Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Do TV Writers Have a Moral Obligation to Society?

One of my favorite network shows is Crossing Jordan. Jordan Kavanaugh is a medical examiner in Boston. She's intelligent, tough, tenacious, headstrong, and committed to Truth and Justice. She also has Issues with commitment and following orders.

Normally I don't have a problem with the program. It's fiction, after all. And I have a "thing" for Jerry O'Connell (had since he was in Sliders).

The episode for Sunday (Jan. 28) crossed a line for me. A high speed chase ended in an alley. The driver of the vehicle drew a gun and fired at the police. They fired back and killed him. The police noticed someone hiding in the back of the car. They ordered the person to come out of the car with his hands up. According to the police, that person also fired two shots at them. The police (four of them) answered back with a volley of bullets. The person they thought was hiding turned out to be a nine-year-old boy. Both the boy and the driver of the car are African-American.

Jordan's job is to examine the body and determine if the police account is accurate. According to her preliminary investigation, it is. The Boston Police Commission exonerates the officers involved and a riot breaks out.

Jordan--the daughter of a Boston cop and whose best friend is a Boston detective--is suspicious of the official story. She investigates further and finds significant discrepancies between what that story is and what the evidence on the body shows. In the course of discovering the Truth, another police officer is killed.

And the Truth is--the police officers made a mistake, a fatal one, and tried to cover it up.

Several things bothered me about this episode. The mother, single, never married to the bio-father of the boy, always "felt" that the boy's father would get him killed. Yet she lets the man come into and out of her son's life at will. And she lets the boy get in the car with his unreliable bio-father and take him to school. No one questions her judgment.

The bio-father gets into a high speed chase with the police with his son in his car. He draws and fires a weapon at the police, with his son in the car. The father is killed--but no one questions the father's judgment. What caring father would endanger his kid like that? What reasonable adult?

Four police officers are involved in the shooting and the cover-up. One of them is an older, African American man. He was actually hit by the bullet from the father's gun; fortunately, the cop is wearing a Kevlar vest. Yet the focus of the program is on the young white male cop. Why not focus on the African American officer, one who had been "around the block" a few times and who might have experienced a similar situation? Not enough racial contrast?

My biggest complaint, however, is that this program plays right into the paranoia of African American inner-city residents: the cops will shoot African American children and then conspire to cover it up.

Frankly, the police who patrol cities, especially in the ghetto areas, have a difficult job. They deal with the suspicion and mistrust of the residents all the time. A young man is shot in broad daylight and "nobody sees nothin'; nobody knows nothin'." The police officers, male and female, all races, speak of their frustration in not being able to apprehend the bad guys because of lack of information. Residents have candlelight vigils to "Stop the Violence," but without witnesses, the hands of the police are tied.

Do we really need a fantasy show to feed into this paranoia, to reinforce the stereotype of the prejudiced cop? Or that African American neighborhoods are ready to riot at a moment's notice? A show that's seen by millions of viewers?

What would have happened, how would the story have been different, if the boy and the bio-father were white? Or if the African American cop, the one who had been shot, had been the cop we got to know? The writers make mention of the historically tense racial relations in Boston--why not try to move the story beyond that?

Where was the balance?

Police officers make mistakes. Some also lie or are on the take or are prejudiced. But are the majority guilty of those crimes?

Where are the stories of the good cops, especially on weekly crime shows? The shows that reach millions of viewers across the country?

Do television writers have a bigger moral obligation to the social order, the social consciousness, because of their large audience? Let's face it: even though the networks are losing market share, they still command a much larger audience than print media or radio. And, yeah, I think television writers need to be aware that their stories can have a tremendous impact on how groups are perceived.

If they didn't, why would CAIR be so upset about 24?