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Write a reaction paper based on the first


chapters of the textbook. This reaction paper will be in response or reaction to what you have learned from each chapter. Your reaction paper will be in accordance with APA format, and will summarize

factual information

from each chapter. Your reaction paper will follow the standard format for a reaction paper. Refer to the preparatory section to refer to the general guideline provided for preparing reaction papers. The essay portion of your reaction paper will be from two to three pages, and is due by day 7. (Book information: The Mythology of Crime and Criminal Justice By Victor E. Kappeler; Gary W. Potter)

Reaction Paper Guidelines


To develop the first part of a report, do the following:

Identify the author and title of the work and include in parentheses the publisher and publication date. For magazines, give the date of publication.

Write an informative summary of the material.

Condense the content of the work by highlighting its main points and key supporting points.

Use direct quotations from the work to illustrate important ideas.

Summarize the material so that the reader gets a general sense of all key aspects of the original work.

Do not discuss in

great detail

any single aspect of the work, and do not neglect to mention other equally important points.

Also, keep the summary objective and factual. Do not include in the first part of the paper your personal reaction to the work; your subjective impression will form the basis of the second part of your paper.


To develop the second part of a report, do the following:

Focus on any or all of the following questions. Check with your instructor to see if s/he wants you to emphasize specific points.


is the assigned work related

to ideas and concerns discussed in the course for which you are preparing the paper? For example, what points made in the course textbook, class discussions, or lectures

are treated

more fully in the work?


is the work related

to problems in our present-day world?


is the material related

to your life, experiences, feelings and ideas? For instance, what emotions did the work arouse in you?

Did the work increase your understanding of a particular issue? Did it change your perspective in any way?

Evaluate the merit of the work: the importance of its points, its accuracy, completeness, organization, and so on.

You should also indicate here whether or not you would recommend the work to others, and why.


Here are some important elements to consider as you prepare a report:

Apply the four basic standards of effective writing (unity, support, coherence, and clear, error-free sentences) when writing the report.

Make sure each major paragraph presents and then develops a single main point. For example, in the sample report that follows, the first paragraph summarizes the book, and the three paragraphs that follow detail three separate reactions of the student writer to the book. The student then closes the report with a short concluding paragraph.

Support any general points you make or attitudes you express with specific reasons and details. Statements such as “I agree with many ideas in this article” or “I found the book very interesting” are meaningless without specific evidence that shows why you feel as you do. Look at the sample report closely to see how the main point or topic sentence of each paragraph

is developed

by specific supporting evidence.

Organize your material. Follow the basic plan of organization explained above: a summary of one or more paragraphs, a reaction of two or more paragraphs, and a conclusion. Also, use transitions to make the relationships among ideas in the paper clear.

Edit the paper carefully for errors in grammar, mechanics, punctuation, word use, and spelling.

Cite paraphrased or quoted material from the book or article you are writing about, or from any other works, by using the appropriate documentation style. If you are unsure what documentation style is required or recommended, ask you instructor.

You may use quotations in the summary and reaction parts of the paper, but do not rely on them too much. Use them only to emphasize key idea.

K-P Myth 5E.book Page i Friday, June 16, 2017 1:50 PM
The Mythology
of Crime and
Criminal Justice
Fifth Edition
Victor E. Kappeler
Eastern Kentucky University
Gary W. Potter
Eastern Kentucky University
Long Grove, Illinois
K-P Myth 5E.book Page ii Friday, June 16, 2017 1:50 PM
For information about this book, contact:
Waveland Press, Inc.
4180 IL Route 83, Suite 101
Long Grove, IL 60047-9580
(847) 634-0081
Copyright © 2018, 2005, 2000, 1996, 1993 by Waveland Press, Inc.
10-digit ISBN 1-4786-0260-0
13-digit ISBN 978-1-4786-0260-6
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means without permission in writing from
the publisher.
Printed in the United States of America
K-P Myth 5E.book Page iii Friday, June 16, 2017 1:50 PM
About the Authors
VICTOR E. KAPPELER is Dean and Foundation Professor of the College of
Justice and Safety at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, Kentucky.
He received undergraduate degrees in Police Administration and Juvenile
Corrections as well as a master’s degree in Criminal Justice from Eastern
Kentucky University. His doctoral degree in Criminal Justice is from Sam
Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. Dr. Kappeler has written articles on issues related to police deviance, law, and the militarization of policing published in Social Problems, Justice Quarterly, Policing and Society,
Global Discourse, Sociology of Crime, Law, and Deviance, Humanity and
Society, the American Journal of Criminal Law, the American Journal of
Police, the Journal of Police Science and Administration, Journal of Police Crisis Negotiations, the American Journal of Criminal Justice, Criminal Law Bulletin, and the Journal of Criminal Justice, among others. He is the author of
Critical Issues in Police Civil Liability, 4/E and editor of Police and Society:
Touchstone Readings, 3/E and Police Civil Liability: Supreme Court Cases and
Materials. He is coauthor of Community Policing: A Contemporary Perspective, 7/E; Forces of Deviance: Understanding the Dark Side of Policing, 2/E;
Homeland Security; and Policing in America, 8/E. He coedited Constructing
Crime: Perspectives on Making News and Social Problems, 2/E. Dr. Kappeler
served as editor of Justice Quarterly and was the founding editor of Police
Liability Review and Police Forum. In 2012 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society of Criminology’s Division on Critical
Criminology for “sustained and distinguished scholarship, teaching, and service in the field of critical criminology.”
GARY W. POTTER is Associate Dean and Professor of Criminal Justice in
the College of Justice and Safety at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, Kentucky. He received his doctorate in Community Systems Planning
and Development from The Pennsylvania State University. Dr. Potter is the
author of Criminal Organizations: Vice, Racketeering, and Politics in an
American City, The Porn Merchants, and Wicked Newport: Kentucky’s Sin
City. He has coauthored Drugs in Society, Organized Crime, 6/E and The City
and the Syndicate and coedited Constructing Crime: Perspectives on Making
News and Social Problems, 2/E. He has written articles on issues related to
organized crime published in the American Journal of Police, Corruption and
Reform, the American Journal of Criminal Justice, Deviant Behavior, Criminal Justice History, Police Forum, Criminal Justice Policy Review, Policy Studies Review, and the Journal of Criminal Justice, among others.
K-P Myth 5E.book Page iv Friday, June 16, 2017 1:50 PM
Our book made its way into print through the vision of many people who
directly contributed to the work or who contributed to the authors’ development. Carol and Neil Rowe of Waveland Press either took a risk or just
became tired of reading traditional criminal justice textbooks. We openly
acknowledge their vision and contribution to our work and to the field of
criminal justice. Dr. Karen Miller contributed the chapter on capital punishment. Dr. Mark Blumberg collaborated on the first three editions, and we
gratefully recognize his scholarship and friendship.
One of the demands of “scholarly” writing is to credit the source of information and ideas. We have attempted to meet this demand but have found it
a difficult task since ideas are often the product of past conversations, education, and misplaced readings that tend to fold into one another. We gratefully acknowledge the contributions of the following persons to our
development: Dorothy Bracey, Dennis Longmire, Frank Williams, Victor
Strecher, Peter Kraska, Larry Gaines, Stephen Mastrofski, William Chambliss, Donald Wallace, and Geoffrey Alpert. Writing this book was a collaborative effort—two authors plus the contributions acknowledged above, aided
by all the influences whose origins cannot be clearly delineated.
K-P Myth 5E.book Page v Friday, June 16, 2017 1:50 PM
Preface xiii
1 The Social Construction of Crime Myths
The Functions of Crime Myths
Cataloging Social Actors 2
Reinforcing Existing Social Arrangements
Reconciling Contradictions 4
Creating Collective Belief Systems 5
Powerful Mythmakers
Media as Mythmaker 6
The Concentration of Media Power 7
Ownership and Control of the Media 8
How the Media Make Crime 9
Government as Mythmaker 13
The Power Elite as Mythmakers 19
Merging Mythmakers 23
Creating Crime Myths
Exaggeration 30
Media Images 31
Statistics 33
Characterizations of Crime Myths 33
Themes of Difference 34
Themes of Innocence 35
Themes of Threatened Values
Selection and Dissemination of Myths
Influence of Reporters and Editors 37
Media Themes 38
Public’s Selective Retention 38
Techniques of Myth Construction 38
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2 Crime Waves, Fears, and Social Reality
Fears about Crime and Criminals 41
Facts about Crime and Criminals 43
Uniform Crime Reports 44
UCR Crime Categories Exaggerate Serious Crime
Statistics Result from Social Processes 46
Collateral Effects 48
Unscientific Presentation 48
National Crime Victimization Survey 49
Redesign of NCVS Questionnaire 50
Steady Decrease in Violent and Property Crime
The Reality of Crime
Strangers and Crime 52
Weapons, Injury, and Crime
Race and Crime 53
Kids and Crime 54
Crime Images
The Media 55
The Crime-Industrial Complex
Invisible Crime 61
3 The Myth and Fear of Missing Children
Influences on Public Perception
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children
Linking Missing Children with Sexual Exploitation 66
Grief-Stricken Spokespersons 66
Media Depictions 67
Exploitation Has Many Faces 68
Distorted Definitions 68
Creating Reality through Misleading Statistics 70
The Early Reality behind the Statistics 70
More Reliable Numbers; Same Fearful Interpretation
Partners in Fear 74
Latent Functions of Prevention 76
Creating Crime and Criminals 78
Crime Control Theater 79
Child Protective Services 81
Sex Offender Notification and Registration
Sexting 86
Replacing the Myth
Conclusion 90
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4 Stalkers: Spreading Myth to Common Crime
Constructing the Myth of Stalking 94
Celebrity Cases 94
Media Depictions 95
Links to Violence 96
Officializing the Myth 97
Questionable Statistics 98
Universal Threat 99
No Precise Definition 99
Widening the Net 102
Measuring the Reality of Stalking 104
Consequences of Criminalization 110
Expanding Law Enforcement Powers
Cyberstalking 111
Increasing Punitiveness 112
Impeding Progress 113
5 Organized Crime: The Myth of an Underworld Empire
The Alien Conspiracy Myth
Organized Crime as Flexible Enterprise 120
The Intersection of Upper- and Underworlds 122
The Transnational Organized Crime Myth
It’s the Economy, Stupid! 126
The Businesses of Organized Crime 129
Arms Trafficking 129
Drugs 131
Contraband Smuggling 132
Counterfeiting 135
Cybercrime 136
Human Trafficking and Exploitation 137
Illegal Dumping of Hazardous Wastes 138
Limitless Possibilities 139
Challenges to State Sovereignty 140
State-Organized Crime 141
The Embeddedness of Organized Crime
Controlling Organized Crime 144
The Utility of Organized Crime 148
Conclusion 150
6 Corporate Crime and “Higher Immorality”
White-Collar and Corporate Crime
“Real” Corporate Crime 154
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The Costs of Corporate Crime
Types of Corporate Crime 155
Violent Corporate Crime 157
The Normalcy of Corporate Crime
Enforcement 165
Prosecutions 166
Deferred Prosecution Agreements 167
Settlement with General Motors 168
Double Standards and Constrained Readings of Criminal Law
Regulatory Agencies
Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) 173
Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) 174
Food and Drug Administration (FDA) 176
Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) 177
Regulating Construction Companies 178
Rewarding Repeat Offenders 179
Criminal Prosecutions 180
Environmental Injustice 181
Flint, Michigan 182
Baltimore, Maryland 184
Criminal Acts by Governmental Agencies
Neutralizing Myths 187
Conclusion 190
7 Apocalypse Now: The Lost War on Drugs
Masking the Costs of the Drug War
Myths of Supply Reduction 195
Remove the Source 196
Prevent Entry at the Border 197
Enforce Drug Laws on the Streets
Myths and Consequences
Numbers of Drug Consumers 202
The Myth of Deterrence 203
Addicted to Drug Laws 204
Casualties of the Drug War
Racial Disparities 205
Gender Disparity 206
Law Enforcement Corruption
The Intractable Problem of Drugs
The Origins of Narcotics Control 209
Fears about Heroin 210
The Cocaine and Crack Myths 212
Marijuana Myths 215
Dangers of Legal and Illegal Drug Use
Drugs and Crime 226
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A Just Peace?
Drug Treatment 228
Drug Education 229
Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) 230
Decriminalization and Legalization 231
8 Juvenile Superpredators: The Myths of Killer Kids,
Dangerous Schools, and a Youth Crime Wave
The Goals, the Panic, and the Consequences 236
Transforming the Juvenile Justice System 240
Transfer Laws 240
Sentencing Changes 245
Eroding Confidentiality 247
Processing Juvenile Offenders
Arrests 249
Intake 249
Status Offenses 250
Disposition Hearing 250
Detention and Commitment 251
Disproportionate Minority Contact (DMC)
Gender Disparity 253
Kids for Cash 254
The School-to-Prison Pipeline
Surveillance and Security 256
Entry to the Juvenile Justice System
Racial Disparity 258
Background Checks 258
Victimization at School 258
Criminalizing a Behavioral Problem
Bullied to Death 261
The Dissonance of Shackling and Solitary
Shackling 264
Solitary Confinement
Juveniles as Victims
Poverty 267
Juvenile Victims of Crime 267
Juvenile Victims of Abuse and Neglect 267
Thrownaway Youths Have Capacity for Change
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9 Battered and Blue Crime Fighters:
Myths and Misconceptions of Police Work
Real Police Work
Crime Fighting 272
Deadly Force 274
Dangerous Occupation 279
Domestic Violence Calls 282
Deterring and Solving Crimes
Myths of Police Stress
Personal Adjustment 286
Structural Problem 287
Danger and Stress 288
Perceptions of the Policing Profession
Gender and Ethnic Differences 290
Police Suicide 291
Drug and Alcohol Abuse 293
Marital and Family Systems 294
Police Mortality Rates 295
Living the Crime Fighter Myth
Insiders and Outsiders 296
Police Subculture 296
Police Lying and Solidarity 297
Code of Silence 299
Warrior or Guardian 300
Use of Force 301
Misconduct with Impunity 305
Police Transparency 308
10 Order in the Courts: The Myth of Equal Justice
The Role of Law in Society
Discretion 315
The Reassuring Ideal
The Reality 317
Celebrity Cases
The Media and the Courtroom 318
With Liberty and Justice for All 319
Mythical Aspects of Arrest
Socioeconomic Inequities 321
Racial and Class Inequities 322
Mythical Aspects of Trial
Homogenous Participants
Pretrial Detention 330
Defense Lawyers 331
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Prosecutors 333
Plea Bargains 336
The Disappearing Trial
Jurors 341
Mythical Aspects of Probation and Sentencing
Probation 344
Sentencing 346
Biased Justice 348
Conclusion 349
11 Cons and Country Clubs: The Mythical Utility of Punishment 351
Who Does the Crime Determines the Time 351
Mythical Assumptions: Unrelenting Consequences
Society Wronged Exacts a Steep Toll
Remove and Deter 356
Does Deterrence Work? 357
Behind Bars 358
The Pains of Imprisonment
Paying for the Loss of Liberty 360
Violence 362
Profound Deprivation of Solitary Confinements and
Supermax Facilities 363
The Reality of Prison Health Care
versus Legal Requirements 368
Vengeful Equity 372
Brutality 373
Exported Prisoners 376
Programming as Undeserved Benefit 377
Club Fed 379
12 The Myth of a Lenient Criminal Justice System
The Crime Rate in the United States
International Comparisons 385
Incarceration Rates 386
Capital Punishment 386
Scandinavian Prisons 387
In the Name of Deterrence
Overcriminalization 390
Fear of Crime; Fearsome Sentences
The Trend toward Greater
Punitiveness in the United States
Jail Populations 396
Probation and Parole Populations
Immigrants 402
Sex Offenders 403
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Collateral Punishments
Legal Financial Obligations 406
Indelible Stigma of a Criminal Record 407
Employment Barriers 408
Disenfranchisement and Invisible Men 410
Limited Remedies to Significant Harms 411
13 Capital Punishment:
The Myth of Murder as Effective Crime Control
Discrimination and the Death Penalty
Racial Bias 415
Gender Bias 417
Class Bias 418
The Myth of Deterrence
General Deterrence
Specific Deterrence
The Myth of Capital Punishment as Cost Effective
The Myth of a Flawless Process 424
Wrongful Convictions 424
Lethal Injections 428
The Myth of Fair and Impartial Juries 431
Confusion over the Law and Instructions 433
Lack of Minority Representation on Juries 434
Qualifying Jurors for Capital Cases 436
Perpetuating the Myths
The Role of Politics 437
Public Opinion 439
The Role of the Media 440
14 Merging Myths and Misconceptions of Crime and Justice
Recycled Frameworks 443
The Electronic Echo Chamber 445
Of Politics and Demagogues 446
Expanding Bureaucracies 448
Use and Misuse of Science 451
Fallout from Crime Myths 453
Masking Social Problems with Myth 455
Restructuring the Study of Crime 459
Conclusion 461
References 463
Index 511
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In some respects, The Mythology of Crime and Criminal Justice may
seem an improbable book. In a humorous vein, it is somewhat unlikely that
graduates from The Pennsylvania State University and Sam Houston State
University would collaborate on anything more than professional conferences or occasional forays for field research purposes. It is said that these
institutions of higher education approach issues of crime and justice from
very divergent perspectives and produce very different scholars of justice.
Perhaps this too is a myth of criminal justice. Admittedly, we do have very
diverse backgrounds and interests; thus, perhaps it was unusual that we
would collectively produce a book that addresses “myths” in criminal justice
given the broad range of possible topics. That is, however, one of the wonders of academia and one of the strengths of the social sciences. Divergent
people, ideas, and approaches to understanding contribute to an environment where varying perspectives, interests, and backgrounds can blend to
create unique works.
This book does not fit neatly into any specific academic category. It is not
pure sociology, criminology, or criminal justice. It is certainly not a work that
would fall under any single recognized ideological or theoretical framework.
It is neither a radical nor a traditional approach to criminology, conflict, or
functionalist sociology. It is also not a traditional systems or empirical
approach to criminal justice.
What we have tried to create is a work that focuses on very popular
issues of criminal justice—issues that have captured the attention of the public as well as the scholarly community. Our hope is that the work challenges
many popular notions of crime, criminals, and crime control. Unlike many
other texts available, this book offers students of crime and justice an alternative to traditional criminal justice texts. Each chapter questions our most
basic assumptions about crime and justice and traces the development of a
crime problem from its creation to society’s integration of a myth into popular thinking and eventually into social policy.
At the risk of characterizing the work as everything to everybody, we feel
that it has broad application. The issues selected challenge habitual perspecxiii
K-P Myth 5E.book Page xiv Friday, June 16, 2017 1:50 PM
tives. Although the book was written for the undergraduate student, it could
also stimulate discussion in the graduate classroom. It can be used as an
alternative to standard introductory treatments of criminal justice or as a
supplement to criminology or issues-orientated classes. Even though we feel
the work has broad application, it was not intended to be the last word on
myths of crime or justice. Rather, we hope that the text will serve as a very
good starting point for understanding the realities of criminal justice and as
an alternative to reinforcing crime myths in the classroom.
Victor E. Kappeler
Eastern Kentucky University
Gary W. Potter
Eastern Kentucky University
K-P Myth 5E.book Page 1 Friday, June 16, 2017 1:50 PM
The Social Construction
of Crime Myths
The human understanding is like a false mirror, which, receiving rays
irregularly, distorts and discolors the nature of things by mingling its own
nature with it.
—Francis Bacon
People study social problems for a variety of reasons; the most obvious is
to find solutions to society’s more pressing concerns. Modern society has no
shortage of either problems in need of attention or ready-made solutions for
an array of difficulties. Sometimes the solution is tied not only to the content
of the issue but also to why a specific problem becomes more prominent
than another. Often the public is quite aware of a particular problem circulating in society; they are, however, less frequently aware of the origins and
processes that brought the problem to their attention. Scholars in many disciplines look at the origins, diffusion, and consequences of social issues that
capture the public’s attention.
Two different perspectives explain the existence of a social problem.
One perspective is that individuals who have vested interests in an issue promote it to the public as a problem. These people have been characterized as
“claims makers,” “moral entrepreneurs,” “political activists,” “social pathologists,” and “issue energizers.” They usually advocate formal social policy to
address the new problem—which they feel is real, unique in its characteristics, and grave in its consequences. The other perspective is taken by people
who study the construction of social problems. These people view social
problems as constructed from collective definitions rather than from individual views and perceptions. From this perspective, social problems are composite constructions based on accumulated perceptions and presentations of
information. People who see social problems in these terms often attribute
the conception and definition of the problems to the mass media (Fishman,
2006), urban legend (Best & Horiuchi, 1985), group hysteria (Medalia &
Larsen, 1958), ideology (Ryan, 1976), political power (Quinney, 1970), or
some other social force that directs public attention.
K-P Myth 5E.book Page 2 Friday, June 16, 2017 1:50 PM
Chapter One
We have chosen the term “myth” to describe some of the collective definitions society applies to certain crime problems and their solutions. Myth is a
traditional story with a historical basis that explains some practice, belief, or
event. Although myths are regarded as fictional representations, they often
reveal underlying ideals. Myths often tell us more about our social and cultural values than they do about any particular issue. Myths do not emerge in a
social, cultural, or political vacuum; they are the product of orientations, ideologies, and assumptions circulating in society at the time of their creation.
While myths seem to explain events, they more often instruct us on how to
integrate an event into our belief system and worldview. In this sense, myth
simultaneously emerges from and reinforces conventions, regardless of their
veracity. Crime myths are created in nonscientific forums through the telling
of sensational stories. These crime fictions often take on new meanings as
they are told and retold—and at some point evolve into truth for many people.
The fiction in crime myth comes not only from the fabrication of events
but also from the transformation and distortion of real events into social and
political problems. As crime-related issues are debated and redebated,
shaped and reshaped in public forums, they are conjoined with cultural conventions and political interests. Once transformed into an expression of
deep-seated cultural anxiety, the mythical social problems are incorporated
into public consciousness. The power of crime myths comes from their
seemingly natural explanations of crime. Crime myths shape our thoughts
about and reactions to almost any issue related to criminal justice.
This book focuses on how criminal events and issues of criminal justice
capture public attention and on the social processes through which a crime
issue is filtered—transforming the original problem into one of mythic proportions. This distortion is a “collective,” sometimes “unconscious” enterprise (Mannheim, 1936). Our inquiry concentrates on prominent myths and
the costs of myth production to society.
The Functions of Crime Myths
Myths organize our views of crime, criminals, and the proper operation
of the criminal justice system, often without our being conscious that crime
myths are at work. They provide us with a conceptual framework from
which to identify certain social issues as crime related, to develop our opinions about issues of justice, and to apply ready-made solutions to social
problems. Crime myths bring order to an often disorderly and value-conflicted world—providing a convenient conceptual shorthand that relies on
cultural convention and conjecture to catalog, reinforce, and reconcile existing social arrangements.
Cataloging Social Actors
Crime myths categorize social actors into artificial distinctions between
law-abiding citizens, criminals, crime fighters, and victims. Personal identity
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The Social Construction of Crime Myths
and self-perception are not created in isolation; they are created by social
contrast. People build their definitions of self in conjunction with the way
they define and interact with others. Criminality is a key component in building self-conceptions.
For many people, it is comforting to conceive of themselves as lawabiding citizens. . . . No doubt there are a few paragons of virtue, but
not many. Most people manifest common human frailties. For example,
evidence suggests that over 90% of all Americans have committed some
crime for which they could be incarcerated. (Bohm, 1986, pp. 200–201)
Barack Obama’s visit to El Reno Correctional Institution in Oklahoma on
July 16, 2015, marked the first time that a sitting president visited a federal
prison. After touring the cells, he remarked to the media:
These are young people who made mistakes that aren’t that different
than the mistakes that I made, and the mistakes that a lot of you guys
made. The difference is they did not have the kinds of support structures, the second chances, the resources that would allow them to
survive those mistakes. (Baker, 2015)
Most people when they think of “criminals” do not think of themselves,
their families, or their friends—they imagine people very different from
themselves. Myths condemn others and build self-esteem through contrast.
Reinforcing Existing Social Arrangements
Myths reinforce current designations of what conduct qualifies as criminal, support existing practices of crime control, and provide the background
assumptions for future designations of behavior as criminal. Once a crime
myth has been generated and accepted by the public, it provides the foundation from which to generate other myths of crime and justice. The established conceptual framework can prevent us from defining issues accurately,
exploring new solutions, or finding alternatives to the existing, socially constructed labels and crime-control practices. Society becomes intellectually
blinded by its mythology of crime and justice. We construct and understand
crime by promoting a series of powerful myths that guide us in our very narrow interpretations.
Myths provide the necessary information for the construction of a “social
reality of crime” (Quinney, 1970). Crime myths become a convenient mortar
to fill gaps in knowledge and to provide answers to questions social science
either cannot answer or has failed to address. When science and empirical
evidence do not support the policies that serve the interests of powerful people and institutions, mythology supplies the justification.
Philippe Bourgois (2008) uses the federal classification of marijuana as a
dangerous drug as an example of power relations driving policy. The mystery of why marijuana is so severely repressed by law enforcement should be
especially humbling for public health researchers in the United States and
for the field of science studies more broadly. It demonstrates the need for
K-P Myth 5E.book Page 4 Friday, June 16, 2017 1:50 PM
Chapter One
putting institutional power politics and the social construction of reality into
the center of our analysis of drugs. It also drills home the naïveté of assuming that “objective scientific evidence” shapes drug policy, media coverage,
and popular opinions and values (p. 581).
Bourgois points out that statistics on drug consumption and health risks
are not enough to displace socially constructed meanings. Myths often serve
as powerful forces to redirect public understanding away from strong scientific evidence to a mythical creation and a politically convenient solution.
Crime myths direct emotions to designated targets; a fearful or angry
public seeks someone to blame. Myth “imperatively guides action and establishes patterns of behavior” (Fitzpatrick, 1992, p. 20). When we cast criminals into roles as social deviants and evildoers preying on innocent victims,
we feel justified in advocating draconian punishment. Crime myths condone
social action based on emotion and justify established views of behavior,
social practice, and institutional responses to crime.
Reconciling Contradictions
Many of our views of crime are based on myths that either hide or attempt
to reconcile basic social contradictions. Prisons, for example, do not rehabilitate offenders; more often than not, released inmates commit additional
crimes. Yet, our solution to crime is to enhance punishment and to incarcerate
massive numbers of people. When this response to crime fails, our mythology
asserts that we have not been harsh enough with criminals. It downplays or
hides the fact that the vast majority of people in prison come from the poorest
and least educated segments of society. Education and reducing poverty are
very rarely considered as effective crime-control solutions. Since almost all
inmates return to their original communities, they return to the same social
and economic circumstances that gave rise to their initial criminality—with
the added stigma of being an ex-convict. The myth hides the structural contributions society makes to criminality. Crime is presented as a product of individual evildoers in need of punishment and correction, rather than as a
response to circumstances linked to the entrenched social structure.
Myths are conceptual schemes that assist us in interpreting reality and
organizing our thoughts and beliefs about reality. Myths let us make sense of
the world, reconcile contradictions, and explain processes and events we
cannot readily understand (Kappeler, 2011).
One of the major contradictions that confronts American society is
that one of the wealthiest and most technologically advanced countries in the world contains widespread poverty, unemployment and
crime. Historically, a myth that has been perpetrated to resolve this
contradiction is that crime is an individual problem. . . . Conceived
this way there is no social or structural solution to the problem of
crime. (Bohm, 1986, p. 203)
Myths allow us to adhere steadfastly to contrived belief systems, even
when empirical reality contradicts them. Myths become our social reality.
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The Social Construction of Crime Myths
Creating Collective Belief Systems
Stephen Carter (2014), professor of law at Yale University, says that “one
of our few reliable weapons at moments when events spin out of control is to
try to work out who’s to blame” (p. 21). He continues saying we rarely have
much trouble finding the culprit because of confirmation bias. We fit each
crisis to what we already believe. We selectively interpret information so that
it confirms our preconceptions. People often believe things that are not factual, interpreting information as validating views already held. Erroneous
beliefs founded on powerful ideologies are particularly dangerous because
they are impervious to evidence (Buchanan, 2015). In 2015, Dylann Storm
Roof provided one horrifying example. He murdered nine black members of
the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina based on an ideology of white supremacy (discussed below).
In Respecting Truth: Willful Ignorance in the Internet Age, philosopher
Lee McIntyre suggests that disrespecting facts is pervasive. He worries that
we have reached a watershed moment in which basing beliefs on facts is
seriously threatened—not because of a lack of information but because so
much unconfirmed information is available and the speed with which biased
information can spread via the Internet.
In the past, one might have thought of ignorance as the absence of
correct information; today it seems just as likely to consist of the presence of false information. . . . It is instead a problem that crops up in
those moments when we arrogantly decide that it is more attractive to
substitute what we would like to believe for what we have evidence to
believe. (McIntyre, 2015)
Our brains are subject to biases and systematic errors in reasoning, from
confirmation bias to overconfidence (Buchanan, 2015). Stakeholders can
manipulate these deficiencies to their own ends through self-serving, systematic
campaigns of disinformation. Consider the strategy of the fossil fuel industry to
sow doubt over climate change or modern political messages in which framing
outweighs content. Willful ignorance results from strong psychological connections to a comforting ideology that provides answers to distressing questions.
Crime myths are related to broader social myths about human behavior
and society. These broad social myths make our responses to crime seem
reasonable and unchallengeable. Crime myths tell us who we are by constructing criminals; they tell us what we value; and they tell us what we
should do about any challenges to existing social arrangements. Crime
myths create a collective belief system—a powerful ideology—that hides
contradictions and serves the interests of mythmakers.
Powerful Mythmakers
The mass media, government, and reform groups with sufficient means
to lobby for their interests select our crime problems and focus our attention
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on particular social issues. These groups designate social problems as “criminal,” define the forms of human behavior that constitute crime, and shape
our social responses to crime. Individuals and small social groups no longer
dominate the dissemination of the bulk of modern crime mythology. The
largest and most powerful mythmakers are the mass media, government,
and social elites.
Media as Mythmaker
Mass communication is a formalized and institutionalized system of conveying messages to large groups of people. Edwin H. Sutherland (1950)
noted, “Fear is produced more readily in the modern community than it was
earlier in our history because of increased publicity” (p. 143). At that time,
radio, newspapers, magazines, and a new medium—television—were the primary tools of mass communication. More than six decades later, the possibilities for publicity have increased exponentially, enabling the spread of
unprecedented numbers of myths. Electronic communication allows messages to “go viral” across the world in seconds.
Technology has enhanced our ability to generate, refine, distribute, and
reinforce myths. Stories that were once restricted to small, intimate social
groups are now instantly disseminated to millions of people internationally
by mass and social media. Graphic images of violence are projected minutes
after an event or even while the event is unfolding. A police SWAT team’s
movement in a school shooting can be captured on film and broadcast on
television or over the Internet as the event transpires. The dash-cam versions
of high-speed police pursuits or crimes caught on store cameras can be collected and presented as television entertainment for the entire nation to
watch. Localized and isolated events become national concerns.
The process works in reverse as well. The modern media can localize
national and international messages by presenting hometown examples of
crime myths (Potter & Kappeler, 2006). After a government press release on
drunk driving is reported in the national news, local stations often broadcast
an interview with a hometown victim of drunk driving. A national news story
on the “good life” that prisoners have—complete with phone, television, and
Internet privileges—can spawn a local news reporter’s investigation of a local
jail. This practice creates the illusion that the national theme is of local consequence and affects everyone. However, it is important to remember that media
depictions are not reality. Rather, they are stylized and edited presentations—a
tiny slice of a police officer’s work or of a prisoner’s “good life” behind bars.
For decades, scholars in mass communication and criminology have
called our attention to the role of the media in the social construction of
crime. Study after study documents how media representations in both the
entertainment and news arenas create a social reality of a dangerous world,
full of risk, populated by stereotyped “others” (Jewkes, 2015). A flood of
mediated images emanating from our smartphones, televisions, tablets, computers, books, newspapers and magazines, movies, and even popular music
instruct us on the seemingly natural order of the social world. This incessant
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institutionalized attack on our senses creates what Jock Young (2007) calls
the vertigo of modern society: insecurity, uncertainty, “a whiff of chaos, and
a fear of falling” (p. 12). The irony is that our fears, prejudices, stereotypes,
and impulses toward retribution are not inescapable elements of human
nature. They are created, mediated images broadcast as news and entertainment by a handful of immense and very motivated global corporations inextricably bound to state power.
The Concentration of Media Power
As early as 1983, scholars were commenting on the problems of increasing media corporatization and the concentration of ownership of the media
in fewer and fewer hands (Bagdikian, 2004; Bennett, 2012; Hesmondhalgh,
2013). As newer technologies created more diverse platforms for mass communication, some argued that the danger of media consolidation was offset
by access to the Internet, proliferating channels on cable television, and
community access to some cable systems. Some believed that it was virtually
impossible to dominate all five media platforms (TV/satellite, radio/music,
film, print, and the Internet). However, concerns about a small number of
transnational media corporations controlling mass communication were not
only justified but also understated. The combined forces of deregulation,
diversification, corporatization, and globalization have created the perfect
storm for concentrating ownership and power.
The increased ability to project myths and the tendency to localize them
have been accompanied by an ever shrinking number of people who control
the means and mediums of myth production. The five largest media conglomerates in the United States are The Walt Disney Company, Comcast,
21st Century Fox, Time Warner, and Liberty Global (Dullforce, 2015). Disney
(market capitalization $178.3 billion) holdings include ABC and ESPN, 36
television and cable stations, 277 radio stations, 8 film companies, and 12
publishing companies. Comcast ($142.8 billion) is the parent company of
NBC, 55 television and cable stations, Universal Pictures, 7 digital media
companies, and XFinity TV, Voice, and Internet. The holdings of 21st Century Fox ($71.2 billion) include 80 networks and channels in seven languages, 28 television stations, multiple film studios, and direct broadcast
satellite television. Time Warner ($70.1 billion) controls about 130 magazines with over 120 million readers, 24 book companies, HBO, Turner Broadcasting, and Warner Bros. Entertainment. Liberty Global ($44.1 billion) has
MacNeil/Lehrer television, Sirius Radio, Leisure Arts books, the Atlanta
Braves, a 20% interest in Charter Cable, 17% interest in Barnes & Noble, and
a 1% interest in Viacom (another media company).
The structural reorganization of the media industry has been defined by
growth, integration, globalization, and concentration of ownership. In addition to simply growing through mergers and acquisitions, the media giants
have been integrating both vertically and horizontally (Croteau & Hoynes,
2014). Vertical integration refers to one owner acquiring all aspects of the
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production and distribution of a single type of media product—for example,
a publisher could acquire paper mills, printing facilities, binderies, trucking
firms, and bookstores. Horizontal integration refers to one company acquiring different kinds of media, assembling large portfolios of magazines, television and cable stations, record labels, radio stations, book publishers, film
studios, and Internet companies. The media giants have globalized by
extending their markets worldwide and by acquiring holdings worldwide.
For example, 21st Century Fox bills itself as holding the world’s premier
portfolio of cable, broadcast, film, pay TV, and satellite assets spanning six
continents across the globe.
Technology changed the mass media landscape. Once separate mediums
like books, newspapers, television, and films are all now delivered in digital
form over the Internet. The integration of different kinds of media and communications technology facilitates the concentration of media ownership. A
few massive media conglomerates deliver a wide diversity of products over
multiple communications platforms (Croteau & Hoynes, 2014). The largest
media corporations not only own more properties than ever before, but they
also own the platforms through which content is delivered. Put very simply, a
few transnational corporations dominate both the access to and the forms of
mass communication we all experience.
Ownership and Control of the Media
The concentration of ownership and control in a small number of media
corporations was not the only outcome of the perfect storm. The corporate
boards of directors of the largest media multinationals are populated by representatives of the most influential banks, venture capital firms, and other corporations central to the financial industry, such as insurance and real estate
companies and financial services corporations (Arsenault & Castells, 2008).
The combination of finance and media has significant consequences.
First, transnational media conglomerates are in and of themselves vital
cogs in the networks of financial capital. According to the Financial Times,
they are among the world’s largest companies when measured by market
capitalization (Dullforce, 2015). Second, capital from banks and venture capitalists funded the mergers and acquisitions that created these media giants.
Third, these media corporations are a major source of financial capital. They
are all integrated into transnational networks of finance capital, being able
to both attract significant investment and provide capital to other smaller
corporate entities. The media giants serve as the nodes through which
finance and media interact and become mutually dependent.
There are four key elements regarding the media’s role in the social construction of reality and its integration with other modes of economic and
political power. First, the largest media conglomerates have a global reach.
The majority are headquartered in the United States and are firmly rooted in
the industrial West, but globalization has extended both the markets and the
operating presence of all of the media conglomerates (Arsensault & Castells,
2008). Second, media ownership and control is becoming more and more
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concentrated and is organized around networks of production and distribution (Bennett, 2012). Third, media giants dominate all aspects of the media:
publishing, television, film, music, and the Internet (Hesmondhalgh, 2013).
Fourth, the largest media transnational corporations are intertwined with
networks of global finance as well as other networks, including technology,
research, and advertising. Media corporations have accumulated enormous
social, political, and economic power (McChesney, 2008). The centralization
of media holdings has the power to stifle and marginalize diverse expressions of culture, politics, and criticism of the media. Today, a small group of
media giants control what we see, hear, and read. The introduction of new
technologies, such as the Internet, has failed to provide a check on this
power—in fact, it has strengthened the extent of media influence.
The magnitude of these developments is difficult to appreciate. Today,
only a handful of firms dominate not only the U.S. market but also the global
market. Ben Bagdikian (2004) noted that 50 media firms dominated the U.S.
market in 1983. The numbers have been greatly reduced so that the remaining conglomerates operate “with many of the characteristics of a cartel. . . .
This gives each of the five corporations and their leaders more communications power than was exercised by any despot or dictator in history” (p. 3).
How the Media Make Crime
The media choose and present crime problems for public consumption.
Incidents and problem selection are driven by marketability and success
(measured by number of viewers and advertising dollars). The media generally seek dramatic, disturbing examples to make a story more compelling.
Choosing an incident in which a child is beaten to death might attract more
viewers/readers, but it diverts attention from the much more common cases
of child abuse through neglect. “Using the worst case to characterize a social
problem encourages us to view that case as typical and to think about the
problem in extreme terms. . . . Whenever examples substitute for definitions,
there is a risk that our understanding of the problem will be distorted” (Best,
2012, p. 39). Child abuse comes in many forms, with murder being the least
frequent. Policy devised to prevent fatalities could have little effect on the
more frequent forms of child abuse and neglect.
The practice of using sensational stories in print media to attract readers
and to increase profit became known as “yellow” journalism. The economic
lure of sensationalism also drives television news. Local stations learned
“late in the 1960s, that news could make money—lots of money. By the end of
the 1970s, news was frequently producing 60% of a station’s profits . . . and a
heavily entertainment-oriented form of programming began to evolve” (Hallin, 1990, p. 2). News as entertainment used public fascination with sensational crime to attract viewers; “if it bleeds it leads” became the mantra.
Crime has become a media product that sells, perhaps better than any
other media commodity. Like any for-profit organization, the media respond
to the dynamics of the economy by marketing their crime products “to
attract a large viewing audience which, in turn, sells advertising” (Bohm,
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1986, p. 205). Stations that produce their own news (812 of the 1186 commercial stations) account for 84% of all on-air revenues ($15 billion of the
total $18 billion earned by local stations). Half of the revenue comes from
local news (Matsa, 2015). In short, news, particularly sensational crime
news, is big business for big corporations.
Television and newspaper reporters focus on “hot topics” with entertainment value. In the early stages of myth development, a media frenzy
expands initial coverage of isolated events. Typically, a newspaper or magazine article will present an incident perceived as unique—a “new” social evil.
Other journalists, who can’t afford to be left out, jump on the bandwagon.
The multiple accounts may eventually blossom into highly publicized quasidocumentaries or even movies that graphically portray the problem. Isolated
incidents thus become social issues that eventually, through politicalization,
become crime problems.
Joel Best (2012) describes the evolution of unreliable statistics. Activists
may promote a particular problem that they believe is widespread and growing. Reporters will ask for facts and figures to identify the extent of the social
condition. There are usually no accurate records available, but “a hothouse
atmosphere develops in which everyone agrees this is a big, important problem” (p. 33). Criminologists refer to the number of crimes that don’t appear
in crime statistics as the dark figure of crime—criminal behavior not
reported to the police. Every social problem has its dark figure because some
instances (whether child abuse, domestic violence, homelessness, sexual
abuse, etc.) are not reported. When reporters ask about the size of a newly
created social problem, activists offer ballpark figures and guesstimates. The
estimates tend to be high because activists believe the problem is extensive,
and the dark figure—precisely because the problem is new—is assumed to
be very large. Reporters want facts, and activists’ numbers look like facts.
Once a number appears in a news report, it becomes a source for other articles and speeches. The number takes on a life of its own; its origins as an
estimate are forgotten. Through repetition, the number is accepted as accurate and authoritative.
Barry Glassner (2009) delineated the details behind a reputed epidemic
of workplace violence. In 1994 and 1995, more than 500 articles about people attacked on the job appeared in newspapers. The stories claimed 2.2 million people were attacked and that murder was the leading cause of workrelated death for women and the third leading cause for men. Only one journalist, Erik Larson, decided to investigate the statistics that were presented
in article after article. He discovered that the news media had created an epidemic where none existed. The accurate statistics were that 1,000 people
were murdered on the job each year (1 in 114,000); fewer than one in 20
homicides occurred at a workplace. In addition, 90% of those murders were
committed by outsiders in the course of a robbery—not by disgruntled
coworkers who had gone “over the edge,” as portrayed by the media.
(Related to this issue, the expression “going postal” is equally unfounded;
postal employees are 2.5 times less likely to be killed on the job than other
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workers.) The survey that had produced the 2.2 million assaults at work figure included fairly minor attacks in which no weapons were involved—and
the survey itself had too low a response rate to be considered accurate. With
the exception of Larson, the media simply repeated the suspect statistic
without investigating its validity. As we shall see in later chapters, these distortions are nothing new, but they have become more frequent and even
commonplace. Media presentations of child abduction, stalking, and serial
murder have all been constructed using distortion and misinformation.
Media frenzies often start in single newsrooms and quickly spread
across information mediums, giving a false impression of the order and magnitude of criminal events. As Mark Fishman (2006) points out in his discussion of “crime waves”:
Journalists do not create themes merely to show an audience the
appearance of order. . . . In particular, editors selecting and organizing the day’s stories need themes. Every day, news editors face a glut
of “raw materials” . . . out of which they must fashion relatively few
news stories. . . . The chances that any event or incident will be
reported increase once it has been associated with a current theme in
the news. (p. 47)
When deciding to set a theme, or when picking and choosing among the
“raw materials” from which to fashion a story, editors are faced with a
choice: select a complex story that requires spending resources for investigation and promises little in the way of audience appeal (for example,
insider trading) or pick a sensational crime story already investigated by
police to attract viewers.
The media select stories based on their assessment of what appeals to
the audience. The first criterion is that stories must have a strong impact on
people watching, reading, or listening. The focus is usually on events that
happened to ordinary people. For example, a story might focus on someone
losing his or her pension rather than on the specifics of economic fraud by a
large corporation. Personalizing the story broadens the appeal, but the
broader significance of the story can be lost, trivializing the news. The second criterion of newsworthiness is: “violence, conflict, disaster, or scandal”
(Graber & Dunaway, 2015, p. 113). The average character in a television
drama has a 30–64% chance of a violent encounter; the actual chances of
becoming a victim of crime is a fraction of those percentages.
The emphasis on violence and conflict leaves the disquieting impression
that turmoil exists everywhere. Once a theme has been set, other stories are
deemed newsworthy based on that theme. Events that may or may not be
related to the original incident are then framed to fit the current crime
theme. As multiple communication mediums pursue the theme, the public
perceives a crime epidemic.
Best (1999) analyzed how the media transformed two unrelated shootings
on L.A. freeways into a crime wave of freeway violence. A brief story about the
two shootings appeared in The Los Angeles Times on June 24, 1987; two days
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later a second story was published; a third story appeared on July 20. “Journalists have a rule of thumb: the third time something happens you have a
trend” (p. 31). A feature article then changed the focus from reporting specific
incidents to an analysis of freeway violence. At the end of July, the Times ran
four front-page articles on the new crime, and the Herald Examiner ran twelve
front-page stories in a 14-day period. Reported incidents were no longer limited to freeways and shootings; throwing rocks at windshields became another
example of roadway violence. Press reports included terms like “sudden evolution,” “trend,” “wave,” “spree,” “rash,” “epidemic,” and “reaching alarming
proportions.” The national media began musing about whether the problem
was local or symptomatic of a nationwide phenomenon. The theme disappeared by the end of August, but it had captured public attention. Two movies
capitalized on the manufactured issue (Freeway and L.A. Story). Best notes
that crime waves generalize beyond the specifics of a case, characterizing the
incident as an instance of a larger social problem. “We problematize events,
turning particular criminal acts into examples of types of crime” (p. 35).
The media reach enormous audiences instantly. Unfortunately, the ability to disseminate information quickly comes at a cost. Public events require
context. Meaning and perspective are rarely evident in 60 seconds (or less)
of graphic video images. Glassner (2009) describes the ideal crime story for
journalists. “The victims are innocent, likable people; the perpetrator is an
uncaring brute. Details of the crime, while shocking, are easy to relay. And
the events have social significance, bespeaking an underlying societal crisis”
(p. 24). Repeated examples of particular crimes increase pressure for immediate commitment to a plan—any plan—to stop the harming of innocents.
Best (1999) detailed another terrible event that defined a new crime
problem. On April 19, 1989, a young woman was viciously assaulted and
raped. The case of the “Central Park jogger” had all the elements described
above. The victim was an innocent, young, educated investment banker, and
her alleged attackers were portrayed as a pack of rampaging, savage youths
from Harlem, engaging in behavior that could threaten the moral order. A
new term appeared in news stories on April 22. The five young black and
Latino teenagers (aged 15, 16, and 17) arrested for the crime reportedly said
that they were “going wilding.” As Best stated, “The term transformed the
Central Park assault from a newsworthy incident into an instance of the
broader wilding problem. Wilding seized the media’s imagination” (p. 29). It
became a new theme for media attention. Critics debated the significance of
wilding, blaming it on rap music, television, violent popular culture, a failed
juvenile justice system, etc.
“Wilding” was instantly accepted as a metaphor to describe all the ills of
U.S. culture. Best noted that there is a template for these types of stories:
“reports about social problems describe the nature of the problem, explain
its causes, and interpret its meaning” (p. 38). Stories about wilding disappeared after 1990 (a new theme about juvenile “superpredators” surfaced).
There is an addendum to this instance of a media-generated theme and
crime wave. Thirteen years after the youths were convicted and had served
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sentences of 7 to 11 years, DNA evidence and a confession from the lone
rapist overturned the convictions.
While the media play an important role in the identification and construction of crime myths, they are not the sole participants in the enterprise.
Unfortunately, repugnant crimes do occur. Some events that are blown out of
proportion still warrant public attention. Each myth considered in this book
contains legitimate cause for public concern. However, social policy and the
public’s perception of crime should not be based on distortion and sensationalism. We will return to the media’s role in constructing crime myths later.
We also want to acknowledge that some reporting is more nuanced than
the many examples of pandering to ratings would suggest. While fewer
newspapers support investigative reporting teams as traditional media struggle to survive in the digital age, some media sources do offer in-depth reporting on important issues. The New Yorker published a story about a teenager,
Kalief Browder, with links to a video of him being beaten savagely by officers
and inmates at Rikers Island (see discussion in chapter 8). After the story
was published, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced changes in oversight at the
jail and in justice protocols (Tett, 2015). Without the story, the public would
not have been aware of the horrific conditions on Rikers Island.
Government as Mythmaker
There are other methods beyond media coverage of sensational crimes
that initiate and guide the myth construction process. Since the government
can control, direct, and mold messages, it is one of the most powerful mythmakers in the crime production enterprise.
The government has a vested interest in maintaining the existing social
definition of crime and extending this definition to groups and behaviors
that are perceived to be a threat to the existing social order. Legislators
decide what behavior is criminal. Congress creates an average of 50 new
criminal laws each year, and many of those laws create new crimes. Before
carjacking became a separate category, the behavior would have been
charged as aggravated robbery. Criminal codes became increasingly convoluted and more likely to foster injustice. New crimes are layered on the old
criminal code, creating inconsistencies in punishments for the same criminal
conduct. “An exaggerated grade for one crime sets a new baseline for the
next crime du jour, until the whole system is seriously out of whack, and
punishments exceed what citizens expect or demand” (Robinson, 2015). For
example, the Pennsylvania Legislature created an offense for reading
another person’s email without permission, making it a third-degree felony
punishable by a maximum sentence of seven years. There are now 4,500 federal criminal laws described in 27,000 pages of the United States federal
code (Shelden et al., 2016).
The government has an interest in seeing that the existing criminal justice system’s response to crime is not significantly altered in purpose or
function. While some “systems tinkering” is permissible, major change in the
system’s response to crime is resisted because the status quo serves the
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interests of government, crime-control agencies, and social elites who often
profit both economically and politically from the way we define and respond
to crime.
The government can suppress information for national security reasons;
it can punish “obscenity”; and it can reward the media for presenting official
versions of crime myths. Public service announcements, controlled press
briefings, and the release of government-funded research reports are a few
examples of how the government can shape the content of messages. The
government controls the type of information that is collected by researchers
by determining which projects receive funding as well as restricting access
to agency data and information. For example, the government annually collects and disseminates information on the number of murders and assaults
committed in the United States as well as the number of police officers killed
and assaulted in the line of duty. It does not, however, collect information
annually on the number of citizens killed and brutalized by the police each
year. When data on this topic are collected, they are labeled as either “use of
force” or “justifiable homicides.” Nor does the government collect annual
data on the cost of political crime, white-collar crime, corporate crime, or
governmental and political corruption. The imbalance of information shapes
our perceptions of who the criminals are, the reality of crime, and how the
justice system should respond.
The government is itself a form of media. It publishes vast numbers of
pamphlets and reports, operates radio stations, and sponsors messages for
the television-viewing audience. Governmental agencies like the Federal
Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), and the
National Institute of Justice (NIJ) distribute press releases about crime statistics to the media regularly. Much of the research that these agencies
release provides basic and needed information, but it is often oversimplified.
The Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program was conceived by the
International Association of Chiefs of Police in 1929. In 1930, the FBI was
given the responsibility of collecting and publishing crime statistics. One of
the features of its annual publication, Crime in the United States, is the crime
clock that presents the number of crimes committed in either minutes or seconds. In a nation with over 320.5 million residents (U.S. Census Bureau,
2015) and a day with only 24 hours, crime (and virtually any social behavior)
will seem to occur with alarming regularity in this type of presentation.
The 2015 crime clock statistics show a murder every 33.5 minutes, a rape
every 4.2 minutes, a robbery every 1.6 minutes, and an aggravated assault
every 41.3 seconds (FBI, 2016a). In comparison, fatal car accidents occur
every 17.5 minutes, traffic accidents with injuries every 19.8 seconds, and traffic accidents with property damage every 7.8 seconds (NHTSA, 2014). Any
human activity could be represented in epidemic proportions ranging from
hospital admissions to eating at fast-food restaurants. This method of presenting statistics creates fear and distorts the severity of the crime problem.
Government events provide the media with material for their stories. In
some cases, the directed information helps refocus media attention on a
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topic the government wants to emphasize, such as drug prohibition or terrorism. With a 24-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week news cycle, the media need
constant sources of cheap pre-packaged information to feed their demand
for news products. Police officials and political leaders are readily available
and reliably provide quotable statements. Journalists work under deadlines
and seek pithy quotes to spice up their presentations. Bonnie Bucqueroux
teaches journalism at Michigan State University and runs a local news website; she concedes:
We have never done a good job of putting crime in broader context.
What we typically get is the police version of an event. I think it’s a box
that the traditional media have always been in; it’s difficult and timeconsuming to dig out alternative sources. (Wenger & Dailey, 2014)
Michael Welch, Melissa Fenwick, and Meredith Roberts (2006) examined
the sources major newspapers used to craft their feature stories on crime.
They found that government officials, criminal justice practitioners, and politicians have a distinct advantage over researchers and scholars. Generally,
spokespersons for the government were more likely to advance a crime-control ideology, whereas academics were more likely to discuss crime causation. Politicians and criminal justice practitioners were more likely to
construct crime in terms of “deterrence” and the personal pathology of criminals, whereas academics were more likely to discuss the social factors that
contribute to crime. Government personnel were more likely to advocate
stringent crime-control efforts packaged in slogans like “three strikes and
you’re out” and “get-tough-on-crime,” while their academic counterparts
subscribed to crime-control measures like education, provision of social services, and reducing economic disparity and racism. “Reporters’ dependence
on authorities makes them—and by extension media consumers—particularly vulnerable to deliberate attempts to mislead by governments and agencies” (Hynds, 1990, p. 6).
The Bureau of Narcotics’ 1937 campaign against marijuana under the
leadership of Harry Anslinger is a classic example of the media’s dissemination of government-sponsored crime myths. The Bureau of Narcotics, wanting
to expand its bureaucratic domain by adding marijuana to the list of controlled substances it was responsible for monitoring, put together a series of
outrageous stories about atrocities committed by people allegedly under the
influence of marijuana. These stories included the murder of a Florida family
and their pet dog by a wayward son who had taken one “toke” of marijuana.
Newspapers printed this story and others like it; the war on drugs had begun.
The myth of the “dope fiend” was born out of the minds of law enforcement officials. The media bought into the disinformation provided by the
Bureau of Narcotics and ran editorials calling for the suppression of the dangerous drug. The Bureau and the media were so successful in frightening the
public that the Bureau’s own legal counsel recommended discontinuing the
propaganda campaign. During the height of the media frenzy and while the
Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 was being debated in Washington, news stories
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covering the testimony of leading medical experts about the relative safety of
the drug and objections by the scientific community to criminalization of
marijuana were lost in the coverage of the government-created crime wave
(see Dickson, 1968; Galliher & Walker, 1977).
The highest offices in government have been used as stages for constructing the public’s conception of crime and drugs. In the 1970s, President Nixon
called drug abuse “public enemy number one” and characterized it as “the
worst threat the country ever faced.” Hinting at a solution, he employed the
war metaphor, equating drug abuse to “foreign troops on our shores” (see
Dumont, 1973, p. 534). The governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller (once a
proponent of drug rehabilitation), changed course in 1973 and promoted mandatory prison sentences of 15 years to life for possession of four ounces of
narcotics—about the same as a sentence for second-degree murder (Shelden,
Brown, Miller, & Fritzler, 2016). The New York legislature passed the statutes
that became known as the Rockefeller Drug Laws, launching a national trend
toward punitive sentences and sowing the seeds for the modern prison system. Critics argued that the laws criminalized a public health problem, incarcerated nonviolent felons, increased recidivism rates, and eliminated judicial
discretion in sentencing. The mythology surrounding the drug war masked
the consequences of the laws that affected millions of lives. The number of
drug convictions increased dramatically, with no corresponding decrease in
overall crime or drug use. After the New York legislature repealed many of the
mandatory minimum prison sentences for lower-level drug felons in 2009,
David Paterson (then governor) expressed the opinion that no criminal justice
strategy had ever been less successful than the Rockefeller Drug Laws.
The public fears that supported punitive drug laws were cemented in
June 1986. Len Bias was a basketball star at the University of Maryland, heralded as the next Michael Jordan. The NBA champion Boston Celtics, choosing second in the draft, selected him. Two days later he died. His shocking,
sudden death dominated headlines. The public was unnerved, fueled by misinformation that Bias had died from crack cocaine and fears about instant
addiction. Politicalization of drug usage continued and enhanced the mythology. In October, Congress passed The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which
established mandatory minimum sentences for federal drug trafficking.
Crack was most commonly used in poorer neighborhoods because it was less
expensive than cocaine. The penalty for crack was 100 times greater than the
penalty for cocaine (same drug, different form). Individuals convicted of trafficking 5 grams of crack (the weight of two pennies) would be sentenced to
at least 5 years imprisonment, without regard to any mitigating factors.
In 1988, Congress passed The Omnibus Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988
that extended the mandatory penalties to simple possession of 5 grams or
more of crack cocaine. The maximum penalty for simple possession of any
amount of powder cocaine or any other drug remained at no more than 1
year in prison (Shelden et al., 2016). The laws resulted in decades of soaring
prison populations and disproportionate prison sentences for blacks and
Hispanics, some of whom served more time for possession than the time
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served by murderers. In July 2010 the disparity in sentencing between crack
and cocaine was reduced to 18 to 1—even 24 years later, remnants of the
myth obstructed the removal of all the disparity.
In the 1990s, the myth-generating power of the government incorporated
another issue—violent crime and its dreadful effect on children. The president appeared in public-service announcements with his arms around children, answering questions in town meetings and making speeches across the
nation. The attorney general emphasized the growing problem of child
abuse and exploitation. Ironically, the attorney general ordered the FBI to
storm the Branch Davidians’ home in Waco, Texas. The raid resulted in the
death of at least seventy-nine people—many of whom were children.
The siege at Waco triggered the rage that resulted in the bombing of the
Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City—precisely two years
after the FBI raid in Waco. Stories about “Terror in the Heartland” filled the
airwaves in 1995. Fear about domestic terrorism and random violence
prompted calls for fewer restrictions on government surveillance. The presidential administration furthered simplistic solutions to complex crime problems, advocating the deployment of thousands of additional police officers,
broadening the powers of the police to conduct warrantless searches of
housing projects, adopting a “three strikes and you’re out” correctional policy, and expanding the use of the death penalty.
Terrorism, this time international, took center stage in the next decade.
Militants hijacked four airliners on September 11, 2001, resulting in the
World Trade Center in New York being destroyed, the Pentagon damaged,
and a plane crash in a Pennsylvania field. More than 3,000 people were
killed. The language of the war on terror was apocalyptic: “axis of evil”
(Glassner, 2009). The public was warned that “sleeper cells” could strike at
any moment. The newly created Department of Homeland Security established a color-coded terror alert chart; frequent “code orange” alerts signaled high risk. Constant references to the war on terror reinforced the
culture of fear, making the public more paranoid in general. Glassner
described the results.
Whenever one group uses fear to manipulate another, someone benefits and someone pays. . . . After the attacks of 9/11, exaggerated and
unconfirmed scares had more serious and lasting consequences. . . .
Threats to the U.S. financial system, obscured from public view in
part by endless attention to the “war on terror,” undermined America’s national security. . . . . The serious problems people ignore often
give rise to the very dangers they fear the most. (pp. xii, xv)
Former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski had warned in 2007:
“Fear obscures reason, intensifies emotions and makes it easier for demagogic politicians to mobilize the public on behalf of the policies they want to
pursue” (p. xii).
Xenophobic rhetoric about dangerous immigrants became an easy way
for politicians to focus public attention and to generate fears to advance their
agendas and political careers. In May 2010, Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona
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signed SB 1070 into law, claiming that rising crime rates and a national crisis
forced her hand (Archibold, 2010). The law gave the police broad powers to
stop and detain anyone suspected of being an undocumented immigrant and
made it a crime not to carry immigration papers. Although proponents of the
law could not articulate what would indicate that a person was likely to be an
illegal immigrant, they had no difficulty claiming that there were links
between terrorism, drug trafficking, crime rates, and immigrants. The law
was passed just weeks after the killing of a rancher in southern Arizona by a
“suspected smuggler.” Governor Brewer invoked the rancher’s death when
she asked the federal government to post National Guard troops at the border. The economic crisis, media sensationalism, and state politicians’ not-sosubtle appeals to racism were all used to reconstitute the crime threat.
But what is the reality of crime and immigration? Research paints quite a
different picture than the one sketched by media and state politicians. From
1990 to 2013, the foreign-born population increased from 7.9% to 13.1%;
unauthorized immigrants tripled to 11.2 million. During that same time
period, violent crime declined 48%, and property crime fell 41% (Ewing,
Martinez, & Rumbaut, 2015). Census data since 1980 indicate that incarceration rates for native-born men between the ages of 18 and 39 are from two to
five times higher than the rates for foreign-born men. These statistics suggest that immigrants are not overly represented in criminality.
A study of homicides in Austin, Texas, found that an increasing Latino
population did not contribute to an increase in homicides (Akins, Rumbaut,
& Stasfield, 2009). Another study examined homicides in large urban areas
and found that cities with large undocumented populations had lower rates
of homicide as compared to cities that did not have large numbers of undocumented people (Kurin & Ousey, 2009). A third study researched immigrants
and crime; it found that undocumented people did not increase the crime
rate and in many cases actually suppressed it (Lee & Martinez, 2009).
Numerous studies over the past 100 years have shown that immigrants are
less likely to commit crimes or to be incarcerated than native-born citizens.
High rates of immigration are not associated with higher rates of crime—
regardless of legal status, country of origin, or level of education (Ewing et
al., 2015). Fear of crime contributes to the mythology that demonizes immigrants (Kappeler & Gaines, 2015).
Mythology works to mobilize the public for certain policies—and to
mask uncomfortable facts. As mentioned earlier, Dylann Storm Roof, 21,
murdered six women and three men at a historic black church in downtown
Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17, 2015. Roof had walked into a prayer
meeting, sat down with black parishioners for nearly an hour, and then
opened fire. He announced: “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re
taking over our country. And you have to go” (Horowitz, Corasaniti, & PérezPeña, 2015). Roof’s Facebook profile picture showed him wearing a jacket
decorated with the flags of two former white supremacist regimes: apartheid-era South Africa and the former Rhodesia. Thomas Mockaitis, a history
professor at DePaul University, is a terrorism analyst and is often contacted
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by the media after a violent, ideologically motivated attack. Mockaitis
thought a reporter might contact him regarding the murders at the church.
Then he realized:
White Americans don’t do terrorism. No, terrorism is something others do to us. It is a weapon used by extremists far from our shores,
people with a different religion and skin color, who infiltrate our society to attack us because they hate our way of life. When a true-blue,
red-blooded American picks up a gun and shoots a member of Congress because he doesn’t like her politics or a young man touting
white pride perpetrates a massacre at a black church, commentators
rush in to disconnect those individuals from the ideological context in
which they act. . . . It is time to stop designating racist entities as
“groups” and call them what they really are: “domestic terrorist organizations.” Terrorism and the threat of terrorism permeate racism,
and it is time to speak that important truth more forcefully. (Mockaitis, 2015)
The Power Elite as Mythmakers
Sociologist C. Wright Mills (1956) argued that in the United States a relatively small group of people with very similar backgrounds in terms of education, lifestyles, class, and social position intermingled to create an elite
group of people who occupy positions of power in dominant social institutions. Chief among these institutions are corporations and government.
Power elites hold important decision-making positions in society—positions
that few ordinary Americans will ever hold. The movement of social elites
between corporate, political, and academic worlds results in a “governmentalization of the lobby” where conflict, difference, and uniqueness of thought
are dissolved by similar aspirations and interpretations of social issues and
policy. Major vested interests compete less with one another than they coincide on many points of interest and come together under the umbrella of
government, centralizing economic and political power. “Those having real
power in the American state today are not merely brokers of power, resolvers of conflict, or compromisers of varied and clashing interest—they represent and indeed embody quite specific national interests and policies” (p.
267). The rise of American power elites diminished the ability of other individuals to contribute to ideas, discussion, and decisions.
How accurate are those assessments six decades later? Is there evidence
to suggest that the modern corporate media and government representatives
comprise a power elite coordinating their opportunities and interests? Consider the following. George Stephanopoulos was hired as a co-anchor of ABC’s
Good Morning America (GMA) after leaving his position in the White House as
an adviser to President Clinton. Stephanopoulos had previously worked for
two members of Congress and a governor (Memmott, 2009). He is married to
Alexandra Wentworth, an actress and the daughter of Mabel Brandon Cabot
who was Nancy Reagan’s social secretary. He took over the GMA position
from another politically connected member of the power elite, Diane Sawyer,
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formerly a long-term aide to President Richard Nixon and wife of film director
Mike Nichols. Stephanopoulos rose to become the top on-air political journalist at ABC over 18 years, also hosting the Sunday morning public affairs program, This Week. In 2015 he came under fire for failing to disclose to his
employer that he had made $75,000 in donations to the Clinton Foundation, as
Hillary Clinton was launching her presidential campaign. Chris Cuomo moved
from GMA to co-anchor of ABC’s 20/20. He is the son of former New York Governor Mario M. Cuomo and the brother of current New York governor and former New York Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo. This single example
illustrates the movement of power elites from government to the media and
how the media rearrange news seats for those who are politically connected.
How does this co-mingling of media, politics, privilege, and power shape
our understanding of the social world? In his compelling study of the media,
hegemony, and American foreign policy, The Pen and the Sword, Calvin
Exoo (2010) explains cultural hegemony—domination of ways of thinking,
believing, and behaving. Most people perceive the world through basic stories so ingrained that we take their truth for granted. People generally
understand the world through stories regarded as “common sense”—accepting the premises uncritically, almost unconsciously.
While common sense protects the power and privilege of elites, it succeeds because the ideology incorporates worthy ideals. For example, freedom is a core value in the United States. Stories wrap the meaning in
nuances favorable to those who have the most to protect and exclude meanings that could embolden those who have less to threaten the status quo.
Words whose meanings should be debated are invariably defined by those
with power. If other meanings surface that could threaten hegemony, society’s “idea factories” work to incorporate elements of the counterhegemony
to their advantage.
People who control society’s idea factories can use basic stories to further their own interests. The mass media are idea factories, but the influence
is not simple and straightforward, as Exoo explains.
It is complex and subtle. So subtle in fact that those who produce that
hegemony are not, for the most part, consciously trying to. They are just
doing their jobs. But written, as it were, into their job descriptions are needs,
routines, and values that result in hegemony. Those demands and routines
arise mainly from the “commercial imperative”—the media industries’ voracious appetite for profit.
What happens when the power to construct and disseminate those stories rests in the hands of a small number of people and global conglomerates?
There is no doubt that media can be used as a blunt instrument to influence politics, set agendas, and construct the parameters by which crime and
other social problems are considered and debated. There is, however, another
form of hegemony. Rather than indoctrinating the public to accept theories
beneficial to special interests, elites can devise stories to anesthetize people
to the injuries those policies might cause. The media can dilute the realities of
the world through entertainment. Stories carry people away from a world of
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poverty and indignity to one where “the good guys, the ones like us, always
win in the end” (Exoo, 2010, p. 10). The news media provide escape through
“infotainment.” Exoo outlines an obvious truth: “how hard resistance to injustice is” and “how good, really good, the confections of the media’s ministering
myths can be” (p. 10). Hegemony is not a conspiracy theory where the power
elite huddle behind closed doors to plot their strategy. Rather, hegemony is
built into the imperatives, norms, and routines of the mass media: maximize
profit, maximize audience size, entertain the audience, and do not offend
(reaffirm rather than challenge by telling the same stories repeatedly).
Atticus Finch, the hero in To Kill a Mockingbird, is a paragon, a durable
cinematic white savior. There are similar benevolent heroes in The Blind Side,
The Help, and Dances With Wolves. Matthew Hughey, a sociologist at the University of Connecticut, wrote The White Savior Film. Movies from To Kill a
Mockingbird to Selma portray race relations in a country still largely segregated in housing, schools, and churches. Hughey notes: “In lieu of actual
lived contact with other races, film becomes the blueprint for how we believe
the world is” (Keegan, 2015). When To Kill a Mockingbird arrived in theaters
in Alabama in early 1963, Bull Connor was directing the use of fire hoses and
police dogs on civil rights activists. A biographer of Harper Lee, wrote:
“White people were coming out of the theater feeling good about Atticus and
. . . blocks away you had black children’s bodies skidding in the streets” (p. 6).
Rupert Murdoch has used his media holdings (the FOX network, HarperCollins publishing, the New York Post, and myriad television stations) to
advance the campaigns of conservative politicians and conservative causes.
Murdoch’s media empire funds, produces, and distributes the conservative
magazine, The Weekly Standard. FOXNews has become the preeminent
media force for ultra-conservative political commentary, which is described
by the network as “entertainment” rather than actual news (Croteau &
Hoynes, 2014).
The purchase of media advertising for anti-drug messages morphed into
a controversial collaboration. In 1997 Congress passed the National Youth
Anti-Drug Media Campaign Act to fund the purchase of anti-drug advertising by the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). The Act
approved the purchase of $1 billion in anti-drug advertising over five years,
with the provision that the networks would charge half the regular price (by
providing a pro bono match of air time for anti-drug ads). The ONDCP press
release referenced the advertising as “the largest and most complex socialmarketing campaign ever undertaken” (Forbes, 2000).
Soon after the agreement, the improving economy and increasing
requests from companies like IBM, Microsoft, and Yahoo to purchase commercial minutes diluted network enthusiasm for the agreement. ONDCP presented them with a compromise. It would allow the substitution of approved
anti-drug messages in the scripts of popular prime-time programs for the
matching air time. Government officials or their representatives would
approve (or alter) scripts to conform to the government’s anti-drug messages
(Forbes, 2000). Formulas determined the value of the embedded messages.
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Half-hour programs that presented an approved theme received three credits—the equivalent of three 30-second ads; hour-long programs received five
credits. The value of the credits depended on the ratings of the program,
which created incentives for the scripts of the most popular programs to
present the messages. The networks could then sell the credits earned to
paying customers. ONDCP reviewed and approved scripts and previewed
footage for over 100 episodes of ER, Beverly Hills 90210, The Drew Carey
Show, Chicago Hope, 7th Heaven, The Wayans Brothers, The Practice, and
Sports Night (Croteau & Hoynes, 2006). The program ended in 2001.
Media giants have collaborated closely with the military in the production of films with a military theme. The military assists with advice on military equipment and the realism of action scenes. The price for this
cooperation is that the military be presented in a positive light, with portrayals of wartime heroism and the power of modern weaponry highlighted in
the films. Films such as Top Gun, Armageddon, Air Force One, A Few Good
Men, and Blackhawk Down all involved negotiations over scripts in return
for military advice. Not surprisingly both the Department of Homeland Security and the CIA have followed suit with similar agreements involving script
approval (Croteau & Hoynes, 2006).
The media also have been cooperative partners of the military in reporting the news. During the invasion of Panama (and subsequently Iraq), the
news media failed to ask difficult questions, omitted news that raised troubling questions, and allowed the “news” to be both manipulated and controlled by the Pentagon and the administration. During both U.S. invasions
of Iraq and the invasion of Afghanistan, corporate media news outlets
agreed to restricted battlefield access and censorship of stories. The military
was given unprecedented control of news and images from the war zone.
Civilian casualties were deemed not newsworthy, and any criticisms were
dismissed as supporting terrorists. The corporate media eagerly accepted
their role as advocates for both the state and the military, sending messages
about the inevitability and justness of war (Kellner, 2003).
Corporate control of the media and more specifically the news has
allowed corporations to blunt criticism of corporate abuses and war crimes
while advancing their own political agenda. Instead of investigating social
crises like ecological problems, the critical deficiencies in health care, growing inequality, and dangerously inflated stock and housing prices, the corporate media praised the economy and technology available to consumers
(Kellner, 2003).
The immense concentration of media power in a few transnational corporations and the rotation of social actors from government to the media
industry have changed the battle over common sense in society. Of course,
people are free to view films and televised news reports, and to read magazines and newspapers, with a critical eye. But in an era of communication
where almost every image, sound, and word is delivered by corporate elites,
oppositional framing becomes more and more difficult. It is not just the
speed and variety of messages that inundate us, it is the built-in norms and
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practices of social elites in those messages that threaten to overwhelm us. By
purchasing the power to control virtually every platform everywhere, the
corporate media have turned entertainment into a virtual political catechism.
Exoo (2010) sums it up brilliantly:
A fundamental tendency of American mass media is to view the world
in “Manichaean” terms. Just as the medieval followers of Manes conceived of the world as a struggle between light and darkness, good
and evil, so, in their own way, do our mass media. In the media’s Manichaean world, conflict arises when bad guys make mischief and have
to be dealt with by good guys. Conflict could, of course, be seen in
other ways. It could be seen as a result of social inequality, or injustice, or ignorance. But the mass media tend to see conflict in black
and white, good and evil. (p. 10)
Whether the issue is war, health care, poverty, unemployment, or crime, the
power elite present us with their unified interpretation and vision of the
world. The media and the government, whether independently or in concert,
focus public attention on unique social problems. These powerful entities,
and their mutual interests, establish the nature of social problems, their seriousness, and viable solutions.
Merging Mythmakers
In 1978, the Ad Council began pro bono work on a national crime prevention campaign for the government. In July 1980 McGruff the Crime Dog
debuted in a rumpled trench coat. His slogan “Take a Bite Out of Crime”
urged people to recognize that crime prevention is everyone’s responsibility
and that the police can’t fight crime alone. The National Crime Prevention
Council (NCPC) was created in 1982, and McGruff the Crime Dog was featured in its efforts. In the mid-1980s, McGruff encouraged people to join
neighborhood watch groups and to clean up streets and parks to be less
inviting for criminals. During the mid-1990s, McGruff focused on the effects
of gun-related violence on children. Current issues include bullying, Internet
safety, and identity theft.
McGruff can be viewed as a predecessor of television programming that
emerged in the 1980s. Following the format of information-commercials
(programs appearing as fact-based presentations of information but
designed to sell products), television crime programs blended entertainment
and government-sponsored messages. Television shows like Unsolved Mysteries (1987 to 2002; reprised 2008–2010), Rescue 911 (1989–1996), 48 Hours
(true crime documentaries on CBS 1988–), and America’s Most Wanted
(summer 1987 through June 2011) reenacted crimes and included narratives
from law enforcement officials. The programs depicted violent street crime
and reinforced stereotypes about criminals; corporate and political criminals
were not depicted. The police were portrayed as competent and accessible to
viewers, whose role in providing information to help with captures was significant (Cavender & Bond-Maupin, 2006).
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The programs used law enforcement officers or relatives of victims to
inform the public about crime. John Walsh hosted America’s Most Wanted
(AMW). Nationally known as an advocate for victims’ rights after his son,
Adam Walsh, was abducted and murdered, he merged his advocacy center
with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in 1990. AMW
dramatized crimes committed by fugitives and broadcast a hotline so that
viewers could report any sightings; 1,200 suspects were caught (Yan & Aarthun, 2015). Walsh now appears on CNN in The Hunt, which also profiles
unsolved crimes through reenactments and provides a number to call with
information. Unsolved Mysteries added a segment called FBI Alert in 1989.
Hosted by William Sessions, then director of the FBI, the show broadcast the
names and pictures of fugitives wanted by the FBI. These shows and numerous versions that have appeared since then contribute to an unprecedented
level of fear of crime in U.S. society (Cavender & Bond-Maupin, 2006).
What effect did the selective presentations of atypical, serious, and violent crime have on the viewing public? One destructive consequence of
merging mythmakers was that viewers sometimes misidentified suspects. In
one example, several employees of a tool manufacturing company watched
an episode of AMW. They contacted the program believing that the suspect
wanted for child sexual abuse was their coworker. The description was faxed
to the local police department. Police officers arrested the man at work even
though his height, weight, and missing fingertip did not match the faxed
information. After his fingerprints confirmed that he was not the suspect, he
was returned to the company of coworkers who had reported their suspicions and watched those suspicions “confirmed” by his handcuffing and
arrest. Indeed, the arrest itself appears to have been colored by its connection to AMW. Not only did the officers not confirm that the physical characteristics matched, but they never asked for a work history (the fugitive was a
teacher), an alibi, or any other pertinent factors before making the arrest.
Unfortunately, the disastrous consequences did not stop at the indignities of false arrests. As reporter Jim Gordon (1992) noted, “One can be portrayed as a wanton murderer on a nationally televised program, get killed by
police less than 48 hours later, and have the nation invited by television to
applaud the death within the week.” AMW profiled the deaths of HomeroIsadoro Ibarra and an L. A. County sheriff’s deputy in an episode called “Cop
Killers.” Ibarra’s children identified Cesar Mazariego-Molina, an undocumented worker from El Salvador, as the shooter. John Walsh said the suspect
was a convicted rapist who had murdered his uncle and was a member of El
Salvador’s death squads. Two days later the owner of an orchard in Plattekill, New York, recognized Mazariego-Molina as one of his workers. He
phoned the New York State police. Shortly after their arrival, they killed the
suspect with a shotgun blast to the back of the head. His family alleged that
he was the victim of vigilante justice. They denied that he was ever convicted
of a crime, insisted that he never carried weapons (no weapons were found
after he was killed), and said that he was in New York at the time of the
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shooting. Days after Mazariego-Molina was killed, John Walsh congratulated
the viewing audience for locating the suspect, saying deputies had feared he
might head for the border, “but you answered the call. Three thousand miles
away, and 48 hours later, the manhunt was over” (Gordon, 1992, p. 1). The
killing of Mazariego-Molina was dubbed AMW’s 197th successful capture.
Crime prevention, catching the bad guys, and calling out the public to
participate in crime-control activities for monetary rewards sustained several programs for decades. The media, however, must constantly reinvent
novel forms of entertainment to attract a larger audience. COPS first aired in
1989, the forerunner of reality programming. It became the longest running
Fox television program (after the cancellation of AMW) in 2011 and was then
one of two first-run, prime-time police reality programs (the other was The
First 48 discussed below).
COPS followed police officers, constables, sheriff’s deputies, federal
agencies, and state troopers during patrols in 140 cities. Television is biased
toward conflict and drama, and sensationalized violence attracts viewers.
Television normalizes police violence and portrays the police as the forces of
good triumphing over evil—scapegoating oppressed communities and ignoring the complex history of police violence. The episodes distort reality to
produce exciting vignettes, while increasing white suburban fears of urban
crime. The intersection of reality television and crime poses risks. The cameras are purportedly there to document incidents, but they become part of
the stories. The presence of cameras can be incendiary and serve as provocation, often shaping the behavior of the subjects. On some shows, camera
operators angle for the best shots, almost taunting the subjects (Caramanica, 2011).
Spike cable network picked up COPS after its cancellation by Fox in
2013. For an episode in 2014, a film crew accompanied two police officers in
Omaha who were responding to a request for backup at the scene of a
reported robbery. Officers opened fire on the suspect (believing he had fired
at them), killing him and a sound supervisor for the program (Vaughan &
Fitzsimmons, 2014). Officers later discovered that the suspect had shot a
pellet gun. At a news conference, the chief of police said: “Police work is
very dangerous and very chaotic. When you’re reporting police work and
riding along with us, unfortunately, you subject yourself to that same level
of violence that Omaha police officers do every day.” A reporter asked
whether the officers were showing off for the cameras, which the chief
vehemently denied. Before the incident, the Omaha Police Department said
it had agreed to allow COPS to film its officers in an effort to improve community relations.
The First 48 debuted in 2004 based on the premise that homicides need
to be solved in two days before the evidence turns cold. The A&E television
reality show films the early stages of homicide investigations as detectives
investigate crime scenes, search for witnesses, and interrogate suspects. The
show almost exclusively follows investigations in impoverished neighborhoods Almost everyone charged with murder is young, male, black, urban,
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