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Popular Culture

"accuracy" Of Popular Representations

Another strand of research on popular culture analyzes the treatment of crime and criminal justice on television, in film, and in political campaigns to assess its informational content, in particular to determine whether the images presented there adequately and accurately portray the realities of crime and justice in the United States (Sasson). Not surprisingly, most such studies note gaps between the accounts provided in the mass media and the "facts." As Friedman notes, "popular culture, as reflected in the media, is not, and cannot be taken as, an accurate mirror of the actual state of living law . . . Cop shows aim for entertainment, excitement; they are not documentaries . . . Crime shows . . . over-represent violent crimes; shoplifting is no great audience-holder, but murder is" (1989, p. 1588; also Graber).

This same concern for the accuracy of portraits of crime has been influential in studies of the treatment of crime in political campaigns. One famous example of the "manipulation" of images of crime for political purposes is provided by George Bush's use of the controversial "Willie Horton" TV ads in the presidential campaign of 1988. These ads created a narrative nightmare of escape from punishment that resonated with public fears of criminal violence. The Horton narrative did so by making a black man who senselessly brutalized a white couple the symbolic representation of Michael Dukakis's alleged criminal justice policy failure. This narrative has provided the bedrock for both political rhetoric and the consciousness of crime and punishment ever since.

The Horton advertisements blamed Dukakis for the occurrence of senseless, brutal crimes because of his alleged policy of letting serious violent offenders back into society far too soon. The first ad showed a revolving door with running text warning that 268 convicts escaped while on furlough and a voice-over stating that many leave prison early to commit crime again. The second ad provided emotional testimony about Dukakis's record of failed furloughs and vetoes of capital punishment.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson has demonstrated the substantial effect of these ads on the public's consciousness of crime and punishment. She describes, for example, how a nine-member Dallas focus group that favored Dukakis by five to four early in the campaign shifted support to Bush by a seven-to-two margin shortly after the airing of the Horton ads. Analyzing this change Jamieson notes that "the cues in the media have triggered a broad chain of associations" (p. 35). She observes that the Horton narrative—"murderer released to murder again"—had a powerful resonance with the public's fear of violent crime and desire for a commonsense explanation for why it occurs. In Jamieson's words, the Horton ad "completes in a satisfying manner a narrative that is already cast with a menacing murderer in a mug shot; anguished, outraged victims; and an unrepentant, soft-on-crime liberal" (p. 36).

The captivating character of the Horton narrative was evident in another aspect of public response. In particular, over time, focus group members became resistant to evidence that might debunk the accusations against Dukakis. Despite statistics documenting the overall success of the Massachusetts furlough program, as well as statistics from the federal government showing higher rates of early release and recidivism in California under Governor Ronald Reagan, one group member was provoked to respond, "You can't change my mind with all of that. . . ." Another focus group member dismissed statistical evidence: "We should ship all our criminals to the college liberals in College Station . . . or Austin. Crime's not statistics, honey" (Jamieson, pp. 31–32).

Jamieson blames the media as a willing, sometimes eager, accomplice in creating distorted perceptions. The media, she suggests, did little to disabuse the public of the misimpression that Dukakis promoted an irresponsible and failed policy of early release, or to get the details or context of the Horton story across. However, to the extent that the Horton ads hit home, it may have been because they tapped into, rather than created, the prevailing cultural common-sense. As Ericson notes, the relationship between the media and the public involves a "process of discursive struggle and negotiation" (p. 237).

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawPopular Culture - Criminal Justice As "spectacle", Critique Of Criminal Justice, "accuracy" Of Popular Representations, Impact Of Popular Culture