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Think Again: The Color of Hollywood Is Green

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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 Volcker, 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 mostly portrayed as 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....

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