddling fear of black and brown criminals. If McCarthy means what he says, canceling “Cops” would be a start.

Cops is an utterly revolting show by all standards. But more broadly, this is a big problem. I don’t know that I’d go all the way here, but the networks and film companies need to consider if their work is serving as a propaganda coverup for a racist and fascist police. Moreover, it’s worth noting how utterly lazy the police procedural has become, especially in modern television, where versions of the same three dramas are on every network (cop show, hospital show, lawyer show). It would be useful just from an aesthetic purpose to force television to change its ways, but also from a moral perspective.

Of course, actually good shows like The Wire that show the police more for what it is would need to be excepted. But SVU and the other crap out there that serves as propaganda for the police forces? Good riddance. And that includes a silly show like Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which I am trying to watch but in which Andy Samberg is so annoying that it is hard anyway. It may not be propaganda for cops, but it surely doesn’t challenge the reinforcement of that narrative, at least that I’ve seen so far.

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