The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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'Primetime Propaganda' expose says Hollywood is a 'leftist oligarchy'

June 10, 2011 | 12:02 pm

Matt-Gorening Liberal Hollywood has been taking a beating in recent days, thanks to the fallout from a provocative new expose called “Primetime Propaganda: The True Hollywood Story Of How the Left Took Over Your TV.” Written by Ben Shapiro, a 27-year-old Harvard Law School grad  who is an executive at a conservative talk show radio network, the book is a sensation in the conservative media world,  earning admiring coverage from virtually every corner of the Fox News realm as well as right-wing blogs like Andrew Breitbart's Big Hollywood.

Shapiro's book doesn't just contend that Hollywood is lousy with liberals, which is hardly a shocker, but that showbiz liberals have promoted a left-wing political agenda on TV for decades. He also argues that liberals actively discriminate against conservatives through what he calls a “leftist oligarchy” that freezes them out of creative jobs.

By the time I sat down to talk with Shapiro last week, he'd caused such a fuss that veteran Hollywood writer Lionel Chetwynd and former CBS Entertainment Productions chief Norman Powell had resigned from the Caucus for Producers, Writers and Directors, a showbiz group  geared toward promoting creative freedom and diversity. The two men cited inflammatory  remarks made in Shapiro's book by Vin Di Bono, a fellow Caucus member and executive producer of “MacGyver” who said, when Shapiro asked him if everyone in Hollywood was a liberal, that “it's probably accurate and I'm happy about it.”

You might say that Shapiro's biggest accomplishment in “Primetime Propaganda” is that he got all sorts of prominent Hollywood liberals to shoot themselves in, well, their left foot. “Friends” creator Marta Kauffman admits that she consciously put together a writing staff  “of mostly liberal people.” When asked if conservatives are discriminated against in Hollywood, producer-director Nicholas Meyer responded: “Well, I hope so.” When Shapiro interviewed “Laugh-In” creator George Schlatter, he was treated to a lengthy diatribe about the “balloon buffoon” Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, who he said represented “one of the main reasons we should legalize abortion but make it retroactive.”

Shapiro has used many of the tactics popularized by Breitbart and James O'Keefe, the wily muckraker whose NPR sting operation led to the resignation of the organization's chief executive. The baby-faced Shapiro didn't pretend to be someone he wasn't, as O'Keefe has often done. He simply allowed his liberal targets to assume he was one of them. As he told me, he showed up for his interviews with showbiz bigwigs wearing a Harvard Law School baseball cap, in part to make them believe he was a fellow member of the educated aristocracy and in part because he's an Orthodox Jew and has to cover his head.

Some victims, like Di Bono, have accused Shapiro of misrepresentation, saying he never revealed his political agenda. “I told everyone this was a book about the history of television and the evolution of social messaging,” Shapiro explains. “When I ask the question -- is there discrimination against conservatives in Hollywood -- the answer shouldn't vary depending on the politics of who's asking the questions.”

Nonetheless, when it comes to his politics, Shapiro is somewhere to the right of Michael Medved. He refers to shows like “The Simpsons” and “Friends” as “insidiously brilliant leftist propaganda.” He calls “Laugh-In” creator Schlatter a “cultural Marxist from the Herbert Marcuse school.” He accuses “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” as having “embraced the memes of the radical feminist movement.” CBS chief Les Moonves is a “committed leftist.” And, oh boy, “Happy Days” creator Garry Marshall is an “anti-big business” liberal with “socialist leanings.”

Shapiro doesn't offer an especially persuasive case for why, if “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” or “The Simpsons” have such a radical message, they've gone over like gangbusters with Middle America. I also don't buy Shapiro's argument that showbiz liberals have used TV to promote their favorite causes because they are outsiders determined to “forcibly enlighten the society that rejected them.” He calls Sid Caesar's “Your Show of Shows” a “socialist paradise.” I think Sid was, ahem, just trying to be funny.

If you look at the history of TV's involvement with social causes, it's a lot easier to make the case that TV is a reflective medium, not an activist one. Until the explosion of cable TV in the 1990s, TV usually embraced causes long after they were accepted by the general public.

Take the civil rights movement. Shapiro agues that artists and writers played a major role in helping the movement achieve its goals. That's a callow misreading of history. Civil rights was achieved through the bravery of African Americans who laid their lives on the line for their cause. When I asked Shapiro what TV shows had promoted civil rights, he volunteered “Room 222,” an episode of “Gunsmoke” involving black Buffalo Soldiers and Rod Serling's “The Twilight Zone.” He's right about Serling. But “Room 222,” like the “Gunsmoke” episode, first aired in 1969, long after Congress had passed its landmark civil rights legislation.

He also volunteered an episode of “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” where the Petries think they've switched babies with a black couple, and “The Mod Squad,” whose co-star was Clarence Williams III. But “The Mod Squad” didn't arrive until 1968 and when it comes to ardent liberal causes, a baby-switching episode on “Dick Van Dyke” is pretty thin gruel.

Shapiro's most troubling accusation -- that conservatives are discriminated against in Hollywood -- remains hard to prove. In his book, Shapiro recounts his own troubles trying to sell spec scripts in town. He says his agent -- "a leading agent” he told me -- called him after another member of the agency Googled Shapiro. “I'm not sure we can represent you,” the agent said, because “your political views will make it impossible for you to get a job in this town.”

Unfortunately, Shapiro wouldn't identify the agent or the agency, so it's impossible to verify the story. Shapiro mentions a few anecdotal examples of discrimination, but he rarely names any names. 

I asked Ken Levine, an Emmy Award-winning comedy writer and producer, if he'd ever based any of his hiring on politics. His answer was no. He said one of his favorite comedy writers is Rob Long, a political conservative, whom Levin had repeatedly hired on his shows. “Rob [and writing partner Dan Staley] have enjoyed a long and successful career and have had quite a few of their own shows on network television,” Levine says. “If there was such a bias against Rob, why would every network and studio in Hollywood want to be in business with him?”

If Hollywood liberals are guilty of anything, it's of being insular and, judging from their remarks in this  book, unbelievably self-aggrandizing. No matter how you look at it, they have nothing to brag about when it comes to their hiring practices. After all, there are virtually no people of color in any top job at any studio, talent agency and production company in town. Does that mean that liberal Hollywood is discriminating against African Americans as much as conservatives? Or is Hollywood simply another one of many insular worlds, like the upper executive reaches of Wall Street or Major League Baseball, where people of color are also unbelievably hard to find? In showbiz, conservatives aren't the only minority on the outside looking in.

--Patrick Goldstein

Photo: A scene from the 2007 film, "The Simpsons Movie." Credit: Matt Groening/20th Century Fox