It hasn’t been long since the cowboy was the defining image of America – to friends and enemies alike. The cowboy stood strong and tall – always willing to fight for a good cause. And where he stood, he stood for something important, something truly American.
John Wayne was once the embodiment of that cowboy to people in America or overseas. Now, thanks to Hollywood, that icon has evolved – replaced by a smaller, cheaper, sleazy stereotype of the American businessman. When people around the world look to America, that is what they see.
The new icon is ideal for the networks – easy and portable, unimportant enough to watch on a cellphone video screen. Inoffensive enough so that few pressure groups will complain.
But that image still packs a big punch around the globe because we export so much American culture. According to the Pew Global Attitudes Project, foreign opinion of Americans has been declining – especially in Europe. In the three years from 2002 to 2005, how much they like Americans dropped 13 percent in Great Britain, 7 percent in France and 5 percent in Germany.
When viewers turn on their TV sets in London, Paris or Berlin, they see an endless stream of anti-free enterprise and anti-American propaganda packaged in some of our most popular TV dramas. Maybe that has something to do with it.
This problem isn’t new. Go back to April 1978, when Hollywood scriptwriters introduced us to the oil baron Ewing family of “Dallas.” Out of that deep well of insanity came one of TV’s most famous villains – J.R. Ewing.
Ewing’s ten-gallon hat and evil ways were the perfect image transition from good cowboy to bad. In a few short years of J.R.’s “contracts were made to be broken” attitude, “Dallas” was a global sensation.
But J.R. Ewing was a teddy bear compared to what we see in today’s primetime dramas. Hollywood has expanded on the stereotype and embraced his contemporary corporate counterparts. Then Hollywood exports them to a worldwide audience.
Take a look at the shows. The top American dramas portray businessmen as liars, cheats, thieves and murderers. In a study of the top-rated dramas, the Media Research Center’s Business & Media Institute (BMI) found the networks took a largely negative view of both the American businessman and the very idea of business.
The study focused on the top drama names in television – the “Law and Order” shows, all three “CSI” programs, “Desperate Housewives” and more. The “Law and Order” franchise was especially hostile to companies. In one episode of NBC’s “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit,” greedy pharmaceutical executives were selling a bad vaccine to the military. CBS’s “Without a Trace” accused drug companies of “doing experimental drug trials on kids.”
How can drug company executives market their products overseas to men and women who have watched these shows? The cowboys of yesteryear were tough but fair, so they could be trusted. The new American businessmen are automatically treated as evil.
And foreign viewers are bombarded with American television. “Law and Order” shows appear in six different European Union nations – France, Germany, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and the U.K. The shows are translated in three other languages.
London’s Sunday Times referred to these kind of crime-fighting programs as offering viewers “the comforting illusion that order can be imposed on a dangerous world,” in a Jan. 26, 2003, article. I don’t find it “comforting” that much of the world is being told American businessmen are crooks – by our own industry.
“CSI” has even more reach into the European market. The main program hits at least 14 of the EU’s 25 member nations. “CSI: Miami” manages 13 and “CSI: New York” appears in 11. That means most of the EU member nations get to see businessmen murdered because they needed “a competitive edge” for their products, as in one “CSI: Miami” episode.
Another episode of the same show blamed the video game industry for a violent crime spree in Miami. The episode, “Urban Hellraisers,” showed the fictional president of TransInternational refusing to cooperate with police after being told his video games were spurring a cult of teenagers to violence. “I have a board to answer to … stockholders. My hands are tied,” he said.
That’s the slightly sanitized version of “I was only following orders.” And that is pretty much how the networks treat businessmen – as slightly sanitized, slicker versions of ultimate evil. That approach has turned real life on its head and pretended some of the most useful members of our society are some of the most dangerous.
That is the new image of America around the world.