It's rare when you read a nonfiction book to be thrilled -- truly thrilled -- by it. Ben Shapiro's Primetime Propaganda isn't just thrilling, it's deep, phenomenally insightful, and intelligent. Primetime Propaganda documents, in tremendous detail, how and why our culture is so screwed up, nihilistic, and alien to what most Americans want for their children -- and how television helped make it that way, in purposeful fashion.
I had a visceral feeling when I began reading Primetime Propaganda: I was in a racing car, dashing in and out of traffic, passing other cars, careening around corners and jumping curbs and hurtling up the freeway at breakneck speeds, never losing the trail to get to the trip's destination, slicing up the highway with the deftness of a brain surgeon. The pace of the book starts off that way and doesn't let up throughout, building a methodical and logical argument as to why Hollywood is the way it is: how each breakthrough leftist television show paved the way for the next level of open leftism, pushing the envelope farther and farther out, if for no other reason than to shock the sensibilities of most people and to pervert classic American values for our children.
That's one helluva ride for a nonfiction book. Primetime Propaganda meticulously details how a very small, incestuous group of people with limited ideas and limited ideals, almost all literally born in the same pod -- and whose relationship to American values is nothing short of hostile and contemptuous -- got into a position to mold the values of your own children more powerfully than you as a parent ever could. It's about the scariest thought on the planet. And Shapiro explains how it happened.
Primetime Propaganda traces how Hollywood became liberal, how Hollywood discriminates against conservatives, and how Hollywood justifies the continuation of that partisan political bent even as they perceive themselves to be open-minded. The problem seems to be that they are so open-minded that their brains have fallen out.
There is the George Clooney version of the "good" that Hollywood does for society, exemplified by his Academy Award speech in 2008:
And finally, I would say that, you know, we are a little bit out of touch in Hollywood every once in a while, I think. It's probably a good thing. Uhm, we're the ones who talk about AIDS when it was just being whispered. And we talked about civil rights when it wasn't really popular. And we, uh, you know, we bring up subjects...we are the ones...this Academy, this group of people gave Hattie McDaniel an Oscar in 1939 when blacks were still sitting in the backs of theaters. I'm proud to be a part of this Academy. I'm proud to be part of this community. I'm proud to be out of touch. And I thank you so much for this.
And then there is the darker, truer version of the "good" that Hollywood does, as Shapiro irrefutably outlines and documents. As Shapiro points out in reporting on scores of examples of actual popular shows throughout TV history and interviews with their creators, Hollywood falls far short of the "principled liberalism" to which Clooney apparently aspires. Instead, Hollywood delivers in spades on the unsavory, ultra-left, anti-American, Democrat liberalism that even Hollywood itself freely admits to disbursing.
There is something for everyone -- every generation -- in Primetime Propaganda. It traces the earliest shows of television in the 50's right up to current time. Every reader can relate, then, to the role that certain shows played in forming how they think today.
For myself, I remember vividly how Mary Tyler Moore joyously threw her hat up into the air to the refrain of "You're gonna make it after all!" I just didn't realize at the time how that show subliminally formed my other sensibilities. Mary Tyler Moore was masked as a boost for young women forging their way in society -- she was at the vanguard of women in a mature, male-dominated industry -- when in fact, it was also framing my values (and everyone else's) about the role of women (or lack thereof) in the family, which is arguably more important. For all the women who were at the vanguard in the business side of the magazine industry at that time (my industry) -- and there were about a half dozen of us -- none of us had our own, natural-born children. It's sort of creepy now, looking back, to realize how brainwashed we'd become. As Shapiro points out, the insidious thing about shows like Mary Tyler Moore is that they are so entertaining -- that's what makes them, as Shapiro describes, "A Spoonful of Sugar" designed to make the medicine go down.
Visiting these shows again from this distance is somewhat akin to going to a high school reunion. We see familiar faces at these reunions, faces we used to love, and we wonder what on earth we saw in some of those people so many years ago. How could we have been fooled into thinking that this now-fat-and-bald, boring and uninteresting guy standing in front of us used to make us swoon? They were cute then, ugly now. The same holds true of TV -- entertaining then, but from a distance, clearly propaganda.
As Primetime Propaganda points out, comedy from Hollywood is only one part of the manipulation of audience thinking. In the brilliant chapter, "Making The Right Cry: How Television Drama Glorifies Liberalism," consider this excerpt, for example:
While laughter attacks, drama converts, pulling our heartstrings,manipulating our emotions. If the philosophy of the political comedian is to make innocuous that which seemed offensive, the philosophy of the political dramatist is to make offensive that which seemed innocuous. Comedies are anti-morality crusades; dramas are morality tales. The question in drama is always which morality is being promoted.
Can anyone argue that? A brilliant example is from The Godfather:
The beauty of using drama as a political vehicle lies in the set-up: by stacking the characters and facts on one side or another, creators can drive audiences' emotions. Think about The Godfather, for example. In that brilliant drama, the main character is a murderer and a bootlegger; his father is an extortionist and a murderer as well; his oldest brother is an adulterer and a violent hothead. We like all of them, because Mario Puzo, Francis Ford Coppola, and Robert Towne weight the situation to their benefit: Michael Corleone becomes a murderer only because his father is unjustly threatened and his wife is murdered-and he only murders corrupt cops and drug dealers; Don Corleone extorts a pedophile; Sonny cheats on his wife but defends his sister from her abusive husband. The ease with which brilliant dramatists can twist and turn our morality is truly astonishing.
Can anyone argue that?
What is truly shocking in Primetime Propaganda is the realization that shows that seemed so innocuous, like The Twilight Zone, were in fact not quite so innocuous after all. The Twilight Zone took on societal challenges ranging from racism to suspicions about fifth column Communists during the Cold War. Rod Serling, the show's creator, went on to "tackle themes ranging from animal rights to xenophobia and religious ignorance in movies like Planet of the Apes." As a child, I had no idea I was being infused with a point of view on these societal issues -- more importantly, with Rod Serling's point of view of these societal issues. I thought I was watching a cool sci-fi show.
This renders false Hollywood's justification that the market wants liberal programming. How can someone be against (or for) what s/he is not even aware is happening? The market wants to be entertained, not brainwashed. No human being, if given the choice, would want brainwashing over entertainment in TV shows -- yet that is precisely what leftist Hollywood types think Americans want. That foolish and self-serving belief demonstrates the creators' utter contempt for their audiences as being useless idiots from nowhere, bound on a train to no place ("hillbillies").
But Shapiro goes far beyond that, brilliantly illuminating four gaping holes in the market-as-justification theory that explodes the myth, revealing the rather sordid but true Hollywood story of how the left turned entertainment into propaganda.
Most incredibly, Shapiro shows that two outside forces combine to dictate programming: liberal interest groups and the government. As Shapiro shows, "both of them want conservative programming shut down and conservatives shut out of the business altogether." Dismay is the only word I can think of to describe my feeling after reading Shapiro's devastating expose of "The Celluloid Triangle," which describes, as his chapter states, "How Interest Groups, Government, and Hollywood Conspire to Keep TV Left." In this chapter, Shapiro does not spare conservatives either who, by their laziness or indifference, have allowed the continued dominance of the Hollywood/government/special interest groups axis to exert and maintain their power.
In Primetime Propaganda, Shapiro even shows that Hollywood liberals won't leave children unscathed. We have the liberal aspects of Captain Kangaroo's emphasis on building kids' self-esteem (unearned) to Mister Rogers' Neighborhood's premises of diversity and tolerance to Barney and Friends' "everyone is special" theme...but then we veer off into The Puzzle Place:
This show was unabashedly political, far more so than even Sesame Street. One third-season episode of the show, "Family Fun," for example, featured discussion of same-sex parents. Cartoon shows from PBS became more and more openly liberal over time: In 2005, Postcards from Buster, an animated show about a traveling rabbit, courted controversy when it showed Buster traveling to Vermont and meeting gay parents. Brigid Sullivan, producer of the show, said that the show was designed to incorporate diversity into "the fabric of the series to help children understand and respect differences and learn to live in a multicultural society."
In all cases, children are being told "that they are special, that accepting everyone no matter their behavior is the epitome of goodness, and that all cultures are equal," robbing them of their ability to think critically, especially about behaviors that could be socially or even legally unacceptable. By taking us through example after example of how this agenda-driven content is delivered, Shapiro proves time and again that "whether it's environmentalism or the extreme diversity and tolerance movement, whether it's self-esteem or sexuality, children's television is a one-sided political machine in the same way the rest of television is."
All of this may sound depressing as all get out, but Primetime Propaganda ends on a very optimistic note. There is hope, says Shapiro, because of satellite technology and the Internet; the television industry as we have known it throughout the latter half of the 20th century and the 21st up until now has one foot in the grave. The changes are so vast, two key TV players described them this way:
...Michael Nankin of Chicago Hope and Picket Fences: "I think [television] will be unrecognizable in ten years. ... Internet and television and movies are going to merge; there's not going to be such a delineation between them." Don Bellisario, creator of NCIS and JAG, suggested that television would press the bounds of our imaginations. "It's developing technically so rapidly, you know, it wouldn't surprise me if we had holographic television, you sat in your living room and the whole thing was there as a hologram."
Others thought the networks will simply disappear. With the difficulty that exists in creating programs that the whole family can watch together -- and even in spite of the success of family fare-type programming such as The Cosby Show, The Waltons, or Everybody Loves Raymond -- it's clear that liberalism, once again, has failed as a business model. They're more interested in creating liberal propaganda than in creating profitable programming. That preference is literally killing television.
But Shapiro doesn't end there. He challenges both liberals and conservatives to find solutions for the TV industry. Liberals will have to stop discriminating against others if they expect to flourish going forward. They should recognize that others deserve respect and tolerance too -- the very tenets which liberals preach and often ignore for themselves. And conservatives have to engage -- not leave the battlefield unattended -- and try their best to take a lesson from the liberals to change the industry from within, either inside the creative milieu or inside executive suites. They have a lot to offer the industry, since they can create balanced content to attract even larger audiences, and they can fill the exponentially growing need for excellent content.
Some of the advertisers have figured this out. In 1998, two of the biggest advertisers in television, Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson, got together to form the Family Friendly Programming Forum, bringing together forty national advertisers who control "one out of every three advertising dollars spent on network television." The forum has now changed its name to the Association of National Advertisers' Alliance for Family Entertainment, and its stated mission is to bring "smart, sophisticated, responsible stories about and for everyone in the American family. In June 2010, the Alliance announced that it raised $10 million to spend on family-friendly entertainment. 'We're putting our money where our mouths are,' explained Marc Goldstein, chief content officer for the alliance. 'We want to support this kind of programming in a tangible manner.' The alliance has done research showing that purchase-intent consumers' intent to purchase a product rises 12 percent when consumers see commercials during family-friendly television."
So you see, there really is hope. Not only because of what is happening within the television industry, but because of full-scale changes in the nature of the country. In my own case, I was raised in a conservative family yet was schooled by a liberal college and in a less overt way, by the television industry. It was no wonder that I went Full Monty down the road of liberalism when I attended college, reading The Feminine Mystique, which became my manifesto, and other such tripe. But conservatism for me prevailed after a down time of about a dozen years. It might have been the strong values imparted in my family, or it might have been my experience in business, having profit-and-loss responsibility for the national magazines I published. In any case, I did finally take heed of Winston Churchill's aphorism: "If you're not a liberal at twenty you have no heart, if you're not a conservative at forty you have no brain." I just hope that Ben Shapiro's advice to conservatives and liberals alike is heeded; we need a little more brain and a little less emotion in the most influential medium the country -- maybe even the world -- has ever known.
Carol A. Taber is president of FamilySecurityMatters.org.