The Spin Cycle

Article excerpt

Prime-time TV has given a far more positive spin on the bedrock of American government - police, teachers, elected officials and civil servants - in the past two years, compared with the previous six years, according to a new study.

In a study of 161 episodes of programs during the 1999 and 2000 network-TV seasons, overwhelmingly negative portrayals of government workers turned positive over a short time period, according to the Partnership for Trust in Government, a 4-year-old coalition that "works to improve and sustain" the public image of government.

"We've seen a complete flip," Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, said about the survey, released yesterday. "The glass has turned from half-empty to half-full."

The popular NBC show "The West Wing" contributed to the more positive portrayal of government employees. Inspired and advised by the Clinton White House, the show debuted in 1999 and stars Martin Sheen as heroic liberal President Josiah Bartlet.

The past two TV seasons have depicted the government working constructively in the public interest, whereas in the mid-1990s, shows such as Fox's "The X-Files" characterized the government as riddled with conspiracy.

The study, the sequel to an earlier assessment of network TV from 1992 to 1998, sampled 1,658 characters on the four major broadcast-television networks: ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC.

Earlier in the 1990s, three out of four shows portrayed politics as corrupt, cynical or unrepresentative, the survey said. But in the past two years, that dire picture has been completely reversed, as the newest political TV series now portray elected officials as being effective public servants in what organizers call the "West Wing ripple."

"NYPD Blue," "Law & Order" and "Third Watch" were among the shows cited for portraying law enforcement positively, roughly doubling their past scores. Although the previous study showed 58 percent of shows dealing with the justice system "concluded that the system was failing citizens," dialogue and plot lines are currently much more supportive of the system's ability to mete out justice.

Once rated dead-last in TV portrayals, politicians rose to 12th place among most positively portrayed occupations in the most recent survey, ahead of business characters and teachers, a leap directly fueled by the presence of "The West Wing."

Teachers held the least positive image of all groups surveyed, a noticeable switch from favorable ratings chalked up earlier in the 1990s, when teachers were the third-highest-rated occupational group.

The negative image of teachers reflected the impact of Fox's "Boston Public," a series with numerous roles for teachers. The show features a rather unflattering portrayal of public-school teachers, and affected the results specifically through instances of racism, grading bias, and sexual indiscretion between teachers and students.

"Boston Public" has, however, revived "television's long-standing device of using the schoolhouse as an ongoing form to explore complex social issues and conflict," the report said. …