New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait recently published a lengthy article promoting the belief that Hollywood—and the business of television in particular—is dominated by a “Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy.”
The argument is no less subtle than it is familiar. “You don’t have to be an especially devoted consumer of film or television (I’m not) to detect a pervasive, if not total, liberalism,” Chait explains. He then goes on to note that the leaders of right-wing Christian fundamentalist organizations cannot be happy with the portrayal of a happy homosexual partnership in ABC’s “Modern Family,” of teenagers who accept their sexuality as normal in Fox’s “Glee,” and of young people’s casual sexual relationships in HBO’s “Girls.”
Chait also insists that what he calls “the liberal analysis of the economic crisis—that unregulated finance took wild gambles—is widely reflected, even blatantly so, in movies such as ‘Margin Call,’ ‘Too Big to Fail,’ and the ‘Wall Street’ sequel.” But Chait’s analysis suffers from any number of weaknesses and instances of false equivalence between what he calls “liberalism” and its counterpart. In the first place, the three movies Chait has chosen are hardly representative:
- “Margin Call” was a tiny budgeted film with almost no release beyond a few big cities and was judged by many, including this viewer, to be far more morally ambiguous than Chait allows.
- The “Wall Street” sequel was an Oliver Stone movie, and so is widely recognized by all in Hollywood as sui generis. (It was also a major box office disappointment.)
- HBO’s “Too Big to Fail”—like “Girls” and another Chait target, “Veep”—is seen only on the subscription service by those who chose it. The show was based on Andrew Ross Sorkin’s heroic portrayal of the Wall Street titans who characterize his “Dealbook” coverage in The New York Times.
The primary problem with Chait’s analysis is that, like so many journalists, he thinks a willingness to open one’s eyes and recognize reality is somehow “liberal.” For instance, unregulated finance did, in fact, take wild gambles that led to the 2008 crisis. To deny this is to deny what pretty much every economist understands to be true. The “liberal” part of the argument comes when deciding what to do about it—when, for instance, “liberals” such as Alan Greenspan, Paul Volker, and Sanford Weil call for the breakup of big banks.
And even more to the point of reality’s “liberal bias,” is it really so liberal to show gay people? Gay people have been around forever. So, too, have single mothers and fathers, sexually experimental young people, African Americans, Jews, Hispanics, Asian Americans, and so on. In the olden days, the entertainment industry usually pretended these people did not exist, or if they allowed them to exist they were most portrayed often servants, criminals, or anything less than the well-rounded characters portrayed by white, Christian Americans. Now that they are increasingly present in almost every walk of life—having resisted conservative efforts to continue to exclude them—it is hardly “liberal” to portray them in the same manner that was once reserved only for white, Christian, heterosexual, two-parent families. Rather, such depictions are a correction of a time when conservative mores insisted that such people remain invisible.
In the very same New York magazine a few weeks earlier, writer-at-large Frank Rich examined the tidal wave of media nostalgia inspired by the death of Andy Griffith:
To commentators in the liberal media, Griffith’s signature television role, Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry, North Carolina, was “one of the last links to another, simpler time” (the Miami Herald) and a repository of “values which actually transcended the deep divides which tore the nation apart during the years the show aired from 1960 to 1968” (the Washington Post).” On the right, “the sermonizers quickly moved past an inconvenient fact (Griffith made a spot endorsing Obamacare in 2010) to deify Sheriff Taylor for embodying “a time when television was cleaner and simpler” and for giving “millions of Americans the feeling the country stood for all the right things” (National Review).
Rich notes that all this nostalgia ignores the fact that the good citizens of Mayberry lived in denial. Despite the fact that it took place during the highlight of the civil rights movement, there were no blacks on the show, and quite obviously no gays or Asian Americans or Jews or anyone at all who might not look right at home at a lily-white Tea Party convention. So the fact that our television programming recognizes their existence today is hardly a victory for “liberalism” unless (once again) you consider “liberalism” to mean “the reality of American life.”
Chait relies on the right-wing pundit Michael Medved, who wrote a book 20 years ago called Hollywood vs. America, and a more recent effort by a conservative pundit named Ben Shapiro, who wrote a book called Primetime Propaganda, and credits “both authors” with “liv[ing] in Los Angeles and paint[ing] a vivid picture of a near-ubiquitous culture of liberalism in the industry.” But here Chait falls into the same trap that so many right-wing press critics do: equating the personal beliefs of culture producers with the product they put forth to the public. And yet the evidence suggests that in both cases, the product is far more determined by what the marketplace wants than the prejudices, whether cultural or economic, of those producing it.
When it comes to evidence, Chait could hardly be on shakier ground. To find a liberal admitting to using pop culture to push his views onto the public, he goes all the way back to 1983 when Nicholas Meyer, the director of ABC’s television special “The Day After,” “confessed,”—Chait’s word, not mine—“My private, grandiose notion was that this movie would unseat Ronald Reagan when he ran for reelection.” Just how this fellow thought that an argument that nuclear war might be a bad idea would lead to such a view went unexplained at the time, since President Reagan soon became an avatar for the abolition of nuclear weapons.
In fact, though he may or may not know it, Chait is regurgitating the argument that right-wing pundit George F. Will made at the time. And the argument of Will and others was so effective in advance of the broadcast that ABC felt compelled to follow the movie with an 80-minute panel of pundits that was dominated by conservatives including Will and then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, few of whom had anything good to say about the broadcast, much less the idea of getting rid of nuclear weapons. So if this is the best example Chait could find in the past 30 years of successful liberal propagandizing, it is pretty unsuccessful.
As it happens, even without such shameless cherrypicking from the distant television past—1983 is, after all, about half of television’s lifetime ago—one could easily make the case that Hollywood has presented the world with at least as much conservative propaganda as it has liberal. In an article nicely entitled “What liberal Hollywood?”, Salon’s Erik Lundegaard takes aim at Chait’s piece and offers up the following panoply of criticisms and counterevidence.
For instance, Chait writes as if “Dirty Harry” is an anomaly and “Rambo” is forgotten—unlike, say, a 30-year-old made-for-TV movie—but they have been replaced, Lundegaard notes, by such antiliberal fare as “300,” “Taken,” “G.I. Joe,” and the “Transformers” trilogy.
“Syriana” shows us the dangers of our misbegotten wars. Maybe. But it, too, was complex, murky, and barely seen. Its widest release was 1,775 theaters, which was the 117th widest-release of 2005, and it grossed $50 million domestic, making it the 56th most popular movie that year. No. 2? “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” I believe there’s a Christ analogy in there. No. 4? “War of the Worlds.” Beware of foreign invasions. No. 8? “Batman Begins.” Because when street violence happens, it’s best to take the law into your own hands. Because you are pure and the system is not.
In fact, a far more powerful trend in recent moviemaking than films that romanticize gays or support abortion rights has been what a recent Guardian article termed “the film industry’s new passion for Christ.” As it happens, Karen Krizanovich notes:
The good book is back in showbiz. Darren Aronofsky has a bearded Russell Crowe for Noah. The documentary Bible Quiz is in post-production. Will Smith’s directorial debut will be Cain and Abel (reportedly with a vampire twist). Paul Verhoeven’s Jesus of Nazareth has its finance in place. Justin Theroux is rewriting Swear to God – a comedy about a hedge-fund manager who has seen the Almighty. Ridley Scott, Warner Bros – with a rumour of Spielberg directing – and the Chernin Entertainment Company all have Moses movies. Mary Mother of Christ, a film about the life of Jesus up to age 12, is currently prepping, as is Langston Hughes’s Black Nativity, with a cast of Samuel L Jackson, Angela Bassett and Jennifer Hudson. And earlier this week, a Pontius Pilate movie was greenlit.
Just how this squares with the image of a Godless Hollywood forcefeeding its liberal agenda onto God-fearing America is rather difficult to explain, and so it is no wonder Chait does not address it.
And the intense interest in Bible-based movies is only a small part of the manner in which Hollywood has ingratiated itself to conservatives during the period when Chait professes to detect his “left-wing conspiracy.” While Chait relies on his favored right-wing ideologues, Lundegaard quotes the more savvy right-wing financial pundit and occasional actor Ben Stein speaking in the movie “Rated R: Republicans in Hollywood” and noting:
In recent years, the obsession that young viewers have with the action movie has helped the political conservatives. Because it’s basically saying all you braino, pointy-headed intellectuals, you’re all wimps and losers. It’s the action guy, the military guy, the police guy—he’s the real hero of society, the real man, and he’s the kind of guy you should be like.
Unlike Chait, I would not go so far as to suggest that Hollywood is the reason that movies are such a powerful form of political persuasion. Or that Americans are so much less supportive not only of labor unions but virtually all forms of collective endeavor—including especially reasonable levels of taxation for purposes of schools, parks, and the like—than are citizens of virtually every other industrialized democracy because of Hollywood’s fetishization of individual achievement—the lone hero against the crowd. But it surely plays a role.
John Wayne is an American archetype for a reason. And it is entirely possible—indeed, I think probable—that the insistence of Hollywood on focusing its storytelling efforts on such lone wolves who take on society all by their lonesome selves, rather than in communities and through collective action, is one reason why conservative notions of the freedom of the individual to do whatever he or she wants—society be damned—remain so much stronger in the United States than they do in the rest of the world
But most of all, what drives Hollywood today, as in the past, is profit. And profit today is based on the star system. Whether those stars are directors such as Christopher Nolan of the conservative “Batman” series or the Scientologist Tom Cruise, movies will be built around their ability to sell tickets.
The color of Hollywood, then, is neither red nor blue, but green.
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. His most recent book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama.