Jewish World Review Nov. 11, 2003 / 16 Mar-Cheshvan, 5763

Michael Medved

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'Reagans' flap: Conservative turning point?

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | The recent battle over the CBS miniseries The Reagans simultaneously demonstrates the American right's new media power and its lingering sense of persecution and impotence.

On the one hand, conservatives flexed their muscles with a stunning mobilization of public protest to force the network to cancel plans to broadcast the series in its mid-November "sweeps" period.

On the other hand, the explosive indignation produced by the Reagan-bashing series (a "docu-slander," according to columnist Don Feder) showed that despite their current prominence in talk radio, cable news, the Internet and book publishing, right wingers have made little progress in denting liberal dominance of the one element of the communications industry that matters most: popular entertainment.

By turning their backs for so many years on popular culture, by condemning Hollywood's excesses without offering constructive alternatives, traditionalists and culture warriors have undermined their cause and failed their country. For conservatives, the skirmish over The Reagans will count as a historic triumph only if they follow it with more positive engagement with entertainment media.

The first step involves the unequivocal acknowledgement that Tinseltown diversions, however vulgar and vacuous, wield significant influence in shaping the nation's values and politics. Consider the impact of Oliver Stone's skillful but paranoid thriller, JFK. Some Americans always had believed that President Kennedy died at the hands of a conspiracy, but polls showed that this conviction became vastly more common after the release of the Oscar-nominated film in 1991.

Ordinary Americans give far more time and attention to entertainment media than to news and public affairs programming. The average adult watches 29 hours per week of television. Nielsen ratings indicate that, at most, 20% of that time is devoted to shows produced by news divisions.

That's why the continued liberal monopoly in shaping our glitzy media diversions trumps all the well-publicized conservative gains in the marketplace of ideas. Political junkies may savor issues-oriented shows such as The O'Reilly Factor, visit such right-wing Web sites as JWR or listen to popular radio talk shows hosted by Republican partisans such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and, yes, Michael Medved, but entertainment projects retain the unequaled ability to reach the majority of our fellow citizens who care little about politics.

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Only half of American adults make an effort to vote in most elections, yet nearly all of us — including the most disengaged and politically apathetic individuals — invest our time in watching TV, going to the movies and listening to popular music.

That's why liberal alarmists (Al Franken, Joe Conason, Eric Alterman, Michael Moore) miss the point when they complain of a menacing new right-wing bias in the media. The continued left-wing domination of movie studios and TV network entertainment divisions counts for more than the growing right-wing presence in the "commentariat." Whenever sitcoms or thrillers or docudramas (such as The Reagans) deliver an explicit or partisan political message, that message leans left. Consider The West Wing on NBC, or acclaimed recent movies such as The Contender (with Jeff Bridges) or The American President (with Michael Douglas). In such projects, the heroes specifically are identified as Democrats and the demonic villains are Republicans.

Other political projects may project a less nakedly partisan perspective (Spin City, for instance), but Tinseltown never seems to create movies or TV series in which the GOP is equated with goodness and liberals take the role of bad guys.

In this context, conservatives mobilized over The Reagans because that broadcast seemed to continue the ceaseless Republican bashing in popular entertainment and would have reached countless people with scant knowledge of the real Ronald Reagan — especially those masses below the age of 30 with few personal recollections of the 1980s.

Thanks to adulatory media treatment, Democrats boast numerous heroes: FDR, Truman, JFK, MLK, even (for many) Bill Clinton.

For Republicans, however, Reagan stands alone as a unifying hero and towering figure of recent generations. So an attack on him feels like an attack on the entire party. Instead of waiting in vain for the liberal establishment in Hollywood to abandon its biases, conservatives should challenge that elite by launching their own initiatives.

What about a miniseries emphasizing Reagan's early struggles, Hollywood leadership, romance with Nancy and political awakening — perhaps based on the touching, warm hearted volume of intimate letters just published? Or why not consider a major, multicharacter generational saga about the utterly amazing Bush family, beginning with the current president's much maligned but altogether extraordinary grandfather, Sen. Prescott Bush?

For all of their power and resources, conservatives so far have failed to push such projects due to their suspicious attitude toward Hollywood. They're also discouraged by the prevailing leftism of leading stars, directors and producers, who are vastly more likely to back Democrats than Republicans. It's never easy to function in a hostile environment, where the natives view dissent from their smug political correctness as an indication of stupidity, selfishness or insanity. But traditionalists who make a point of honoring battlefield courage can find the intestinal fortitude to withstand even the withering contempt of the pop-culture elite.

Conservatives have mobilized inventiveness and passion to ensure journalistic communication of our point of view. We've also developed peerless expertise in exposing and condemning liberal excesses in the popular culture.

The high-profile battle over an entertainment show such as The Reagans suggests that the time has come to take the next step. In other words, those on the right who feel assaulted by left-wing messages in pop culture — from sitcoms to award shows, from feature films to pop songs — should do less complaining and more creating.

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JWR contributor, author and film critic Michael Medved hosts a daily three-hour radio talk show broadcast in more than 120 cities throughout the United States. His latest book, written together with his wife, is Saving Childhood : Protecting Our Children from the National Assault on Innocence . You may contact him by clicking here.

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