Official Stories: Media Coverage of American Crime Policy

Article excerpt

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. …