Whenever I’m writing for the Web, space is typically not an issue for articles. This is different from magazine writing, where normally, a word count is pre-assigned by the editor, because the article has to fit on a certain number of 8.5″ by 11″ pages, in-between space blocked out for artwork and ads. But while space is not a critical factor on the ‘Net, one of the paradoxes of Internet journalism is that Web-based articles are often shorter than magazine pieces, because, ideally, most articles should be able to be absorbed in a single sitting by a reader staring at a monitor, as opposed to holding a paper magazine that can be read on the commute home from work, put down, picked up at a later date, etc.
When I interviewed Brian Anderson about his South Park Conservatives book for Tech Central Station, he preferred that it be conducted via email, rather than over the phone as I often do. That was fine with me–I can understand that a professional writer is likely to communicate in more detail and more precisely by typing rather than talking. (Lord knows I do.) But after I wrote the article for TCS, there was far more of my interview with Brian remaining “on the cutting room floor” than normal.
Brian asked if I’d consider running the actual interview. I kicked it around for a while and thought, sure, why not? So in the spirit of the South Park movie, whose tagline was “Bigger, Longer & Uncut” here’s my interview with Brian Anderson in toto:
Driscoll: It’s a terrific theme and I’m really enjoying the book. Maybe I should start with one of the questions I asked Bernie Goldberg about your original article that the right has achieved parity in the culture war. The left has: Hollywood, most major metropolitan newspapers, and most TV channels, with the exception of Fox News. It seems like they’ve still got a lot of aces up their sleeve. How has the right achieved parity in the culture war with seemingly smaller resources?
Anderson: One key reason the Right is, if not winning, at least no longer losing the culture wars isn’t the new media; it’s the intellectual exhaustion of the Left, something that has become especially apparent in a post-9/11 era, in part because of the new media. When even a died-in-the-wool Lefty like Harper’s contributing editor Thomas de Zengotita can describe the vision of today’s Left as little more than seeking “straight material payoffs” to various identity and interest groups, you know contemporary liberalism is in trouble.
But let’s consider the media universe. With news and opinion, a lot depends on where people are gravitating for their information, and here the traditional or mainstream media, overwhelmingly liberal in orientation, are losing sway–with astounding rapidity. Writing in the New Yorker recently, the media critic Ken Auletta pointed out something I hadn’t noticed: the commercials on the Big Three network newscasts are frequently hawking drugs like Viagra and Mylanta, and the broadcasts themselves often focus on health issues. There’s a reason for that emphasis on infirmity: the average age of a network news watcher is now 60; only about 8 percent of viewership is between 18 and 34. Ten years ago, 60 percent of adult Americans regularly tuned in to one of the network newscasts. Now it’s only about one in three. And people have lost trust in the mainstream outlets. A Pew Research poll last year found that just 21 percent of its respondents viewed the New York Times as a trustworthy news source–a figure below that of Fox News, it’s worth noting.
Americans are increasingly turning to new media to get informed. About 40 percent of Americans now watch cable news broadcasts. One in five Americans, maybe even more, look to political talk radio for knowledge of the world. Around 12 percent–26 million Americans–are now reading political blogs, a medium that didn’t really exist a few years ago (and even more are using the Internet more broadly for information). And in the new media, the Right either dominates (as with talk radio and increasingly cable news, where Fox News is the ratings giant) or has at least as much influence as left-of-center sources (as with the Internet and Blogosphere).
Publishing is no longer a liberal preserve–just look at the bestseller list. New York publishing houses, long resistant to conservative ideas and arguments, are falling over themselves to launch right-of-center imprints and sign up conservative authors. Simon & Schuster has just announced former Bush official and pundit Mary Matalin will head up a new conservative line, joining Penguin Books’s Sentinel and Doubleday’s Crown Forum, both recently launched right-of-center imprints.
All these changes have taken place in just a few years. The oldest of the new media–political talk radio–dates only from the late eighties, after Ronald Reagan’s FCC junked the Fairness Doctrine. Fox News has only been around since 1996. The blogs and Internet publishing are of course newer still. Their full impact has yet to be felt.
Where the Right does still come up short in the news media is in its resources to report. The elite media have the power to send out squadrons of reporters to investigate, say, Tom Delay but not Kofi Annan and UN corruption, and that can still shape the public’s perception of what’s newsworthy, still can provide a narrative to the flux of events and issues.
That’s why Fox News has been so influential–and so despised and feared by many liberals. As the conservative media critic Tim Graham put it to me, Fox arrived as a major professional news organization with the capacity to define the news as something other than what the elite consensus says it is. So the Swift Boat Veterans’ charges deserved investigation; so Richard Clarke’s conflicting views on the Bush administration’s approach to fighting terror were relevant to assessing his credibility; so the troubles with our efforts in Iraq needed to be balanced against the real successes. Before Fox, nothing like this existed. The blogs can report, too, as we’re seeing–just ask Dan Rather–by drawing on a kind of collective knowledge, so this has helped right the reporting imbalance somewhat. But there’s room for a lot more. It’s a real opportunity for aspiring journalists, I think. The early reporting successes of the fledgling New York Sun, the conservative New York daily, show how many stories are out there to tell that, for reasons of deliberate or unintentional liberal bias, the media mainstream, ignores.
The cultural productions of Hollywood are a different matter, but even here liberalism is losing ground. I would argue that, in addition to the examples of anti-liberal humor I discuss in South Park Conservatives, some of the most successful films in the last few years have been quite conservative: The Passion, obviously; Spider-Man II, with its message of duty over self-realization; The Lord of the Rings trilogy in its recognition that war is sometimes necessary to fight evil and preserve freedom; even Team America, by the creators of South Park, which heaped scorn on the anti-war celebrity crowd. Some of today’s smartest TV shows–The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Shield–express a deeper, more complex worldview than the hackneyed liberalism of the M.A.S.H.es or Maudes of yesterday. Even Curb Your Enthusiasm, featuring Larry David, a big contributor to the Democrats, has ruthlessly satirized the logic of affirmative action.
Hollywood is still Left Coast, but things are changing.
Driscoll: What prompted you to write this book? How long did it take to complete, and we’re you worried that the anecdotes in the book wouldn’t be fresh once it debuted?
Anderson: The amazing response to the original late 2003 City Journalarticle the book grew out of–“We’re Not Losing the Culture Wars Anymore”–convinced me there was a lot more to say on the themes I raised there, which proved prophetic as the events of the next year played out. Talk radio, the shifts in views to the right among the young, the history of media bias, anti-liberal humor, and of course the rise of the Blogosphere-these are fascinating topics, of interest to anyone who is even remotely plugged in to the national debate. Though various writers have written with great perspicuity son aspects of these shifts, Dick Morris in his neglected Vote.com, Bernie Goldberg in Bias, and most recently Hugh Hewitt in Blog, nobody that I had come across had tackled the big picture in the way I’ve tried to do in South Park Conservatives. Even on most of the various topics of the book, though, there has been surprisingly little written. There is almost nothing on the rise and impact of political talk radio, for instance-an amazing lacuna, given its political and cultural significance. Anti-liberal humor has been the subject of several influential articles-Jonah Goldberg of NRO and TCS’s Stephen Stanton, your piece on Day by Day-but with the notable exception of Andrew Breitbart and Mark Ebner’s Hollywood Interrupted, I can’t think of a single book that has looked at the phenomenon.
As for the freshness of the anecdotes, it’s always a risk when one writes a topical book that events will outpace the book, which is why I tried to provide throughout a deeper analytic argument and lots of first-hand reporting that I hope is of some long-term interest. That said, Regnery is able to turn books around quickly once they’ve got them in hand and finished, so the lag time between final proofs and publication has been pretty short.
Driscoll: Who is the typical South Park conservative? Is there a specific demographic that fits the bill?
Anderson: I don’t define South Park conservatism in any narrow sense. In my book, the term refers to a kind of irreverent post-liberal or anti-liberal attitude or sensibility, one very in tune with popular culture. But it’s not a coherent, fully developed political philosophy. You do find this attitude among a lot of younger Americans, as I show in my concluding chapter, which is based on lots of interviews with right-of-center college kids. And it’s also evident in some recent comedy, above all on South Park itself. The show’s co-creator Trey Parker says: “We hate liberals more than conservatives and we hate them,” and the show’s most withering satire is usually (though not always) directed at the Left.
You can say something about what this anti-left sensibility rejects. Political correctness drives it nuts. In interviewing students, for instance, it was clear how much the PC conformities of the campus Left turned them off.
Driscoll: I like some of South Park‘s episodes, but I found the Mister Hanky Poo episode horrific–every once in a while their gross-out stuff just leaves me cold. What is it about South Park that appeals to so many conservative viewers?
Anderson: Well, as the show’s opening disclaimer states, it’s so offensive it shouldn’t be viewed by anyone! What’s so striking about South Park, however, beyond its brilliant satirical edge, is that it indeed skewers liberals, even if it skewers conservatives too, on occasion. When before South Park had environmentalism been mocked, or pro-choice extremists, or the idea of hate crimes, or discrimination lawsuits, or meddling liberal celebrities, or transgender rights, or the divorce culture? You had P.J. O’Rourke and Tom Wolfe, maybe Howard Stern once in a while, but humor took aim primarily at the Right. South Park embeds a message of loathing for the liberal Left within a mind-bogglingly obscene framework. It’s off-putting to many-I’ve been offended more than once-but it’s also subversive, undermining liberal pieties. I’ve also come to believe its deepest and most consistent message is commonsensical, even Middle American.
Driscoll: How did the left become so illiberal? Where do they go from here?
Anderson: One could go back to the French Revolution. Today’s liberals tend to be more the children of the illiberal utopian Left, borne with that upheaval, than of the American Founders-liberals who were respectful of religion and keenly aware of human fallibility and the dangers of concentrated power. The closer source is the sixties New Left, whose attitude and ideology dominate today’s liberal establishment, including the mainstream of the Democratic Party. As the political scientist Richard Ellis has explained, the New Left divided the political world into pure categories of good and evil-with the radicals being the good guys working to emancipate humanity and the bad guys being the conservatives and old-fashioned liberals, who were defending an unjust and suffocating social order. If the other guys are purely evil, then you don’t have to listen to their views or argue against them, as if they were fellow citizens; you can just try to stamp them out, exclude them from discourse-make them illegal, ideally, as political correctness tries to do.
The mainstream media long protected the Left in this tendency, since so many journalists shared the basic worldview. In a new media era, such illiberalism is less and less effective. People get to talk back to power, so to speak. John Kerry charging that W. wanted to return us to the Jim Crow era? What could be more implausible and pathetic than such a charge? The Kerry accusation was widely mocked on talk radio, the blogs, and so on.
Driscoll: What caused them to interject so many of their biases into their news, TV fiction and movies? When did this start? Are there any signs of it abating?
Anderson: If everyone around you is liberal–and survey after survey has shown journalists working in the mainstream media are overwhelmingly on the left-it’s going to influence the way you report the news, even if the bias is unconscious. Bernie Goldberg described this tendency perfectly in Bias. If you are a Hollywood creator and you and everyone you know lives in a different mental universe from the guy in Idaho who believes in God, hates taxes, owns a couple of guns, and doesn’t cheat on his wife, it’s going to require an active effort of imagination to reach that person, to treat his world sympathetically.
I think the problem of bias worsened, too, when journalists and Hollywood types got it into their head (and this happened post-Watergate) that they had a mission to enlighten the yokels into the correct set of beliefs on things like: sexual relations and abortion, taxes, guns, foreign policy and war, religion, and so on.
Will bias abate? In news and opinion, some are suggesting that we may be entering a new era, in which we move toward a twenty-first century version of nineteenth century advocacy journalism. Everybody would then get news from a source slanted toward his politics. That’s a distinct possibility, though the Blogosphere, where people are always linking and commenting on stories and arguments, whatever the political perspective, is much more of an agora than an echo chamber.
It may also be the case that news outlets that continue to run biased stories are going to find their reputations damaged, since the new media so relentlessly expose the untruths or half-truths or distortions-a big reason for the New York Times‘ problems with trustworthiness, to say nothing of CBS News-and will strive to be less slanted in the future. We could see both trends at the same time, depending on the news source in question. The multiplicity of creative outlets will also lead to less liberally coded forms of entertainment. As I’ve noted earlier, it’s already happening.
Driscoll: What’s your take on how the right has used Weblogs? Any thoughts on how you see the Blogosphere shaping up in the future? Will Campaign Finance Reform or additional legislation be a significant factor during the elections in 2006 and 2008?
Anderson: The Blogosphere has helped the Right in many ways. First, it has massively increased the amount of conservative and right-of-center opinion circulating. It has reached an influential audience with that opinion (lots of readers in the broader mediasphere) and a younger audience too (the demographic of blog readers inverts that of the network news). The speed of blogs has given right-of-center arguments a chance to be heard before elite opinion congeals-what Dan Drezner calls the Web’s “first-mover” advantage. And it has collected and made available enormous quantities of local knowledge and expertise, often undercutting the metanarratives spun by the media mainstream. Anyone reading the Iraqi bloggers would not have been surprised by the huge, death-defying turnout for the vote there earlier this year, for example. Had you been reading the liberal press-a different story. The Blogosphere is helping the Right an indirect way too: it has empowered the Michael-Moore wing of the Democratic Party–the folks who think the New York Times is a conservative paper-and thus hurt the party’s chances nationally, since voters are turned off by the hard Left. As Hugh Hewitt nicely captures in Blog, blogging will begin to influence broader areas of commerce and culture in the years ahead. Baseball blogs, music blogs, industry blogs–on and on. It’s going to be fascinating to watch. It’s truly a democratizing revolution.
The extension of campaign finance regulations to the Blogosphere would be a disaster, and anyone who cares about free speech should fight to prevent that from happening.
Driscoll: It sounds like academia is the next big battle for conservatives (or perhaps the current, ongoing battle). Is it possible to win here, or at least achieve parity? And if so, what are some of the benchmarks to identify success?
Anderson: Here changes are only just underway, and the prospects for any quick turnaround somewhat remote. The goal shouldn’t be to make the university politically conservative in any narrow sense but to ensure that it isn’t a machine for left-wing political advocacy. One benchmark of success will be the hiring of more tradition-minded scholars–although in practice that tends to mean men and women who are more conservative in their political views too. One could be a right-wing Foucauldian or deconstructionist or a left-wing devotee of Alan Bloom and the great books, I suppose, but it’s probably pretty rare. Of course, tradition-minded scholars, especially if they are politically on the right, have a nearly impossible time getting tenure, with the result that fewer such individuals are going into academe. Why struggle against crazy odds? But try to think of a major non-lefty political thinker under 50 at a top school. You’ve got Robbie George at Princeton, a handful of others at the most.
I devote my concluding chapter to all the groups working to bring non-left views to the campus, including David Horowitz’s Students for Academic Freedom and the wonderful Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Students, I also show, are trending to the right on issues from how to view capitalism to attitudes about abortion and many view campus PC orthodoxy with abhorrence-which is why so many of them love South Park.
Driscoll: The day your book debuted, Al Gore was announcing his new TV network, in conjunction with Google. Does this announcement, (perhaps along with Air America), change the landscape you portray in your book?
Anderson: Air America has had more free press than any initiative I can think of-a cover story in The New York Times Magazine, countless puff pieces in liberal papers across the country, an HBO documentary-and Al Franken had made it on the air in, what, around 50 markets? That’s surviving, but consider Bill Bennett’s radio show, begun around the same time with little fanfare. It has since has expanded to 116 markets, including 18 of the top 20. What does that tell you? There’s a reason Al Gore is telling everybody Gore TV isn’t going to be Air America goes cable. It hasn’t done that well. In my chapter on talk radio in South Park Conservatives , I go into the reasons why the Left hasn’t been able to compete effectively on radio. It’s got nothing to do with Mario Cuomo’s explanation: that conservatives “write with crayons” while liberals write with “fine-quill pens” and so can’t get across their sophisticated views to the rubes listening. It’s got something to do with the fact there has been no lack of liberal views out there in the media-sphere and with the fact that the best right-of-center talk hosts are great entertainers.
Air America, like left-wing blogs, turns up the anger quotient, but I don’t think that changes the real media story of our time: the emergence of a non-liberal media. Gore TV is launching with access to under 20 million households. We’ll have to see how it shapes up, but right now I’d be mildly surprised if it has much of an effect of any kind.
Driscoll: Where do you see the culture war shaping up?
Anderson: I think the trends I discuss in the book are going to continue, further weakening the power of the liberal media. I believe you’ll see more anti-liberal popular culture. There’s certainly an audience for it, and the new media make it easily reachable. Every time such an approach is done well, whether it’s South Park or Day by Day on the Web or Michael Crichton’s new novel and its bad-guy environmentalists or The Incredibles, it seems to grab an audience. My hope is that more right-minded individuals will become “creatives.”