Chapter 4: Civil Liberties


The mass media are obsessed with law and order. Police shows and news about the police abound. The opening voice-over of the Fox television network series Cops intones that the show “is filmed on location with the men and women of law enforcement.” Camera crews accompany police officers through the streets of America’s cities, shooting many hours of real-life video to edit down to half-hour programs showing police catching culprits. The police officers are the only narrators. Series producers say, “The goal is to put you in the passenger seat with them so you can experience what it is like to be a cop.”Quoted in Aaron Doyle, “‘Cops’: Television Policing as Policing Reality,” in Entertaining Crime: Television Reality Programs, ed. Mark Fishman and Gray Cavender (New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1998), 95–116, quote at 101.

Cops’ approach to criminal justice is summarized in its theme music: “Bad boys, bad boys, what’cha gonna do? What’cha gonna do when they come for you?” The outcome is always the same: the “bad boys” (and bad girls) are shown to be criminals deserving to be hauled in. The end of each episode reassures us that the police are working hard to stop crime. Other central concerns of American politics—and specifically the civil liberties of individuals—are submerged. Suspects are seldom informed of their rights, rarely request a lawyer, and are not “presumed innocent until proven guilty.”

Civil liberties do appear in the media. The news media sometimes spotlight police abuses of people’s liberties: for example, in 1991 they repeatedly aired a clip of Los Angeles police officers beating Rodney King violently with their batons—an incident that was caught on videotape by a bystander. A familiar plot in fiction is the plight of the wrongly accused.

Indeed, the media are often stalwart defenders of civil liberties because freedom of the press is so crucial to their own activities. Civil liberties are the rights and freedoms of individuals that the Constitution says government should not infringe on. What these freedoms entail is much disputed in American politics and affects a wide range of policies.


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