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Unchanging Channels: Book review of "Primetime Propaganda" by Ben Shapiro

Tevi Troy

There is a venerable tradition of conservative books on Hollywood’s pervasive liberalism.

Ben Stein got the ball rolling in 1979 with his groundbreaking The View from Sunset Boulevard: America as Brought to You by the People Who Make Television. Stein argued, based on interviews with top executives, that there is a certain worldview that Hollywood writers and producers share that is reflected on the screen. This view was not necessarily liberal so much as skeptical of large organizations—think the military, corporations, and organized religion—as well as rural America. The origins of the perspective stemmed from the shared demographic characteristics of the mostly urban, Jewish executives, and could be distilled in your average episode of Barnaby Jones, where the aged, milk-drinking detective would come to a corrupt small town where the outwardly religious local sheriff was also the bar owner and, ultimately, the bad guy.

Another entry in this series was Michael Medved’s Hollywood vs. America (1992), in which the author argued that Hollywood is a small town that is not economically rational. G-rated movies, Medved found, earn more money, but filmmakers seem to prefer to make R-rated movies because they are more prestigious among their avant-garde peers. Medved argues, convincingly, that if Hollywood truly wanted to maximize profits it would make more G movies and far fewer R movies; but filmmakers are looking for validation from their friends rather than maximizing profits. This validation, he found, comes from pushing the boundaries of decency rather than specializing in inspiring moral tales that appeal to the families that support the most successful artistic ventures.

The common theme in these books is that the people who produce movies are a narrow, insular group, and that the narrowness of their perspective shows up onscreen. To this grouping we may now add Primetime Propaganda. Ben Shapiro’s method is much like that of Ben Stein: He went on a series of interviews with top Hollywood television executives to get a sense of the extent to which their politics affects the programming they help create. It turns out that the answer is: a lot. Shapiro, a young, young-looking, and Jewish Harvard Law School graduate, flattered these executives into meeting with him and giving him a look into their creative processes. He did not claim to share their political views; but if they, based on Shapiro’s looks, religion, and educational background, assumed that he was simpatico, he didn’t disabuse them of that notion.

Shapiro has found the insularity that Stein and Medved identified, but with far more purpose behind their actions than either Stein or Medved discovered. According to Shapiro—and he has the tapes to back him up—Hollywood is a small liberal clique in which conservatives are blacklisted and executives use television to promote a liberal worldview. And Shapiro has some personal experience with the blacklisting. He tells the tale of how one of the executives found Shapiro’s stories of life at Harvard Law School so engaging that he wanted Shapiro to write a pilot. Shapiro dutifully wrote a spec script and was in the process of acquiring an agent when the agent called: “One of our agents Googled you,” he said, “and found your website. I’m not sure we can represent you, because he thinks your political views will make it impossible for you to get a job in this town.”

In a town known for backstabbing with a smile, here it was, with no flashing teeth or sugarcoating. As Shapiro puts it, “Just like that. Straight out.”

Ben Shapiro’s personal experience is by no means the only evidence of the blacklist. The A-Team’s Dwight Schultz failed to get a role on St. Elsewhere because producer Bruce Paltrow (father of Gwyneth) declared, “There’s not going to be a Reagan a—hole on this show!” And TV’s Frasier, Kelsey Grammer, “was essentially forced to donate $10,000 to Barbara Boxer and the Democratic party to prevent a director from blackballing him.” Making this discrimination even worse is the hypocrisy of its purveyors, as Shapiro notes: “The same Hollywood that excoriated Joseph McCarthy and his allies for blacklisting Communists now does the same to conservatives.”

The blacklisting, while reprehensible, only affects a select few: the tiny band of Republicans in Hollywood. Shapiro’s bigger problem is with what this insular liberal clique he describes does in programming. He’s no prig: Shapiro likes cutting-edge shows with adult situations— The Wire, The Sopranos, etc.— and even gushes at one point that “television is awesome.” But what he does not like are the politics of those who make television shows and their conscious, directed effort to “blow a hole in the dike of American culture.”

Shapiro details these dike-blowing efforts in that section of the book in which he engages in a content analysis of various shows to demonstrate how they attempted to project their particular visions into American living rooms. While there are plenty of obvious instances of politics driving a show— All in the Family, M*A*S*H, Murphy Brown —Shapiro believes that even purportedly nonpolitical programs have political messages. Happy Days is thought to be “innocent,” for example, but its creators injected the subtext of a pre-Vietnam innocence into Richie and Fonzie’s adventures.

Shapiro does manage to introduce a few optimistic notes. At times, he finds, the attempt to propagandize backfires. The hyperliberal creators of The Cosby Show thought that they were making a subversive left-wing program about racism but found, to their dismay, that viewers liked the show’s underlying conservative message of a strong, hard-working American family. In addition, Shapiro has a series of recommendations that he feels can fix TV. Some of them are unrealistic—his admonition that Hollywood liberals stop discriminating, for example—but others are either taking place or distinctly possible, such as his suggestions that consumers get more choices, conservatives engage Hollywood more vigorously, and advertisers wake up to the myth that liberal ideals sell on television.

Shapiro closes with an appendix of the best conservative shows ever—including Magnum P.I., 24, The Simpsons, and South Park —that will make conservatives smile. But the pleasure readers take from the list suggests that books on Hollywood are much like the programming they deconstruct: full of supposed political intent, while viewers (and readers) just want entertainment.

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