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Culture Clash

Conservative revolution? No -- just dazzlingly effective PR.

November 23, 2003|Neal Gabler | Neal Gabler, a senior fellow at the Norman Lear Center at USC Annenberg, is author of "Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality."

AMAGANSETT, N.Y. — All told, it has been a pretty good year for cultural conservatives. The New York Times, the primary target of conservative opprobrium, disgraced itself in scandal, the Fox News Channel continues to crush its cable competition, hipsters like Dennis Miller and Colin Quinn have defected to the right, corny Jay Leno is beating tart David Letterman in the ratings and a conservative revolt forced CBS into pulling a miniseries on the Reagans because its opponents said it was biased against the former president.

Not a bad run. But some conservatives think these events amount to more than just a winning streak. They see signs of a geological shift in the culture tipping the balance from the left to the right.

For decades, conservatives controlled the political agenda, even to the point of hijacking the nation for two years to concentrate on a popular president's moral lapses. The cultural agenda, however, was another thing. Though the country seemed to be tilting right politically, popular culture, if anything, seemed to be speeding toward increasing liberalization. Madonna and Britney Spears; Eminem and hip-hop generally; "The Daily Show," "South Park" and "The Man Show"; "American Pie" and dozens of other raunchy or violent movies that dominated the box office; even tattooed athletes -- all testified to the power of America's free-spirited, contrarian strain. Conservatives could point only to the success of the now-canceled series "Touched by an Angel" as evidence of a largely untapped right-wing audience.

Not anymore, we're told. With the victory over CBS, conservative Internet gossip Matt Drudge boldly declared this to be the "second century of the media ... where it's much more of a people-driven media."

One could certainly point to Sept. 11, 2001, as a cultural watershed that has transformed the nation. But American popular culture after 9/11 looks much like American culture before that fateful date. Still, there is unquestionably something new and important afoot in the culture.

The conservative declaration of victory is itself part of a large, complex process that gives the impression of a cultural revolution without actually effecting one. It is the phenomenon of a phenomenon -- a great postmodernist gambit in which the buzz about something overwhelms the thing itself. It works, because what rivets and energizes the media doesn't have to be a real, measurable change in the cultural landscape, but the idea of a new phenomenon on that landscape. The media are in the phenomenon business, and if they turn the phenomenon into a revolution, so much the better.

One can see this postmodernist process at work nearly everywhere in the culture. Take "The Osbournes." Most everyone in America today knows who the Osbournes are, has read about them, heard about them or seen them on commercials or hosting award shows. But when you examine the ratings of their MTV television series that generated all the notoriety, you discover something remarkable. Even before its recent dip, almost no one watched the show. In a nation of roughly 280 million people, "The Osbournes" gets an audience of just about 3 million viewers, or slightly above 1% of the populace. So how does one account for the family's near-universal recognition?

One might conclude that the program existed not to be watched but to be written about or discussed. The show was an excuse to create a phenomenon, of which the Osbournes and those who marketed them were the beneficiaries. They were popular for appearing to be popular.

Frankly, one can say the same thing about almost everything in America today, save for films and television programs that do appeal to a sizable audience. Though this process is little remarked upon, it has profound implications for the culture, suggesting a psychological shift at least as important as the supposed one after 9/11: that watching entertainment now seems less gratifying than knowing about it.

In the context of cultural politics, the implications are no less profound. Everyone who follows the media knows that we live in an increasingly conservative society. Everyone knows that conservative talk radio is a dominant force and that Rush Limbaugh alone attracts 20 million listeners weekly. Everyone knows that the Fox News Channel -- on which I am a contributor -- has drained millions of viewers from the broadcast networks. Everyone knows that millions of Americans mobilized against CBS' Reagan miniseries.

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