Book Rec: Primetime Propaganda

And now it’s time to talk about something truly important: teevee.

Primetime Propaganda:
The True Hollywood Story of How the Left Took Over Your TV

by Ben Shapiro

This is a book about revealing the obvious: Hollywood is liberal. But this book stands out from the rest because it actually documents its claims with direct quotes from the people involved. Shapiro took advantage of his Harvard ball-cap and his fresh-faced youth to get interviews with some of television’s biggest names, and the candid opinions he managed to gather are at times very shocking. For example, in her interview with Shapiro, Susan Harris (creator of Soap and The Golden Girls) openly declares that conservatives are “idiots” who have “medieval minds” and are therefore “not open to anything reasonable.” Ouch.

Shapiro also spends a great deal of time describing how the television industry actually functions, and these sections of the book are also quite valuable. “Changing the channel is like voting in Cuba,” Shapiro snarks. “Your preference is not going to make much of a difference.” As he explains, this is because a huge number of our cable channels are owned by six – only six – mega-corporations — and these corporations collude with each other to make sure nobody really intrudes on their designated market shares. It’s like two street-side fruit sellers who make an agreement in which one sells only oranges and the other sells only apples. It’s not a “free market” by any stretch of the imagination.

And have you ever wondered why the television industry is so excited to grab that 18-to-49 market? Well, Shapiro tackles that too. He argues that the social science behind this focus on the young is debatable at best. It is not in fact a given that those in the 18-to-49 bracket are more likely to respond favorably to advertising or that this bracket has more buying power. It is true, however, that this bracket is more liberal — and that is quite convenient for television’s liberal creators.

Will conservative readers find this book illuminating? Yes — but if they’re anything like me, they will argue with Shapiro over his discussion of individual television programs. In my view, I think Shapiro often puts too much stock in authorial intent. Let me explain using a canon featured on our sci-fi blog: J. Michael Straczynski is a flaming liberal. Leftwing fans of his opus, Babylon 5, have drawn parallels between Clark, the fascistic president of the Earth Alliance, and George W. Bush, and JMS certainly hasn’t discouraged them. If I were using Shapiro’s method of analysis, I would thus have to conclude that because JMS is liberal, Babylon 5 must be liberal. But when I ignore JMS and look at the show itself, I see a text that is comparatively conservative in character. Babylon 5 is often (legitimately) praised for its treatment of religion and spirituality. It is also a show that skewers the press, endorses the use of military force to fight evil, and repeatedly steals material from Sacred Scripture. JMS’s treatment of sin and redemption in particular is absolutely outstanding — and his central romance is about as chaste as it can possibly be without it morphing into a simple friendship.

Funny things happen when a creator’s vision is translated to the boob tube and consumed by the audience. That vision becomes part of a larger context — and it gets reinterpreted according to each audience member’s worldview. One viewer may look at Dr. Gregory House and conclude that David Shore is stumping for atheism because House rarely loses in religious arguments. Another viewer may look at the same character and conclude that, given House’s manifest unhappiness, Shore’s show is anything but a celebration of atheism. (The second is the interpretation SABR Matt and I favor.) Regardless of what Shore himself might think, I believe you can use the text to support both readings. Yes — I admit that this approach is suspiciously post-modern, but it has certainly served me well. When you’re a conservative who loves TV, you’re almost required to become a King Rationalizer. I mean, you basically have a choice between that or living with persistent annoyance.

Of course, all of this is not to say that television isn’t predominantly liberal. It is. But I think we need to be more discerning than Shapiro is here when it comes to identifying which canons are definitely liberal and which canons are open to alternative interpretations. The Cosby Show and The Waltons? Those shows are conservative no matter what their creators intended. M*A*S*H? Yes, that one’s liberal, especially in the later seasons. (But, so help me, I adore M*A*S*H for things that are entirely unrelated to the show’s pacifism. RADAR, I LOVE YOU! I WANT STUFF YOU IN MY BACKPACK AND MAKE YOU MY TEDDY BEAR! Ahem. Sorry about that. My inner fangirl went nuts for a second there.) Star Trek? Mostly liberal, though I think the team behind Deep Space Nine in particular deserves to be recognized for bringing, at the very least, some balance to the franchise.

When all is said and done, though, I think Shapiro and I agree on what television needs to do to make up for its failures. Neither one of us is really looking for shows which align with each and every one of our values. We simply want TV writers to acknowledge the possibility that not all Republicans are ignorant rubes. We want TV writers to acknowledge the possibility that not all people of faith are judgmental hypocrites. And for goodness sake, we want TV writers to be honest and acknowledge the very real foibles of the left. In short, what we want is a modicum of fairness.

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