No more Mr. Public Nice Guys

Survey: On TV programs, politicians and public servants don't get any respect.

May 17, 1999|By Bob Dart | Bob Dart,COX NEWS SERVICE

In the TV version of America, Newman of "Seinfeld" mostly doesn't deliver the mail. Marge Simpson's chain-smoking sisters, Selma and Patty Bouvier, are uncaring clerks at the Department of Motor Vehicles in Springfield. New York Mayor Randall Winston bungles through every episode of "Spin City." And a social worker on "The X-Files" turns out to be the devil in disguise.

"In the 1990s, public officials have the worst image of any major occupational group on television, and civil servants aren't far ahead of them," concluded a recent report by the Center for Media and Public Affairs.

After examining network prime-time TV series aired from 1955 to 1998, the nonpartisan research organization found that depictions of elected officials and government workers have grown increasingly negative over the past four decades.

Teachers and police officers have generally been portrayed more favorably.

"From its earliest days, television has split its vote on government employees," the report said. "Prime time has usually given thumbs up to law enforcement officials and public school teachers, thumbs down to public officials and office seekers, and a dismissive wave of the hand to civil servants."

The images have turned darker as public trust in government has steadily eroded.

Most TV viewers -- 55 percent -- believe that government officials and public servants are accurately portrayed on prime-time entertainment programs, according to a poll by Yankelovich Partners. Among younger viewers between the ages of 18 and 34, the proportion rises to two out of three.

"By and large, the viewing public is buying into these negative stereotypes," said Patricia McGinnis, president of the Council for Excellence in Government, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization of private-sector leaders who have served in government.

The council, which seeks to improve both the performance and image of government, sponsored both the TV study and the public opinion poll.

To find out how entertainment TV portrays government, researchers examined 1,234 series episodes and 9,588 characters appearing on the air from 1955 through 1998. On these shows, 2,664 characters -- 28 percent -- were civilian public employees.

From "Our Miss Brooks" to "Welcome Back Kotter" to the short-lived "Dangerous Minds," programs have usually portrayed teachers favorably, the study found. Not so principals. From the blustery Osgood Conklin of "Our Miss Brooks" to the hapless Seymour Skinner of "The Simpsons" to the scheming Principal Snyder of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," principals have been buffoons or worse.

Politicians and elected officials have never fared particularly well on TV, but the portrayals have grown harsher over the years.

In past decades there have been a few competent and honest public officials -- Fess Parker as a homespun senator in the TV version of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," the problem-solving butler who evolved into a problem-solving lieutenant governor in "Benson."

But from Boss Hogg on the "Dukes of Hazzard" to Sen. Strobe Smithers on "Hearts Afire" to Mayor Winston of "Spin City," elected officials have more often been shown as scatterbrained or greedy, or both.

Pub Date: 5/17/99

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