Anyone who went to "The Media Assault on American Values"--a panel discussion hosted by the conservative Culture and Media Institute (CMI) at the Grand Hyatt in downtown Washington, D.C. yesterday--hoping to be shocked and horrified by the degradation of our culture might well have been disappointed. No film reels were shown and no dirty rap lyrics were repeated out loud. About the raunchiest image displayed was a cartoon image of God from "The Family Guy" in bed with a woman who's holding a condom. His plea, written out below, as if in a New Yorker cartoon, is "C'mon it's my birthday." I was the only one in the audience--which, like the panel, was overwhelmingly white and long in the tooth--who laughed.
The event, which also featured famous conservative activist L. Brent Bozell III and popular conservative radio host Michael Medved, was intended to promote a new study by CMI that finds, "[L]arge majorities of every significant demographic category of American adults believe the media are harming the nation's moral values." Although one speaker, Dr. S. Robert Lichter of the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University, acknowledged that many liberals might say that but mean something quite different (say, the acceptance of torture promoted by "24"), the result was generally treated as proof-positive that Americans are concerned that entertainment and, to a lesser extent, news media are corrupting their minds.
But, of course, offensiveness is in the eye of the beholder. Robert Knight, head of CMI and the event's moderator, argued that the sort of irreverence of the "Family Guy" segment is corroding the values of millions of Americans. He also complained that there are some 25 gay characters on network television today and "they don't show the downside of that homosexuality," although it's unclear what he assumes that to be. He added that, "they don't show people who have overcome it." Another silent majority, no doubt.
Television was the day's biggest boogeyman, with much discussion of how those who watch the most television skew liberal. Not Bozell, though, whom Knight introduced by noting his frequent appearances on Fox News. Indeed Bozell held up Fox as an exemplar of propriety ("How do you explain that Fox News stays on top of the cable news industry?" he asked rhetorically). Though, when I asked about Fox's propensity to show frivolous and salacious news, he conceded the point. Perhaps that's because his own bête noir is liberal bias more than declining morals, but sometimes, the two are linked in the conservative mind, as when Bozell flayed Katie Couric for saying that the Matthew Sheppard story sensitized her to the plight of gays and lesbians.
Of course the panelists' opposition to crudeness doesn't extend to their own ideas. For example one audience member asked Bozell if the "Humanist Manifesto" a document that denies any supernatural power and argues for organizing society to the greatest collective benefit--"is going to do for the U.S. what Mein Kampf did for Germany." After allowing that he prefers to avoid Nazi analogies himself, Bozell noted, "You could say instead it's taking the U.S. to the days of Stalin or Karl Marx." (Not that he'd say that, mind you.) And Robert Stacy McCain from The Washington Times--which also sent another staffer and two interns--asked Medved whether "It's television that makes people retarded, or is it just that retards watch a lot of television?" Medved didn't bother to note that conflating stupidity and disability might well qualify as the kind of tasteless TV commentary he supposedly hates.
But the funniest thing about watching Bozell and Medved thrash the "liberal media" is that their own governing philosophy has made it that way. Both conceded that Americans want salacious and irreverent content. (Bozell quoted a former CNN executive as saying that its O.J. Simpson coverage was a ratings boondoggle, and Medved cited Tolstoy's opening to Anna Karenina--that unhappy families are interesting--as proof that people have always been fascinated more by problems than by their absence.) As Medved noted, drivers inevitably crane their necks to view a roadside accident. But the "bad news business," he said, creates a permanent state of concern--and thus the imperative for liberal big-government solutions. "Bad news and liberalism need each other. You can't demand a sweeping government program without a problem."
But if ratings drive the "if it leads it bleeds" policy, then what Bozell and Medved really hate is the will of the free market. Though Bozell may occasionally shame a corporation away from suggestive programs or commercials, he's fighting a Sispheyean battle in a free society. And, while Medved may wish the press would ignore the next Hurricane Katrina, he knows it can't.
As Lichter conceded about the survey results, "People have seen decline in morals forever." So it's probably safe to say that, unless a theocratic government takes over all our television channels, Bozell and friends will never get what they want from television. Instead, they'll keep putting out reports showing that Americans really want to watch programs like "Nature" no matter what the ratings say.