But Can He Write? Ben Shapiro, US TV and Dubious Propaganda

Last week, the American ‘alt-right’ commentator Ben Shapiro apologised for his poor performance in an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Neil. ‘@afneil DESTROYS Ben Shapiro!’ he tweeted, ‘Broke my own rule, wasn’t properly prepared.’ But before he became a US media star, Shapiro was something of an analyst of the US media. Portsmouth University Visiting Lecturer and co-author of Union Jackboot: What Your Media and Professors Don’t Tell You About British Foreign Policy, Dr Matthew Alford, finds out whether Shapiro sounds any more intelligent in his book Primetime Propaganda than he did as a guest on Politics Live.

First published in 2011, Primetime Propaganda argues that for almost its entire existence US television has been gradually perverted by a select group of leftists who have used its power to foster social change though cultural messaging in shows from Happy Days (1974-84) to Glee (2009-2015). This is a liberalism that ‘continually attacks’ a ‘prevailing power structure’ that Ben Shapiro seems to equate with the Republican Party, business people, guns, and religion and which supports gay marriage, abortion, union organisers and the Democratic Party.

Shapiro’s perspective is well entrenched in the conservative, or even neoconservative, wing of US politics and the book itself is endorsed by the reactionary columnist Ann Coulter, who once said of Muslims, ‘We should invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity’. Still, Primetime Propaganda contains plenty of new information that bolsters our understanding of the politics of Hollywood as an industry – an area that has received patchy scholarly treatment. Shapiro highlights some of the fundamental problems: ownership is concentrated to the point of oligarchy; it’s a closed shop (in 2011, at least, half of TV was scripted by just 10% of the Writers Guild’s 3000 active members); its politics are not driven solely by the market but rather more by the politics of those who write, create produce and distribute TV. The networks, the creators and the producers work hand in glove with the government and government officials. Added to that, due to the centrality of advertising, networks are not so much ‘broadcasters’ as ‘narrowcasters’, who target the young who they hope will best respond to the associated advertisements, and thus largely leave traditional conservatives out of their plans – even to the point of discrimination and prejudice.

To prove his point, Shapiro interviewed fifty of the most significant living industry figures and found that, not only were their personal politics liberal, but the shows they shaped were to some degree consciously liberal in tone. Shapiro fairly acknowledges that artists should be free to insert their politics into their work and that some conservative strains of thought in TV shows (he lists and discusses his top ten) have emerged despite inhospitable conditions.

Nevertheless, Shapiro does routinely overstate and simplify the facts to fit his thesis. For instance, he calls Bill Mahers’ Politically Incorrect comedy show ‘unswervingly liberal’. In fact, ABC cancelled the programme after Maher remarked that the US use of cruise missiles was cowardly in comparison to the 9/11 suicide attacks. Indeed, Maher has repeatedly supported the military, the death penalty, and racial profiling at airports. He even called for a pause in the criticism of the Iraq War, just after it had started. Hardly ‘unswerving’. More broadly, to see the contemporary entertainment industry as anti-war, one would have to ignore the fact that there was virtually no celebrity or industry protest over the major foreign interventions of our time – the Gulf War, Kosovo, Iraq or Libya.

Shapiro lumps the made-for-TV movie The Day After (1983) into his argument as well. He asserts that director Nicholas Meyer’s intention was to ‘unseat Ronald Reagan’. But there are key qualifiers to this. ‘The point of the movie was clear’, Shapiro complains: ‘a nuclear war under any circumstances would be utterly apocalyptic’. If anything, though, the film understates the consequences of nuclear war. The network that aired it, ABC included a disclaimer after the credits letting the viewer know that The Day After downplayed the true effects of nuclear catastrophe for the sake of telling a better story. (Compare it to the more graphically horrific British-made Threads (1984) about a missile strike on the north of England). Moreover, the film promoted the message of disarmament that Reagan professed he wanted to achieve and that did happen to some degree as relations warmed with the Soviet Union. ABC Motion Picture Division president Brandon Stoddard (who, for good measure, made the rampantly right-wing miniseries Amerika in 1987 without the problems he faced with The Day After) claims that the latter production was ‘the most difficult and probably most controversial thing ever put on TV’. Maybe so, but in that case it tells us a great deal about the mildness of entertainment television politics.

In Britain in the late 1980s, the writers of Doctor Who inserted an ‘anti-Thatcher’ subtext into the series. Their avowed aim was to bring down the government. Such leftist bias manifested itself in a villainous caricature of Margaret Thatcher plus some lines lifted from CND literature. But viewers and critics did not notice the political meaning of any of this until the actor who played the Doctor at that time, Sylvester McCoy, pointed it out twenty years later. Similar might be said of Shapiro’s claim that Happy Days harbours anti-Vietnam war sentiments because sometimes its characters remark on the peaceful society they live in. What he seems to miss is that the sitcom was set in the 1950s long before the US intervention in Vietnam. Shapiro makes an equally eccentric argument about the action series MacGyver (1985-1994) opposing gun rights simply because the eponymous protagonist – a scientific genius – invents his own weapons.

Conspicuous by their absence in Primetime Propaganda are mention of the longstanding impact of the Pentagon on the politics of series such as JAG, NCIS, E-Ring and – with CIA support – Alias. Shapiro calls The West Wing ‘The Left Wing’ because every political consultant on the show had been a Democrat. But this ignores the fact that the makers of The West Wing worked closely with the White House to promote the Bush administration’s so-called War on Terror after the 9/11 assaults. Moreover, while the producers did not usually work directly with Republicans, the show promotes the United States as an exceptional nation. This is far from the way that the superpower is viewed in many parts of the world.

Shapiro criticises the third series of 24 for having Kiefer Sutherland give a short address at the start of each episode explaining that the Islamic community did not support violence. This was indeed a sop to American liberalism but it was also in line with the Bush administration’s direct requests to industry leaders to oppose terrorists, though not to frame the conflict as a clash of civilizations. Furthermore, it was a small and sensible step to take to lessen the malign impact of a Pentagon/CIA-backed series that promoted the wonders of the national security state, even one that tortures as a matter of routine for, supposedly, the sake of protecting the American people.

Shapiro is right to state that the MCA mogul Lew Wasserman’s admission that he felt physically excited by Bill Clinton demonstrates how queasily close Hollywood and the Democratic Party are. But with the Democratic establishment occupying the political centre ground of a corporatist country engaged in several overseas military conflicts, we can hardly call their values particularly leftist or progressive. For instance, Shapiro complains that the Korean war-set comedy M*A*S*H portraying the US ‘troops as victims’, but this is a long way from portraying the most obvious victims of the conflict, namely the native population. Only a smattering of productions on the big or small screen – Platoon (1986), Casualties of War (1989), Heaven and Earth (1993) – have ever evinced sympathy for the innocent civilians on the business end of US imperialism.

Shapiro has little to say about the actual owners of Hollywood, probably because it would put some enormous cracks in his thesis. Rupert Murdoch receives a brief mention but only to say he helped make the industry more liberal by pushing for younger audiences. A more balanced and reasonable view is that Murdoch presided over a rise in ‘trash’ rather than liberalism, and there is precious little evidence to suggest that the other oligarchs that loom over the industry have any personal, political or business interest in attacking the prevailing power structure.

Shapiro is right to highlight the prevalence of centrist liberalism in US TV. There certainly does seem to be a marginalisation of explicitly conservative ideas in the medium, at least where they are in direct opposition to explictly liberal ideas (on guns, abortion, etc). But this is to ignore the deeper taboo on radical perspectives on mainstream politics. Shapiro overplays its significance, underplays the conservative contribution, and ignores the broader political issues. ‘Where can liberals channel their outrage against society if they’ve won all their battles?’ he asks. That said, he does not recognise that there are problems with society that continue to incense those who are more politically radical (as well as some liberals), such as cross-party support for excess corporate power, the arms trade, and aggresive foreign policy. As a case in point, the comedian Bill Hicks, whose routines railed against the two party consensus, was censored on the supposedly ‘liberal’ David Letterman Show in 1993. How does that fit into Shapiro’s analysis?

In short, there are many more political controversies relevant to liberals (and those further to the left) in American politics than just ‘transfats’, as Shapiro dismissively puts it, and Hollywood tends to provide an even narrower set of political perspectives than Shapiro would like us to believe.


Image by Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0