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

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

Comments () | Archives (14)

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In 1967, Rod Serling was a guest at a USC film class I was taking. He stated that many of the stories on "The Twilight Zone" were allegories about race because CBS would not allow him to do any shows in which black characters were anything more than the traditional servants, or they had to be all black cast shows, of which he did a couple. That's the real irony of John Landis' tragic segment in TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE: it's a story CBS would never have allowed Serling to do.

Rick Mitchell
Film Editor/Film Historian

"...TV is a reflective medium, not an activist one." I disagree. In the past TV was more politically neutral; nowadays activists overtly promote liberal political and social agendas across the media spectrum--comedy, drama, documentaries, reality, and particularly news, with MSNBC and CNN at the forefront. CNN produces "news docs" using rehearsed scenes and scripts, and manufactures their own stories from the headlines, fitting the real people involved into their plot-lines. As a liberal centrist, I prefer leftist TV for the most part. It's true that media "freezes (conservatives) out of creative jobs" and "...conservatives are discriminated against in Hollywood," but not only due to political prejudice. Conservatives make inhibited actors, writers, directors, producers and executives. They have no creative imagination for media arts, and shy away from controversial and taboo themes. They touch only a narrow range of material, presented with cliches. Liberal media also has drawbacks--immoral, amoral and unprincipled values.

The entertainment industry expected Shapiro to be upfront with his agenda; he has no obligation to do that as the media voice is lopsided in favor of liberals. Even mainstream news websites tend toward leftist propaganda, like the L.A. Times and this column. I enjoy it that way, only not the unprincipled element, which stirs unwholesome feelings like playing in dirt.

The discrimination of conservatives in Hollywood is the hardest charge to prove??? Come on! You've got to be kidding, right?
I've worked here for 20 years and it's undeniably true.
Like the black list days, people keep their views to themselves so they
don't jeopardize their careers.

"Friends"? Really? "Friends" is insidious liberal propaganda? Which episodes? The endless Ross-and-Rachel stuff from seasons 1 & 2? The misbegotten monkey episodes? All that stuff in the coffee shop when they were secretly reading out loud from Che Guevara?

With a comment like that, it's really, really hard to take Shapiro seriously.

Also, AimeeX's comment below is just bizarre, and sounds like a conservative doing a really bad job of trying to pretend to be a liberal, or think that the entertainment produced is necessarily "amoral". I have no idea what she's talking about with "News docs" since there was no link cited. No liberals refer to themselves as "leftists" or talk about "leftist TV." Hollywood does have a bias--towards comfort, and money--things it's done before. Conservatives have enough of a victimization complex that they can take a very common experience--not selling a script--and somehow delude themselves that it's because of politics. Maybe your script just isn't right for the market. Or maybe it's just not good enough.

You can't blame Mr. Goldstein for continuing to shill for the Hollywood left - his job critically depends on access to the very people who might be offended if he "spilled the beans" or showed them an ugly side of themselves they would prefer not to think about. It's not an unprecedented position, quite a few others have done the same thing in the past, and it's proved to be quite rewarding.

= Walter Duranty

Deny, deny, deny.... No wonder it's called lala land..

Interesting that Shapiro is a failed screenwriter. Michael Medved also went on the warpath against Hollywood after he struck out as a scribe.

Of course, the same knuckle-draggers who believe Hollywood is "too liberal" also believe it's "too Jewish" so how does the Orthodox Jew Shapiro explain his failure to them?

Working for Weiner. I quess he will use the same strategy.

I find this article so incredibly in denial about the leftist ideological thrust of Hollywood as to barely be able to form a response. Even if one makes the argument that TV is a "reflective" medium, doesn't the very obvious fact that it almost universally only "reflects" one side of every political debate (i.e., the pro-left side) and studiously omits the other make it very clearly "activist"?

if television were truly "reflective," just to use one example,, it would portray positions against gay marriage as often as it portrays positions pro gay marriage, and -- here's the crux -- the people arguing against gay marriage would be portrayed just as sympathetically and likably as those arguing for gay marriage.

Very obviously, this does not happen. The pro-gay-marriage agenda is voiced by characters created to be sympathetic, and the anti-gay-marriage position (as much as it is ever voiced at all) is assigned to characters crafted to be unlikable.

Remember: at least half the country is against gay marriage.

But their position is universally slighted or demeaned in Hollywood. Hence, Hollywood is activist, not reflective.

And that's just one example. The same could be said of any social issue of the past half century.

The television and movie business has so blantantly set it's agenda that my family rarely watches primetime television, nor do we spend a small fortune at the movie theatre just to be taught "a lesson".

In the golden days of Hollywood, moviegoers could go to the movie theatre to simply escape. Now directors and screen writers are too busy raising awareness, educating viewers or telling the viewer who we need to hate. Really?

We may be in the Heartland, but we're not idiots. We know when you're looking down your nose at us. We know that you think your brains are little larger than most and we know that your business needs us more than we need you.

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