NEW YORK — Call it the "West Wing" effect - a radical shift out of Hollywood that has stunned researchers in Washington.
In the past two years, television's portrayals of people in government have changed dramatically. Indeed, they've done a 180-degree flip - from the farcical and obtuse New York mayor on "Spin City" to the plain-speaking populist President Jed Bartlet.
Indeed, the shift has occurred even though the long-held animosity and distrust between the two centers of power on opposite coasts remain as strong as ever - at least in their rhetorical wars. But this is also an age when political commentators write Hollywood scripts, then hop the red-eye to make it to Washington in time for a talk show. In fact, the two towns, for all of their talk, are ultimately vying for the same thing - Americans' attention.
A study done for the Council for Excellence in Government found that from 1992 to 1998, 3 out of 4 fictional government characters were portrayed as inept, out of touch, and corrupt. But during the past two seasons, thanks in large part to President Bartlet and his team of quick-witted, idealistic-but-fallible staff, that's been reversed. Three out of 4 public officials are now shown as effective, earnest public servants.
In Washington, where government has struggled with an increasingly bad public image for the past 30 years, the news was greeted with some relief. That's particularly true since polls also show that most Americans, including two-thirds of 18- to 34-year-olds, actually believe what they see on TV is true.
"There's no question that we're hoping that people might be influenced by what they see on TV and their attitudes about government might change," says Patricia McGinnis, president and CEO of the Council for Excellence in Government in Washington.
Not a good thing?
The news was greeted with far less enthusiasm by some in Hollywood. "I'm nervous by this talk. I'm unsettled by it, because I don't think there's a certainty that favorable portrayals of government workers is a good thing," says Lawrence O'Donnell, a "West Wing" writer and producer who's also a political commentator and former Senate staffer. "Might we want to revel in the great freedom this country has to criticize them as much as possible and portray them as negatively as possible?"
Indeed, Mr. O'Donnell says it takes a "gigantic leap of imagination" to go from Washington to a Hollywood set. There is no way, he maintains, that a Bartlet-type character could ever in reality be elected or function the way he does on the television.
"[Bartlet] doesn't raise money. He tells people off," says O'Donnell, who insists that Hollywood is under no obligation to try to improve American's civic involvement. "Our only obligation is to try to do a good TV show."
That notwithstanding, some advocates of good government believe that Hollywood should, in fact, continue with its positive fictional portrayals.
And they point to polls. By more than 2 to 1, 18- to 34-year-olds think of it as "the" government, not "my" government.
"For younger American generations, the government is an alien force rather than an instrument of collective purpose, and not just for 'X-Files' viewers," says Guy Molyneux, a pollster at Peter D. Hart Research Associates.
But all this talk, much of which took place at a "summit" between the Council for Excellence in Government and the Writers Guild of America in New York this week, raises the question: What comes first, the public perception or the TV show?
Into high gear
Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, which conducted the study for the council, has looked at this question for more than 15 years. "Television doesn't begin social trends, so much as pick them up as they're developing and reinforce and disseminate them to middle America," he says. "Television doesn't start the engine. It shifts things into high gear."
But not everyone agrees with that assessment. John Leonard, a media critic for CBS and New York Magazine, notes that entertainment television for years has been a "big empathy machine."
"For 50 years, it's encouraged us to be nicer to women, to children, to old people, to odd people, to immigrants," he says. "And it's had no effect whatsoever on American society."
But there is no question it can change individuals. Stephanie March, an actress in her mid 20s, had "no feeling" about government at all. Then she landed the part of Alexandra Cabot on "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit."
"I read the newspapers now and care about what's going on," she says. So is there hope that Hollywood can help salvage Washington's image with the rest of the public?
"It is reasonable to suggest that the glass has gone from half empty to half full," concludes Mr. Lichter. But the question still remains: How much, if any, will spill over into the voting booth? Stay tuned.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor