‘Propaganda’ is hard to prove
Liberal Hollywood has been taking a beating in recent days, thanks to the fallout from a provocative new expose called “Primetime Propaganda: The True Hollywood Story of How the Left Took Over Your TV.”
Written by Ben Shapiro, a 27-year-old Harvard Law School grad who is an executive at a conservative talk show radio network, the book is a sensation in the conservative media world, earning admiring coverage from virtually every corner of the Fox News realm as well as right-wing blogs like Andrew Breitbart’s Big Hollywood.
Shapiro’s book doesn’t contend just that Hollywood is lousy with liberals, hardly a shocker, but that showbiz liberals have promoted a political agenda on TV for decades. He also argues that liberals actively discriminate against conservatives through what he calls a “leftist oligarchy” that freezes them out of creative jobs.
By the time I sat down to talk with Shapiro last week, he’d caused such a fuss that veteran Hollywood writer Lionel Chetwynd and former CBS Entertainment Productions chief Norman Powell had resigned from the Caucus for Producers, Writers and Directors, a showbiz group geared toward promoting creative freedom and diversity. The men cited inflammatory remarks made in Shapiro’s book by Vin Di Bona, a fellow caucus member and executive producer of “MacGyver” who said, when Shapiro asked him if everyone in Hollywood was a liberal, that “it’s probably accurate and I’m happy about it.”
You might say that Shapiro’s biggest accomplishment in “Primetime Propaganda” is that he got all sorts of prominent Hollywood liberals to shoot themselves in, well, their left foot. “Friends” creator Marta Kauffman admits that she consciously put together a writing staff “of mostly liberal people.” When asked if conservatives are discriminated against in Hollywood, writer-director Nicholas Meyer responded: “Well, I hope so.” When Shapiro interviewed “Laugh-In” creator George Schlatter, he was treated to a lengthy diatribe about the “balloon buffoon” Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, whom he said represented “one of the main reasons we should legalize abortion but make it retroactive.”
Shapiro has used many of the tactics popularized by Breitbart and James O’Keefe, the wily muckraker whose NPR sting operation led to the resignation of the organization’s chief executive. Shapiro didn’t pretend to be someone he wasn’t, as O’Keefe has often done. He simply allowed his liberal targets to assume he was one of them. As he told me, he showed up for his interviews with showbiz bigwigs wearing a Harvard Law School baseball cap, in part to make them believe he was a fellow member of the educated aristocracy, in part because he’s an Orthodox Jew and has to cover his head in public.
Some victims, like Di Bona, have accused Shapiro of misrepresentation, saying he never revealed his political agenda. “I told everyone this was a book about the history of television and the evolution of social messaging,” Shapiro explains. “When I ask the question -- is there discrimination against conservatives in Hollywood? -- the answer shouldn’t vary depending on the politics of who’s asking the questions.”
Nonetheless, when it comes to politics, Shapiro is to the right of Michael Medved. He refers to “The Simpsons” and “Friends” as “insidiously brilliant leftist propaganda.” He calls Schlatter a “cultural Marxist from the Herbert Marcuse school.” He accuses “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” as having “embraced the memes of the radical feminist movement.” CBS chief Les Moonves is a “committed leftist.” And “Happy Days” creator Garry Marshall is an “anti-big business” liberal with “socialist leanings.”
Shapiro doesn’t offer an especially persuasive case for why, if “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” or “The Simpsons” have such a radical message, they’ve gone over like gangbusters with middle America. I also don’t buy Shapiro’s argument that showbiz liberals have used TV to promote causes because they are outsiders determined to “forcibly enlighten the society that rejected them.” He calls Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows” a “socialist paradise.” I think Sid was, ahem, just trying to be funny.
If you look at the history of TV’s involvement with social causes, it’s a lot easier to make the case that TV is a reflective medium, not an activist one. Until the explosion of cable TV in the 1990s, TV usually embraced causes long after they were accepted by the public.
Take the civil rights movement. Shapiro argues that artists and writers played a major role in helping the movement achieve its goals. That’s a callow misreading of history. Civil rights were achieved through the bravery of black and white Americans who laid their lives on the line for their cause. When I asked Shapiro what TV shows had promoted civil rights, he volunteered “Room 222,” an episode of “Gunsmoke” involving black Buffalo Soldiers and Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone.” He’s right about Serling. But “Room 222,” like the “Gunsmoke” episode, first aired in 1969, long after the Congress had passed its landmark civil rights legislation.
He also volunteered an episode of “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” in which the Petries think they’ve switched babies with a black couple, and “The Mod Squad,” which costarred Clarence Williams III. But “The Mod Squad” didn’t arrive until 1968 and when it comes to ardent liberal causes, a baby-switching episode on “Dick Van Dyke” is pretty thin gruel.
Shapiro’s most troubling accusation -- that conservatives are discriminated against in Hollywood -- remains hard to prove. In his book, Shapiro recounts his troubles trying to sell spec scripts in town. He says his agent -- “a leading agent,” he told me -- called him after another member of the agency Googled Shapiro. “I’m not sure we can represent you,” the agent said, because “your political views will make it impossible for you to get a job in this town.”
Unfortunately, Shapiro wouldn’t identify the agency, so it’s impossible to verify the story. Shapiro mentions a few anecdotal examples of discrimination, but he rarely names any names.
If Hollywood liberals are guilty of anything, it’s of being insular and, judging from their remarks in this book, unbelievably self-aggrandizing. Conservatives aren’t the only minority outside looking in. After all, there are virtually no people of color in any top job at any studio, talent agency and production company. Does that mean liberal Hollywood is discriminating against African Americans as much as conservatives? Or is Hollywood simply another one of many insular worlds, like the upper executive reaches of Wall Street or Major League Baseball, where people of color are also hard to find?