NBC apologizes to Latinos for 'Law & Order' episode
January 28, 2001 9:12 AM   Subscribe

NBC apologizes to Latinos for 'Law & Order' episode The network's action was swiftly criticized by Dick Wolf, executive producer of the long-running legal drama. So a TV network caves into a lobbying group, even though the episode was based on real events.
posted by fleener (25 comments total)
I have not seen the tv episode so am in no postion to make a judgement. Here is the extract from the man protesting the depiction of latinos:
"The attacks occurred after, not during, the parade and the majority of those arrested were not Latino, Mirabal said. "
From what I recall, the police were not "available", according to a number of women molested because they refused to answer calls made to them from members of the crowd who had appealed for police intervention.

The charge was made--I don't know if this was correct or not--that the police had been told to be careful so as not to provoke a crowd response from those in the park and to avoid the appearance of being anti-latino.
My Italian friends all tell me how much they enjoy the Sopranos, even though they are sure that not all Italians are members of the mob. But the Italian anti-discrimination outfit (not sure of it officail name) had been very active in protesting any anti-Italian depictions.
posted by Postroad at 9:32 AM on January 28, 2001

The head guy for one of the Puerto Rican groups was on O'Reilly a couple of days ago. He noted the festival has been around for 40-50 years with millions of people coming out each year, and asked why the creators focused on that one part where just several people acted poorly? Also, the show didn't try to have a good minority character in it, everyone was evil, or something like that.

Question being: are they upset over nothing? should the creators have at least tried to get some balance on this site?/do they have/need to?
posted by tiaka at 9:42 AM on January 28, 2001

What Wolf doesn't mention is that in the real incident, no one was killed. I support his creative rights (i.e. taking a real event and making it "more interesting") but to not acknowledge exactly what he changed that pissed off the Latinos seems a bit disingenuous.

Mirabal is worse, though. "Every Puerto Rican shown in that show was portrayed negatively as a criminal, as a delinquent, as someone who abuses women." Well, when your show is about the pursuit of criminals, it shouldn't be much of a surprise that a large number of the people portrayed, of any ethnicity, are criminals. In fact, it verges on tautology.

If there are no Hispanic cops on Law & Order then that would be a tremendous oversight -- I have only seen the show a few times and don't remember -- but that's not Mirabal is complaining about.

Can't blame NBC for caving, though. They're in the business of getting people to watch their network, not of supporting artistic integrity.
posted by kindall at 9:42 AM on January 28, 2001

doh. stupid spell check. heh.

should the creators have at least tried to get some balance on this site?/do they have/need to?

balance on the sides.

No, it was really me, sorry.
posted by tiaka at 9:43 AM on January 28, 2001

If there are no Hispanic cops on Law & Order then that would be a tremendous oversight

There is - Benjamin Bratt played Detective Reynaldo "Rey" Curtis from 1995 - 1999 on the show. African American woman Epatha Merkerson has played Lieutenant Aninta Van Buren since 1993 and has been the superior of almost 10 different detective since she joined the show.

Law and Order has always done a good job balancing minority representation whether it be on the police side, distrivt attorney side or criminal side, in my opinion.
posted by bkdelong at 9:54 AM on January 28, 2001

I came back to that article a second time now because something seemed eerily familiar about it, and then I remembered the Seinfeld episode in 1998 that took place in the Puerto Rican Day Parade. Kramer set fire to the Puerto Rican flag (in the script, by accident) and after being cojoled, NBC black-listed the episode (and it would never be shown in reruns).

Two strikes? I think that may have something to do with the network's reaction in this case.
posted by pnevares at 10:49 AM on January 28, 2001

Representation is a tricky business, and I'll confess I haven't seen the episode and know little about the real-life events.

But to say use the basis in reality as a way to discredit the lobbying group seems, to me, to be tantamount to saying that (to choose but one example) TIME Magazine's doctoring of O.J. Simpson's mugshot is inoffensive because it's "based on" a real photograph.

When you make a representation of something it is always a fiction. Always. And in the construction of a fiction there are always choices to be made, and criticizing those choices can be legitimate. "This fiction is based on real events" is not a defense. Law and Order is not a documentary, and even documentaries aren't objective representations of reality.
posted by jbushnell at 11:35 AM on January 28, 2001

I saw that episode. (I thought it was weak, like most Law & Order episodes, but that's not the issue.) There were at least two Latinos who weren't baddies, one who tried to stop the murder and one who was a victim of the harassment. And the eventual killer (spoiler!) wasn't Puerto Rican. Just some data.
posted by rodii at 11:38 AM on January 28, 2001

Clearly, making a representation is always to distort reality. And clearly too what we think is objective is but the perspective of the maker. But the question still remains and giving notions of art/representation,reality/perspective etc does not address the issue. Is one simply to avoid any suggestion of race, ethnicity, color, religion, gender, country of origin etc in order to avoid giving offense to some one or to some group?
When a goup has not yet in general considered itself arrived, mainstream, they are likely to take ofrfense at perceived slights. After becoming "assimilated," they care much less and know there are both good and bad in their group and in any other group.
posted by Postroad at 11:46 AM on January 28, 2001

Another thing to keep in mind is that the people who are usually heard decrying any perceived mistreatment of any group generally stand to benefit from whipping up as much unrest as possible. The self-appointed spokespersons gain stature and public profile, and this makes fund-raising
easier. And just like lawyers can't let the littlest trademark infringement slip by because that could legally invalidate their trademark, special interest groups don't dare miss an opportunity to rally the troops whenever it arises. If they don't they may be seen as "going soft", or some rival group may steal their thunder.
posted by BGM at 11:56 AM on January 28, 2001

When a group has not yet in general considered itself arrived, mainstream, they are likely to take offense at perceived slights. After becoming "assimilated," they care much less and know there are both good and bad in their group and in any other group.


By this standard, no group considers itself mainstream. About four years ago, I started counting claims that antagonism to such-and-such a group constituted "the last acceptable prejudice." So far, I've come up with the following: homosexuals, heterosexuals, men, divorced men, women, Caucasians, African-Americans, Asians, Latinos, Italians, Jews, Catholics, religious people in general, the disabled, the obese, liberals, and conservatives. Are these groups drawing straws for the position of "last acceptable prejudice"? Is there a lottery we should know about?

posted by thomas j wise at 12:48 PM on January 28, 2001

Since the episode won't be re-run, except maybe a long time from now on A&E, I'll feel free to spoil it in part. The murder, discovered as always in the teaser before the credits, did take place in the park with several Latino young men engaging in "wilding". Most of the investigation, however, centered on the woman's acquaintances, including her husband, a dot-com executive; the husban'ds best friend and vp; and the husband's girlfriend. One of the motives was supposedly the imminent break-up of the company and the friend's loss of his investment. Based on screen time, it could be seen more as an indictment of dot-commers and money men.

[Official episode summary including conclusion]

In general I felt it was not up to the quality of other L&O episodes, which very often are drawn from one or more infamous events in the recent news. This was one of the few, though, that used a pre-credits disclaimer, roughly "Although based on real events this is a fictional story not intended as a portrayal of any one individual". Usually they write stories that turn back in on themselves and suggest more gray than black and white. This one didn't do that very well. The B story, while providing typical distraction, wasn't a strong counterpoint. Had they gone for a more pointed commentary -- perhaps a Hispanic policeman, or a compromised politician ordering the cops to look the other way, or the dot-com guy using the wilding to cover up his own murder -- it wouldn't have been so offensive.

It's very frustrating. The "fun" stories involving crime have this way of slanting the portrayal of easily-stereotyped ethnic groups. Something like the Onion story "Chinese Grocer Lambasted by Chinese Groups for Perpetuating Stereotypes".
posted by dhartung at 12:55 PM on January 28, 2001

dhartung is right about the B story; it literally just disappeared about 35 minutes in, which threw everything off. (I really thought it was going to turn out that the dotcom guy's friend offed the wife because he was in love with the dotcom guy.)

But anyway, having seen the episode, I can't figure out any reason for NBC to cave like this, other than pure fear of special-interest groups. There just wasn't anything in this episode that was that far out of line with reality, or that portrays Puerto Ricans, as am ethnic group, negatively. Puerto Rican Day parades are always raucous affairs. They do tend to attract lots of Puerto Ricans. A few of them do bad things to other people at that time. The only difference between the real incident last year and this episode is that someone in the episode died, and died only because she was too close to the women-pawing that was going on, not because she was in the mess to begin with. And even then the killer turns out not to have been Puerto Rican; he was a semi-retarded Brazilian kid.

The one thing the episode didn't touch on that it should have was the fact that the cops were nowhere to be found in Central Park because they'd been ordered by their superiors to stay on the perimeters of the park. The brass didn't want to crack down on the wilder parade antics (lots of drinking and pot smoking and general rowdiness along the edges of the parade) because they knew they'd get attacked for "being racist."
posted by aaron at 2:47 PM on January 28, 2001

Oh, this is bad. From Inside.com:

At Thursday's meeting, network executives told the activists -- who also included representatives from the Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund and the Puerto Rican Day Parade -- that they were in the midst of reorganizing NBC's standards and practices department, partly to address concerns about portrayals of minorities on network shows. Sassa later called Wolf to tell him the network had agreed not to repeat the episode.

Looks like every non-white male on NBC from here on out will look like they just stepped off the set of Touched by an Angel. Nice going Zucker; you just guaranteed you're not even going to last as long as your predecessor.
posted by aaron at 2:52 PM on January 28, 2001

Has NBC apologied for Law and Order: Special Victims Unit yet? That show really sucks.
posted by Doug at 3:03 PM on January 28, 2001

I haven't seen the show, but then again, my guess is that a fair percentage of the people making the complaint haven't, either. (It smacks of the way that the UK tabloids create scare campaigns with the aid of a few "rent-a-quote" MPs and lobbyists, as so effectively parodied by Chris Morris.)
posted by holgate at 3:40 PM on January 28, 2001

Of course not, holgate. About 2-3 years ago an entire series was cancelled before it ever aired, or very close to it, because of protests (The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer, a satirical sitcom centering on Lincoln's black butler).

In the still-remembered parody volume The 80s: a Look Back (published in 1979), they described a half-hour TV show that was cancelled during its pilot episode around the 7-minute mark ....
posted by dhartung at 7:11 PM on January 28, 2001

That happened to a real show, "Turn-On" (a spinoff of "Laugh-In"). It was around 1967. Cancelled before commercial break.

"Desmond Pfeiffer" ran for at least a few episodes, and was cancelled because it was godawful and nobody watched (at least some of the godawfulness was due to offensiveness, I'm sure).
posted by rodii at 7:40 PM on January 28, 2001

Does that mean they didn't come back to the program after the first break, or that they just made the decision to cancel it by the first commercial break?
posted by kindall at 8:23 PM on January 28, 2001

The latter. The episode did finish airing.

There was another show around 1960 called "You're in the Picture." It was a game show hosted by Jackie Gleason, where celebrities stuck their heads through holes in a piece of wood with a scene painted on it (like you do at carnivals and have your picture taken looking stupid). Then they had to ask questions to figure out what the scene was. The show was so bad that Gleason spent the entire next episode apologizing to the audience. Then it became a standard-issue talk/variety thing.
posted by aaron at 10:13 PM on January 28, 2001

You can't blame them for trying "You're in the Picture," though. The idea sounds like it actually has potential.
posted by kindall at 10:58 PM on January 28, 2001

"Has NBC apologied for Law and Order: Special Victims Unit yet? That show really sucks."

I'm still waiting for the "Suddenly Susan" apology.
posted by darren at 7:28 AM on January 29, 2001

Remember the controversy surrounding The Siege? As I recall, Arab-American groups were up in arms because of the portrayal of Arabs as terrorists and the depicted internment of Arab-Americans in order to find the terrorists.

But it seemed to me that the whole message of the movie was that that kind of behavior was stupid. One of the major law-enforcement officers was Arab and his own son was detained in the camp. Not that the movie did a good job of making its point, but it certainly wasn't a racist message. If anything, it was the opposite. I imagine most of the controversy was generated by individuals who hadn't even seen the movie.

Not that this necessarily has anything to do with this episode of L&O, but I've been wanting to throw that in somewhere, and there are some parallels, anyway.
posted by daveadams at 11:56 AM on January 29, 2001

I imagine most of the controversy was generated by individuals who hadn't even seen the movie.

That is true of every major movie controversy. I remember people being proud of condemning The Last Temptation of Christ without having seen it. Apparently the "I know it when I see it" crowd has now decided they don't even have to see it, after all.
posted by kindall at 5:00 PM on January 29, 2001

(tag-closing post)
posted by youhas at 7:07 PM on January 29, 2001

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