TV is biased and that’s a good thing

‘Friends’ had gay-friendly messages; a new book calls it propaganda


Ben Shapiro, a conservative activist and pundit who’s been a frequent presence online, has written a new book called “Primetime Propaganda: The True Story of How the Left Took Over Your TV.” And to my surprise, Shapiro’s interview about the book in the Independent makes it sound somewhat interesting. Not because I agree with him that Hollywood is attempting to brainwash us or that these messages are evil; that’s just not something I agree with. But because he actually seems to have bothered to go out and talk to some – often retired – makers of mainstream U.S. television, and because there is a grain of truth there: TV, especially good TV, is not devoid of a point of view on social and political issues. (Update: Then again, Shapiro’s own announcement of the project makes it sound a lot worse; it has an air of victimology combined with a vaguely threatening tone toward people who said nothing more shocking than that their ideas are reflected in their work.)

Shapiro considers it a sign of a nefarious secret agenda that Friends had gay-friendly messages, and he considers it a smoking gun when co-creator Marta Kauffman admits that casting Newt Gingrich’s lesbian sister was a take-that to Gingrich. He even notes that cheesy shows like MacGyver had an Agenda, that there was an anti-gun message to the show as a whole and various environmental and political messages encoded into the stories. And he’s not wrong that these things happened. Friends has a point of view when it deals with gay issues; any show that deals with military or legal issues has a point of view on those issues, and so on.

The term “propaganda” is a loaded and mistaken term, but many shows attempt to use their success and their broad audience to influence social attitudes. Will & Grace was entertainment first and foremost, but it was also trying to influence attitudes. And one reason the Parents’ Television Council gets so het-up about TV is that they know it can influence attitudes, or at least help cement them. TV in the late ’90s didn’t single-handedly create society’s changing attitudes to gay issues, but someone whose attitudes were changing could look to TV for reinforcement of those new attitudes. Shapiro’s panic over Sesame Street may seem weird, but from his point of view, it’s not; Sesame Street was founded on certain issues – like giving city children more of a voice on TV after decades of kids’ TV that was mostly about the suburbs – that may or may not be “liberal” but are certainly not devoid of political purpose.

So I get that Shapiro might look at TV, which is made mostly by people with socially liberal attitudes, and get upset. But first of all, there’s no alternative to television with a social or political point of view, not if you want shows to be entertaining. A good show will reflect its’ creators experiences, opinions and lives to some extent; if they try to airbrush anything from their own experiences from the show, the result will be a bland show that fails. Attitudes and beliefs are a part of anything that’s any good, and even things that aren’t. And besides, trying to leave them out doesn’t really work; Jay Leno is bland because he will not express a point of view in his comedy, but certain assumptions (right, left or some weird combination of the two) are encoded into many of the bad jokes he tells.

Second, the liberal social attitudes on TV are more than balanced out by all the illiberal attitudes that TV has helped to spread or cement. TV hasn’t been as economically liberal as it has been socially liberal (which is similar to the position of Hollywood as a whole); unions have been portrayed as thuggish and evil in many TV shows. And TV is famously not-so-liberal when it comes to law enforcement – we all know that suspects have no rights, thanks to TV.

Bringing up that point also brings up the point that the “messages” in TV don’t necessarily follow a straight line from the writers’ own beliefs. Even supposedly liberal TV writers will create stories with a Dirty Harry-ish attitude to crime and suspects. Not because they’re creating propaganda, but because the cop is usually the hero, and the story is usually going to be on the side of the hero. Some of what is dismissed as the Hollywood Liberal Agenda is also just plain old dramatic necessity, like portraying rich people as evil: The villain needs to be powerful, rich people are more powerful than poor people, ergo, most villains are rich. Part of the reason avowedly conservative entertainments often fail is that they go against the rules of drama in order to make their points; a successful show with a conservative point of view, like 24, will not hesitate to take a “liberal” position if it helps the story, just as a “liberal” show will use “conservative” plot points where they work best.

But on the narrow point of whether TV shows incorporate the values of their makers, or whether they try to use their power to influence society – of course. And the ability to be part of social changes is one of the most interesting things about mainstream, mass-audience television. (As I’ve said in another post, The Wire was a brilliant show, but it could never have the influence David Simon would have liked it to have, since it reached so few people. A broadcast network cop show has tremendous influence on attitudes, often in bad ways, like the “CSI Effect” of giving us unrealistic expectations of law enforcement.) It’s not that people are completely passive and will believe anything television tells them. If TV helps to mainstream an attitude it’s because it was being mainstreamed in other areas. But it can help.

More than that, though, the creator’s personality is what makes a show unique – it’s sometimes the only thing that can separate all these similar shows with similar premises. A show that acts as a propaganda tract is a boring, undramatic show that won’t last, but a show that erases all traces of social and political points of view is an equally boring show that also won’t last. A demand for shows that are airbrushed of any point of view is a demand for shows that flop, and Hollywood has a strange aversion to flops.

Finally, when Bill Bickley (creator of Urkel!) says that he snuck anti-war messages into Happy Days, he may be referring to this scene from a 1977 episode (he wasn’t credited with writing the episode, but he was on staff); he seemed to have a fondness for semi-ironic, semi-sentimental moments where characters in the ’50s predict a Utopian future.


TV is biased and that’s a good thing

  1. The appropriate conservative answer should be to create good conservative television that is good television first, and conservative more as an afterthought (in contrast with say, much of Fox News’ programming). Indeed, it works best when the core message or concept put forth by a show is indirectly conservative. Plenty of great shows exist, following this basic formula.

    Yes Minister is probably the best illustration of public choice theory. It challenges the notion that government is a benign actor that can easily maximize the public good. Rather, in the show, Hacker proposes legislation that makes him look good politically, while Sir Humphrey pushes for actions that preserve the interest of the bureaucracy. Only when the two meet (a happenstance that rarely coincides with the public interest) is legislation possible.

    While South Park is an unabashedly libertarian show, its usual message is bigger than conservatism/libertarianism. The modal South Park episode constructs a group of people as a tribe, and then concludes with an invective against the tribe. This is why Cartman – an adept, amoral exploiter of tribes – is so important. The tribes vary considerably from one episode to the next, including concerned parents, alcoholics anonymous, the inevitable mob of idiots in South Park, Prius drivers, Mormons, scientologists, atheists and hyper-PC school employees. Satirizing conservatives as well as liberals gives the message considerably more credibility than if it were confined to only one of those. However, the critique of liberals is particularly powerful because liberals are much less likely to think of their liberalism as the product of tribal assumptions than say, church-goers or hyper-patriots. 

    And of course it works both ways. The sledgehammer liberalism put forward by many shows is ineffective at selling a message. Liberalism is most successful when it adopts a frame that is something else. Paths of Glory, Dr. Strangelove and Apocalypse Now are three of the most powerful anti-war movies out there. They succeed in part (it doesn’t hurt that they are brilliantly crafted by two of the greatest directors of all time) because they dispense with a typical “war is bad, think of the children, dialog before war, swords to plowshares blah blah blah” frame in favour of rather conservative ones. Paths of Glory is about an individual against the oppressive state. Dr. Strangelove is about a ludicrously inefficient bureaucracy. Apocalypse Now is about the inherent corruptibility of man. 

    If you want to use television and movies to spread a conservative message (as opposed to preaching to the converted), you need to find a way to use liberal frames against liberals. People get turned off when they realize you are mocking them transparently – there is a reason the Simpsons makes Ned Flanders a manifestly good human being. There is a jungle’s worth of low-hanging fruit out there for an enterprising conservative director. Animal rights could be a great vehicle for an anti-abortion message (alternately, in Palindromes there is an interesting reversal, in its portrayal of liberal parents trying to push their daughter to have an abortion against her own will). It would be easy to make liberal audiences hate a corporate fraudster antagonist, easing them into a point about the futility of a justice system emphasizing rehabilitation over punishment. And plenty of broader concepts with conservative implications (the balance of power, the price system) have yet to experience the red carpet treatment.

  2. There is no left-wing and right-wing….most normal people are a mixture of both, or in the centre. Art, in any form, is usually meant to make you think, to see things you hadn’t noticed before. To consider things in a new light.  It should never be confused with propaganda. We need more thinking people, not ideologues. Otherwise we’ll never make any progress.

  3. I’m sorry, but when Conservatives want to start their own network, it’s considered ‘hate propoganda’ but when the left-wing liberals want to flood the airwaves with gay friendly messages, it’s considered a good thing?  

    Talk about a double standard.

    Either TV is biased and everybody has their right to their own network, or we remove all biased messages from TV.  That’s fair.

    • Well SOMEONE has to drag you kicking and screaming into the 21st century. 

      • I see… so biased TV is OK if you agree with it but another segment of the Canadian population doesn’t?

        Well, then bring on Sun TV.  

        Ironically, I never did intend to watch it but it is exactly opinions like yours – that claim to be liberal and tolerant but are actually only tolerant of your own views – that make me want to support the network.

        I would consider myself center-right in ideology – I have never watched Fox nor do I read the National Post. But due to left-wing extremism (as displayed by your attitude and intolerance of anything that disagrees with your views), I am forced to vote Conservatives. FYI – this was my first time voting for them.

        The extreme left does just as good a job pushing people towards more ideological stance as does the extreme right.

        But never mind you – we all have to agree with you right?

        • Yes, everyone must agree with me. Which is why I comment.

          Power to Me!

  4. Weinman – do you know if main tv character has had abortion yet?  I don’t pay attention to tv as much as I use to but I remember up to say 2000 no one had abortion, I think? Something like that, anyways.

    It is interesting topic because conservatives believe in free speech while liberals are more personal is political. Cons have been ignoring culture for long time while liberals dominate it and use it to hector viewers into being more like liberals.

    • 1972 Maude

    • You’ve apparently been ignoring tv since 1972: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maude_%28TV_series%29

      “Cons have been ignoring culture for long time while liberals dominate it and use it to hector viewers into being more like liberals.”

      Ah, the liberal conspiracy. It may not exist, but it’s still an all-purpose tool for rationalizing sweeping generalizations about hundreds of millions of people.

  5.  It seems to me that these so called “liberal” tv shows are often reflecting trends in our culture.  I live in urban Alberta and I am happy to report it is gay friendly.  Kids “come out” to their friends in high school and there are no repercussions.  To the “Canadian Female” who is concerned about the “gay friendly messages” that those left-wingers want to flood the market with…I say the same thing I said to my 80 year old mother when she fretted about the legalization of gay marriage….”What are you fretting about?  No gay person is going to want to marry you”.

    • That was not the point of my post – I find it rather incredible that you don’t see the hypocrisy that I was merely pointing out. I merely used the ‘gay friendly messages’ as an example because it is what was argued in the article.

      My point is simply that left-wing advocates claim that biased TV is good only so long as it agrees with what they believe.  Everything else is labeled ‘hate’ or ‘propaganda’.  These are the same people who claim ‘tolerance’.

      It’s amazingly hypocritical.

      • Oh, my mistake. I thought you used the “gay friendly messages” because they bothered you.  I myself have no problem with Fox news or the like.  Sometimes I even watch Bill O’Reily for entertainment value.  What people chose to watch is their own business.   I am a fiscal conservative and social liberal.  I must say that if we are going to discuss tolerance, I know that it is lacking among the righties and lefties.  However, the point of this article was to embrace television shows that teach acceptance of people who live different lifestyles than we do; who don’t look the same as us; and whose likeness we may one day encounter.  If Sun TV produces some shows that teach us that, good for them. 

  6. Overt messages tend to turn people off, since they don’t watch television or go to movies to be lectured to. That’s why a lot of attempts by conservatives to do overtly conservative work (such as “An American Carol”) falls flat, and why shows done by liberals that oversell their liberal message either cost the show its audience in first run episodes (the final seasons of “Law & Order”) or the show’s final-season episodes in reruns tend to be avoided, because the message has swamped the entertainment value the audience got from earlier season (the final years of M*A*S*H being the best example of that).

    And as far as indoctrinating children, lord knows, most kids would rather poke their eyes out than have to sit through a “Captain Planet” marathon. So Shapiro’s got a point there, thought it’s one only the most PC types who know about the show haven’t been making since the early 1990s.

  7. I’d note that they also repeatedly state that they deny skilled right wing actors jobs because of their politics, and that right wing views and writers are unwelcome on their shows. You haven’t addressed the monopoly on ideas that they maintain. That brings problems. Conservatives do have good ideas and can sell well, and only promoting left wing ideas brings stasis. Their aim is to stop people thinking and get everyone to adopt the same view.

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