Maciej Toporowicz / Getty

The FBI has long been a staple of pop culture. But, with the president of the United States repeatedly tweeting criticisms about it, the Bureau is in the public eye in a new way. As the FBI suffers what may be its biggest image crisis since the Hoover era, its power to control the way it’s portrayed in public is much diminished. In today’s issue of The Masthead, we trace how the FBI’s depictions in American culture shape the way we think about one of our most important government agencies.

—Matt Peterson

The Golden Age of FBI Image Control

These days, Saturday Night Live can freely poke fun at the world’s most famous FBI agent, ex-director Robert Mueller. That’s a stark change from the Hoover-era FBI, when control of the Bureau’s image was tightly regulated. Caroline Kitchener and Abdallah Fayyad looked into how that control worked, and how it’s changed.

The agents in the 1965 TV series The F.B.I., look strikingly similar. They’re tall, white, and male, with matching suits and comb-overs. “To challenge organized crime—to meet it,” an announcer booms in a promo for the show, “you need a special breed of men: dedicated men.” The show, produced by ABC, ran for nine years, and was wildly popular. It was also, often blatantly, FBI propaganda.

When J. Edgar Hoover assumed leadership of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1924, then known as the Bureau of Investigation, the agency began to aggressively shape its image. “Very early on, Hoover had a legitimate sense that if law enforcement was going to be effective—if people were going to come to you with their tips, and respect you and fund you—it had to be sold to the American people as a worthy public good,” said Beverly Gage, professor of 20th century American history at Yale.

In 1965, at the height of Hoover’s influence on American media, the FBI’s approval rating peaked at 84 percent. It’s just 49 percent today. But while encouraging citizens to trust an agency charged with protecting them is arguably a good thing, history shows that the FBI was least accountable at the moment it was most trusted. Today, the publicity arm of the FBI is less powerful than it was during the Hoover era. But it continues to consult with directors and producers on hundreds of productions. In a moment when the F.B.I. is constantly making headlines, it’s especially important to be skeptical about the agency’s power over the media, and the way it chooses to portray itself.

Hoover had soft and hard power at his disposal

In the 1930’s, crime and violence dominated the American screen. Backlash from the FBI and other agencies led the film industry to adopt the Hays Code, which urged directors to exercise “special care” and “good taste” when portraying crime, law enforcement, and various types of unsavory behavior. As you’ll see below, Hoover used the new code to his advantage, encouraging producers and directors to meet with him whenever they wanted to include portrayals of the Bureau in their work. Two decades later, in 1954, Congress made it illegal for anyone to depict the FBI for a commercial purpose without the explicit approval of the FBI director.

In the 1960s, with its approval sky-high, the FBI perpetrated a series of gross human rights violations. The Bureau, under Hoover, harassed and spied on civil rights leaders and other activists. In the years before Martin Luther King’s death, the FBI gathered evidence of his infidelity, and tried to use it to blackmail King into killing himself.

Much of the abuse was only revealed in 1975, when the Senate convened the Church Committee to respond to Watergate and other abuses. Three years later, with the FBI’s approval rating at an all-time low, Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Information Act, designed to keep the FBI in check by allowing other branches of government to oversee its surveillance operations. Overall, the FBI lost much of the power it once had to determine how it was seen and understood. Today, directors and producers are no longer legally required to consult with the FBI before portraying the agency in film or on television.

The FBI still influences the entertainment industry, but not like before

The FBI is tight-lipped about its continued efforts to promote its brand through books and films, but a recent report from Buzzfeed News found that the agency reviewed over 700 requests for media assistance in 2012. It more recently worked on shows like Netflix’s Mindhunter and continues to consult on CBS’s Criminal Minds. And while, today, the FBI insists that it refrains from either editing or approving scripts, it’s more likely to work with productions that depict it in a light that it favors. (The FBI did not respond to a request for comment.)

The Bureau’s reasoning behind all the time, money, and energy spent on Hollywood productions is that public trust makes it more effective. But while intelligence agencies like the CIA also have entertainment-industry liaison offices, many government agencies like the IRS—which suffers from its share of bad publicity—do not. That distinction—between agencies that largely work in public and those that have secret components, like the FBI, may explain discomfort with the Bureau’s image-management. Gage warned that secrecy and the power to create propaganda make for dangerous opportunities to act against the public interest. “That combination, I think, is pretty toxic,” she said.

As a public agency, the FBI has a reasonable interest in ensuring that portrayals in pop culture are accurate. But it’s not unreasonable to be skeptical of the ways the Bureau interacts with Hollywood given the agency’s past abuses. “In Hoover’s case, [public trust] often meant they were covering up and weren’t providing an accurate reflection of what the FBI was doing,” Gage said.

As FBI director, James Comey made a point of publicly coming to grips with the agency’s past, keeping a copy of King’s surveillance file on his desk as a constant reminder of the agency’s past overreach. Under his leadership, the FBI took their agents-in-training on a field trip to King’s memorial in Washington, D.C., to reflect on the agency’s harassment of the civil-rights leader. This, too, is a form of image-management.

And yet, as Comey’s public life illustrates, trust is “hard-won and easily lost,” as Amy Zegart, a co-director of Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, put it. During Hoover’s time as FBI chief, the agency had an easier time controlling its public image. But today, with control of media fractured—more on that below—it may not be as easy to spin the narrative like it once was.

—Caroline Kitchener and Abdallah Fayyad

The Past: How Hoover Manipulated Hollywood

To ensure positive portrayals of the FBI, longtime director J. Edgar Hoover was actively involved in the development of films and TV shows about the agency. As the following films show, Hoover’s tight leash on Hollywood held all the way until his death in 1972.

  • G-Men (1935)

The wildly popular G-Men was one of the first movies to portray Hoover’s desired image of the FBI. He appropriated the term G-Man, or “government man,” after it was coined by gangsters, and used it to illustrate federal agents as lawful, clean-cut characters.

  • Walk East on Beacon! (1952)

Released during the height of the Second Red Scare in the 1950s, the movie portrayed FBI agents triumphing over communist spies. It was directly based on a Reader’s Digest article Hoover wrote about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Americans who were executed for providing nuclear weapon designs to the Soviet Union—“the crime of the century,” as Hoover put it.

  • The FBI Story (1959)

During filming, Hoover, as a consultant, forced FBI Story director Mervyn LeRoy to reshoot scenes and posted special agents to LeRoy’s side. LeRoy said of the film crew, “Everybody … from the carpenters and electricians right to the top, had to be okayed by the FBI.” Hoover only approved the film in the first place after creating a "dirt" file on LeRoy.

  • Moon Pilot (1962)

Hearing that Walt Disney’s Moon Pilot might portray the FBI negatively, Hoover began covert investigations, producing 22 pages of official memos, into its production. Upon learning that the film depicted a bumbling FBI agent, Hoover intervened. Disney changed the character to that of a “federal security officer.”

  • The F.B.I. (1965-1974)

Hoover greenlit The F.B.I. on the condition that its broadcaster, ABC, buy movie rights to his book, Masters of Deceit. Some of his involvement was public at the time, but memos later released under the Freedom of Information Act revealed the extent of Hoover’s influence. Bette Davis, for example, was banned from the show as an alleged “communist sympathizer.”

  • The President’s Analyst (1967)

Producer Robert Evans claimed that Hoover sent a pair of FBI agents to pressure him into shuttering the political-satire film. When he refused, a studio executive allegedly called him, screaming, “Are you crazy? You don’t play games with Hoover.” Evans changed mentions of the FBI to the FBE, but believed that, ever since, his phones were bugged by the agency.

  • Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

Much of Hoover’s misdeeds came to light only after his death. The FBI’s image shifted quickly. Dog Day Afternoon made a hero out of a bank robber pursued by local police and the FBI. While the police were sympathetic characters, the FBI agents were painted as corrupt and deceptive. That year, the movie won an Academy Award.

—Karen Yuan

The Present: How Teens Are Making FBI Memes

Here’s a joke going around on Twitter:

People have long riffed about being “put on a list” for Googling sensitive words, but the new surveillance meme has a twist: It depicts a relationship between the meme makers, many of them teens, and the friendly and supportive FBI agents who surveil them. The FBI agents in these memes help the protagonists with tests, watch TV shows with them, and save their lives by scaring potential murderers away with computer boot-up sounds. The campy and absurd humor reframes the the FBI from Big Brother into a harmless, affable roommate. It’s a sympathetic, defanged image of the FBI during a time when the public’s view of agency has been critical.

They reflect a public image no longer wholly controlled by the FBI. That singular, swashbuckling image of the G-Man—the “special breed of men”—has been replaced with a character that’s a mirror of how young people feel about surveillance at large. “It’s people taking back the power, or defusing the power, of surveillance culture,” said Kenyatta Cheese, cofounder of the meme archive Know Your Meme. Young people know surveillance happens, and they’re making jokes about it. The FBI memes reveal a broader anxiety about being watched online. “Even though the focus is on the FBI agent, [the meme] also overlaps with ... being scared of this larger public that’s looking at everything you do,” said Cheese.

Futurist Jamais Cascio coined the term “participatory panopticon” to describe an internet in which institutions and people monitor and track each other. “I would assume that we could be living in that type of dystopia,” said Rashid Adem, a college student in Virginia who memed about the FBI. Adem added he didn’t feel worried. But memes like these also raise concerns of normalizing surveillance culture. That’s particularly true because memes spread when users participate in them. “It feels a bit like a slippery slope,” Cheese admitted.

From Hoover’s carefully curated image of the G-man, the contemporary image of the FBI has become inseparable from the larger surveillance apparatus. Memes showing FBI agents as not only tangible characters, but also benign companions, are a response. “I definitely see it as a way to cope with the possibility that we really are being highly surveilled,” Owen Meyer, a college student from Boston whose meme went viral on Twitter, said. The FBI agent is a companion, but they are everywhere, all the time.

—Karen Yuan

Today’s Wrap Up

  • Question of the Day: Do you have questions about the FBI? Send them our way by replying to this email.

  • Your Feedback: How are we doing? Take a few seconds and let us know.

  • What’s Coming: Next week, we’ll go behind the scenes with an animator on The Atlantic’s video team.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to