NEW YORK — The left's near-monopoly over the institutions of opinion and information is skidding to a halt. The transformation has gone far beyond the rise of conservative talk radio, which, since Rush Limbaugh's national debut 15 years ago, has chipped away at the power of the elite media to set the terms of the country's political and cultural debate. Almost overnight, three huge changes in communications have injected conservative ideas into the heart of that debate.
The first seismic event was the advent of cable TV, especially Rupert Murdoch's Fox News Channel, now in its seventh year. Watch Fox for a few hours and you encounter a conservative presence unlike anything on TV. The channel has prominent liberals on air, too, but to find out what conservatives are thinking, this is where you turn the dial.
Fox's ratings, already climbing since the station's 1996 launch, really began to rocket upward after Sept. 11, 2001, and blasted into orbit with the second Iraq war. And not only conservatives are watching. A June 2002 Pew Research Center study showed that of the 22% of Americans who got most of their news from Fox, 46% called themselves conservative, slightly higher than the 40% of CNN fans who did so. Fox is thus exposing many centrists (32% of its audience) and even liberals (18%) to conservative opinions they would not regularly find elsewhere on TV news.
But cable news isn't the only place where conservatives feel at home. Lots of cable comedy, while not traditionally conservative, is fiercely anti-liberal. Take "South Park," Comedy Central's hit cartoon series, whose heroes are four crudely animated and impossibly foul-mouthed fourth-graders named Cartman, Kenny, Kyle and Stan. Now in its seventh season, "South Park" attracts nearly 3 million viewers an episode.
Many conservatives have attacked "South Park" for its exuberant vulgarity. Such denunciations are misguided. Conservative critics should pay closer attention to what the show so irreverently mocks. As its co-creator, 32-year-old Matt Stone, sums it up: "I hate conservatives, but I really ... hate liberals."
In one brutal parody, made during the 2000 Florida recount fiasco, Rosie O'Donnell swept into town to weigh in on a kindergarten election dispute involving her nephew. The boys' teacher dressed her down: "People like you preach tolerance and open-mindedness all the time, but when it comes to middle America, you think we're all evil and stupid country yokels who need your political enlightenment. Just because you're on TV doesn't mean you know crap about the government."
"South Park" has satirized '60s counterculture (Cartman has feverish nightmares about hippies, who "want to save the Earth, but all they do is smoke pot and smell bad"); anti-big-business zealots (a "Harbucks" coffee chain opens in South Park, to initial resistance but eventual acclaim as everyone -- including the local coffeehouse's owners -- admits its beans taste better); pro-choice extremists; hate-crime legislation; anti-discrimination lawsuits, and much more. Conservatives don't escape the show's satirical sword, but there should be no mistaking the deepest thrust of "South Park's" politics.
That anti-liberal worldview dominates other cable comedy too. Also on Comedy Central is "Tough Crowd With Colin Quinn," a new late-night chat fest where the conversation is anything but politically correct. Then there's Dennis Miller, whose HBO stand-up comedy special "The Raw Feed" relentlessly derided liberal shibboleths.
Blogger Andrew Sullivan dubs the fans of all this cable-nurtured satire "South Park Republicans" -- people who "believe we need a hard-ass foreign policy and are extremely skeptical of political correctness" but also are socially liberal on many issues. Such South Park Republicanism is a real trend among younger Americans, he says. South Park's typical viewer, for instance, is an advertiser-ideal 28. Polling data indicate that younger voters are indeed trending rightward, supporting both the Bush administration and the Iraq war by a wider majority than their elders, for example.
The second explosive change shaking liberal media dominance is the rise of the Internet. It's hard to overstate the effect that news and opinion Web sites like the Drudge Report and Dow Jones' OpinionJournal are having on politics and culture, along with current-event blogs -- individual or group Web diaries -- such as AndrewSullivan, InstaPundit and "The Corner" department of NRO, the National Review's online site. Though there are several fine left-of-center sites, the "blogosphere" currently tilts right, albeit idiosyncratically, reflecting the hard-to-pigeonhole politics of some leading bloggers.