Wednesday, June 20, 2001

Every year it seems that popular culture goes a little bit further—bigger explosions, more action, more violence, more sex... Is pop culture harmless or should we be concerned about the values presented in pop culture and the effects those presentations have on society? For instance, what is the connection between depictions of violence in films and on television and the incidence of violence in real life? If pop culture is having a negative impact on our society, what should we do about it?

Recorded on Wednesday, June 20, 2001

Peter Robinson: Today on Uncommon Knowledge, sex and violence.

Announcer: Funding for this program is provided by The John M. Olin Foundation and The Starr Foundation.


Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today, Pop Goes the Culture.

If there's one thing we Americans like to consume more than almost anything else, it's popular culture. Television, music, movies. Every year it seems, the popular culture goes a little bit further, louder and faster, more action, bigger explosions, more sex and violence. Is it all just good clean fun? Or should we be concerned about the values we're consuming along with our popcorn? In other words, when is enough too much and what can we do about it?

Joining us today, two distinguished critics of popular culture, John Podhoretz writes for The New York Post and The Weekly Standard Magazine. Michael Medved is a radio host and the author of the book, Hollywood Versus America.

Title: Pop Goes the Culture

Peter Robinson: Judge Robert Bork, "American popular culture is in free fall with no bottom yet in sight. There is an eager and growing market for depravity and profitable industries devoted to supplying it. Unless there is a vigorous counterattack, which must I think resort to legal as well as moral sanctions, the prospects are for a chaotic and unhappy society," closed quote. American popular culture in free fall, John Podhoretz?

John Podhoretz: American popular culture is indescribable. It is incorrect to say that it is in freefall or that it is approaching a new dawn of greatness. We have never seen, in the history of mankind, a--an outpouring of material writing, acting, programming, um, of the sheer breadth, depth, and number of media and things produced as we're seeing today, and it is very difficult to say that there is any one such thing as American popular culture that is either good or bad.

Michael Medved: I'm--I'm find myself, much more sympathetic to Judge Bork. Ah, because all you need to look at is the Academy Awards. And, which is of course the signature event of popular culture, where we anoint the best of the best. And--and you take a look at Gladiator and American Beauty, the two most recent Oscar winners for best picture. If this is indeed what the industry itself believes to be representative of the--the greatest contribution you can make to our civilization--look Gladiator was many things and had great special effects and some really very impressive and bloody and horrific fight scenes, but I think that anyone who suggests that this is an ornament to western culture that is going to live forever is--is sadly deluded.

Peter Robinson: What about John's point that it's simply so big and such a confusing picture that it's impossible to describe an overall downward trajectory?

Michael Medved: John--John's right of course that--that it is incredibly various and--and right now you could say there is more material for all kinds of niche markets as--as well as the general impact popular culture. However, I--I think that what you are dealing with is sort of a--someone, ah, ah, with a yo-yo, uh, that goes up and down, but walking down the stairs. I believe that Judge Bork is correct, that the overall trend is negative.

Peter Robinson: Both of you have devoted a large portion of your careers to being professional movie critics. So let's start with--with Hollywood. In fact we can stick with Hollywood primarily if--if we want to. Um, religion, in your book you write about Hollywood's antipathy toward religion, and you write, I'm quoting you now Michael, I'd like you to explain this quotation, "Santa Claus is more sacred to the entertainment industry than Jesus."

Michael Medved: Yes, um, partially because there was, ah, ah, more, ah, defense in the entertainment industry of attacks on Jesus Christ. And--and some outright attacks, like Last Temptation of Christ, which, des--despite, uh, the industry sort of rallying around it, went way beyond the Kazantzakis' novel in its efforts to offend Christian sensibilities. That was defended. When they had another film called Silent Night, Deadly Night about a killer Santa Claus, no one defended that.

Peter Robinson: Right. So they circled off the First Amendment wagons and said we're allowed to say anything we want to about Christ.

Michael Medved: I'll tell you what's astonishing to me, is--is there right now is a--a huge program to appease the animal rights wackos by the entertainment industry. To the extent that, if they have rats on a TV series or on--on a movie shoot, they cannot kill any of those rats or harm them. There has to be someone on the set monitoring that rats, cockroaches, uh, spiders, are not killed in the making of films. Yet, at the same time, they will have someone specifically from animal rights organizations to insure that kind of safety. They will never, ever go to any Christian representative, or Jewish representative, uh, to try to insure that portrayals of religious believers are…

[Talking at the same time]

John Podhoretz: Well that's--that's not--I mean that's not entirely true, though I think it is largely true. I mean when--when Dreamworks made Prince of Egypt it…

Michael Medved: A glorious exception.

John Podhoretz: …it, you know, it sort of spent two years essentially, which is a movie about Moses and the, you know, and the a--and the exodus from Egypt. It--it, you know, it brought in religious scholars and groups and stuff like that. However…

Peter Robinson: And that movie treated Jewish tradition respectfully.

John Podhoretz: Well reverently.

[Talking at same time]

Michael Medved: Well reverently yeah, and--and Moses didn't end up being a child molester.

Peter Robinson: John listen to this. John--John listen to this. Bing Crosby and The Bells of Saint Mary, Pat O'Brien and Angels with Dirty Faces, Spencer Tracy and Boys Town, Hollywood used to por--portray Roman Catholic Priests as respectable and even admirable human beings. Then you've got the 1991 movie, The Pope Must Die, in which the Pope, not just a priest, the Pope himself, uses nuns as a private harem. It would have been unthink--that doesn't suggest to you a trajectory?

John Podhoretz: Well here--I--I…

Peter Robinson: A yo-yo going down the stairs as Michael said?

John Podhoretz: There is no way to deny that, you know, if you pick out individual examples as Michael, you know, did by the hundreds upon hundreds in his book, um, that--that--that Hollywood and Hollywood filmmakers and even non-Hollywood filmmakers like the ones who made The Pope Must Die, which is actually a British movie, um…

Michael Medved: Distributed by Miramax.

John Podhoretz: Distributed by Miramax…

Michael Medved: …division of Disney, yeah.

John Podhoretz: …right. Um, but--but that--that--that they--that they are obsessed with and--and sort of love portraits of, sort of cultural decay or what, you know, or what Nietzsche would have called the transvaluation of values where they like to take a priest and show them as a child molester or take a--take what might seem like a sacred institution and--and sort of, you know, turn it upside down. Whereas, their own sacred institutions, like animal rights or various others are treated with, you know, with kid gloves, are not even--are not even acceptable, you know, for--for satire or--or--or…

Michael Medved: There's--there's another…

Peter Robinson: Let's turn to another controversial issue in the pop culture debate, violence.

Title: Don't Look Now

Peter Robinson: Michael you write, I'm quoting you again, "Brutality in today's films is different in kind, not just in extent, from screen violence of the past," closed quote. There's more of it but it's being used for different purposes.

Michael Medved: Well partially it's being used for humor and this is one of the disturbing aspects of, uh, that great conservative Arnold Swartzenegger, is that it's not just that his films are violent, it's that his films, um, make a--a joke of the violence. Uh, the levels of cruelty--part of this is by the way technological advance. We can now not only show people being shot, we can show their limbs exploding and their organs splattering in--in very graphic and arresting manner. And that--that can be used for very serious moral purposes, as I believe it was in Saving Private Ryan for instance. But, it can also be used, uh, as a subject of humor to--to try to induce, I--I think a, sort of a callousness and a dismissive attitude toward other people suffering. And that has to be a disturbing message, particularly to any American parent.

Peter Robinson: I put you in the lovely box, and once again, would you care to stick up for violence?

John Podhoretz: I think violence, as Michael indicates, is, ah, is a matter of, you know, context. Um, the--perhaps the most violent movie made in the 1990's, one of them was--was Martin Scorcese's Good Fellas. A, uh--uh, mafia movie in which the violence was intregal to making the point that--that these people were barbaric animals not deserving of--not deserving of one's respect or love or--or--or affection. That it was a--that it was, in essence, an effort to correct the sort of the--the sentimentalization of the mob, which also happens I think on HBO's The Soprano's, which--which in one scene will show Tony Soprano, you know, being nice to his family, or being, sort of fun and gregarious, and the next scene blowing his best friend's head off if necessary. So, um, context matters in--in violence. Not all violence is the same. It matters what it's about and I--I do think that the humorous use of violence is itself a, um, you know, can be a disturbing thing. Though I think also, one of the things that it does point up is that--is that it is fantasy violence. Nothing that you are actually seeing when you watch a violent movie is--is happening.

Peter Robinson: So can I just…

John Podhoretz: A bullet is not entering someone's head.

Peter Robinson: …as somebody who has to walk the streets with fellow Americans who go to these movies and see them, the violence in popular culture doesn't upset you? It doesn't worry you? It doesn't suggest that it leads to a coarsening society? It's just not a problem?

John Podhoretz: No, it does not upset me. And I can explain to you. I think, and I'm afraid I think Michael is guilty of this as well, that there has been a--an extremely simplistic effort to equate the increase of--of--of violence in society as a whole with the--with the rapid and large, sort of, increase in the number of violent images depicted on television and the movies. Images…

Peter Robinson: Okay.

John Podhoretz: …that images have--have--have created essentially de-sensitization that has allowed youth, particularly to--to--to imagine that life is cheap and that therefore violence is acceptable. I think the--I think the last eight years with this, or seven years with this extraordinary national crime drop which has taken place without any diminution of violence on television actually gets the...

Michael Medved: No actually there has been a diminution of violence of television. And it's--it's been very notable, and everybody who measures is takes a look at it. And I think it's directly related to the--to the national crime drop. You can say, people say on television, well we're reflecting the national crime drop.

Peter Robinson: I think the two of you have a good square disagreement here. John, you just reject the notion that there's a relationship between violence in movies and television and popular culture generally, and the way American's behave.

John Podhoretz: I do. And I think…

Peter Robinson: And Michael says no, there is a relationship.

John Podhoretz: I just--I just want to make one social science.

Peter Robinson: Please do.

John Podhoretz: In 1968, ah, at the University of Pennsylvania, ah, a man whose name at the moment escapes me.

Michael Medved: Dr. George Gerbner.

John Podhoretz: Dr. George Gerbner did the first survey of violence on television which created this incr--this--this sort of alarming, uh, atmosphere that has continued since, um, describing, you know, the--the way in which children were being desensitized by violence on television.

[Talking at the same time]

John Podhoretz: The most violent show, according to Gerbner in 1968 was I Dream of Jeanie. In which--in which, you know…

[Talking at same time]

Michael Medved: I know D--I know Dr. Gerbner, he's eccentric, um, he's interesting. Uh, I think his main contribution to the whole discussion has been coining the phrase, "The mean world syndrome," which is part of the impact of violence. And I--and--and--and this, it seems to me, is undeniable. Is that one of the reasons that most Americans don't even know that we have had a crime drop, that most Americans continue to be terribly afraid of their own neighbors and afraid to go out into public places in many cases is because they continue to get a rather steady diet of--of violent imagery. Even though in series TV, entertainment TV, it's reduced, John is quite right, there's a great deal of violent emphasis in the news. Um, the--the difficulty here is two things. Uh, number one, most Americans spend more time watching TV in a lifetime, than they will at work in a lifetime, because people retire from work…

Peter Robinson: Right.

Michael Medved: …they very seldom retire from TV.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Michael Medved: Ah, people are watching TV on average now, twenty-six hours a week. Now to suggest that that level of commitment will have no influence on people's attitudes and perceptions is--is--is ludicrous.

John Podhoretz: Oh, I don't thi--I--I--I believe…

Peter Robinson: Twenty-six hours of television a week, and what are people seeing more and more of, sex.

Title: I'm Too Sexy

Peter Robinson: I Love Lucy. Lucy and Ricky have a loving, stable relationship, wacky would be the word, but no one would deny loving, stable--they sleep in separate beds. Ally McBeal, there's not a single character who can contrive to have a normal, stable, loving relationship, and yet they are having sex together all the time. So, we go from separate beds in--on I Love Lucy to Ally McBeal in which there's a unise--they don't even use separate bathrooms. John, this doesn't bother you?

John Podhoretz: Well, I--I think--I think, in some sense, if you want to actually hold up a mirror, a possibly exaggerated mirror, to, you know, urban--young urban life in the--among the--among the well heeled upper-middle class in the United States, I don't think that that sort of portrayal on Ally McBeal or on HBO, Sex In The City or--or Friends or anything like that is all that--is all that…

[Talking at the same time]

Peter Robinson: …just reflecting American life. Nail him…

[Talking at same time]

Michael Medved: And you're--you're dead wrong. If you believe any of the sexual surveys that have ever been conducted, um, like the famous survey at The University of Chicago in 1994, which was the biggest study of American sexual behavior ever conducted, ah, people who are single have less sex than people who are married. That's true at every age group, it's true of every segment of society, and there's a simple matter of convenience here. And for tho--for--as someone whose been married and been single, ah, it's--it's certainly is much more convenient…

Peter Robinson: Marriage is better?

Michael Medved: No question about it. But--but the point on television is that this has been studied a couple of times. The ratio of sexual references and depictions involving single people--unmarried people, sex outside of marriage to sex within marriage is fourteen to one. That is not reality. People--people who are single as in Ally McBeal or Friends or Sex In The City are not getting more sex than us married guys.

John Podhoretz: You're right, but I hesitate to be put in the position of, you know, of sort of either defending this sort of, you know, these depictions…

Peter Robinson: Try to find a way out John.

John Podhoretz: No, no--but meta--but--but, you know, first of all, if you're gonna--cultural depictions in anything from the pop cultural depictions of anything; from the--from the beginnings of pop culture onward, tend--have tended to focus on the dramatic, which means the viol--you know, I mean, Charles Dickens made, you know, spoke before--read passages from his novels before crowds of tens of thousands in the United States…

Michael Medved: Yes, but people couldn't listen to Dickens reading for twenty-six hours a week…

John Podhoretz: No, I'm aware of that.

Michael Medved: …and they couldn't go see Shakespeare at the Globe…

John Podhoretz: No but…

Michael Medved: …Theater twenty-six hours…

John Podhoretz: No, but--no but the…

Michael Medved: …a week, that's the difference.

John Podhoretz: Right, but the central point about this is that--is that, uh, dramatic plot structure involves people doing things that are somewhat either for fantasy reasons or for melodramatic reasons, involves people doing things…

Michael Medved: Of course, but let me--John, let me…

John Podhoretz: …in a more extreme way.

Michael Medved: John, let me challenge you on something on a point on that. Is that, once upon a time, take--take Shakespeare for instance, in Shakespeare, you certainly don't have a lot of "normal" people. You have people who are extraordinary in a heroic sense and you have people who are extraordinary in a villainous sense. The problem, it seems to me, with the imagery that we get right now from popular culture in general, is that the amount of villainous, destructive, negative behavior, greatly outnumbers the amount of heroic behavior.

John Podhoretz: Right…

Peter Robinson: There's clearly more sex and violence in popular culture today than there was several decades ago. The next question is, why?

Title: A Race to the Bottom

Peter Robinson: Let me quote you John, "American popular culture is the ultimate free market." So it's simply a matter of as, uh, even as Ford produces more and more different kinds of cars, niche marketing and so forth, it's just the market…

[Talking at the same time]

Peter Robinson: …in every available niche. Now what's the explanation. Why has this change taken place?

Michael Medved: There is no free market for all of the gay propaganda that is on series TV and in major ma--uh, studio movies. Look, I--I have no problem with gay characters appearing in material, but one would think that those characters would be like straight characters. Some good, some bad, some in-between. The--the idea that every single, uh, TV series must have an affirmative gay role model is something that has been dictated by political correctness and not by the free market.

John Podhoretz: However, what I'm referring to when I say that popular culture is the ultimate free market, I'm referring to the totality of popular culture. Popular music, books, magazines, uh, film, television shows, uh, radio…

Peter Robinson: Or you would even make the night--the point that for somebody like me who finds Ally McBeal distasteful, I can turn over to Nick at Nite and watch I Love Lucy.

John Podhoretz: Right, but it's not simply that. I mean, it is that--it is that what happens in--in a market place and--and broadcast television, uh, which is the home of Ally McBeal and I Love Lucy is a--is in fact not a free market, it's a regulated market controlled by the, you know, which television stations are licensed by the fed--by the federal government.

Peter Robinson: Right, right, right.

John Podhoretz: And the networks are essentially, you know, the--the existence of the networks is defending by the Federal Communications Commission. Um, but--but what happens is that product is made, often at extraordinary cost. In this case, Hollywood movies are the--are the best example. Um, there--there made extraordinary cost--extraordinary measures are made to hype them, to--to promote them. They are sent out into the market place and whether they fail or succeed, is not entirely manipulatable.

Peter Robinson: Well, can I…

John Podhoretz: The best example of this this year is the movie Pearl Harbor.

[Talking at the same time]

Peter Robinson: Which they spent a ton of money…

John Podhoretz: They spent a hundred and fifty million dollars on the movie, they had the most remarkable marketing campaign, there was ninety percent know--knowledge in the market place of its release, and the fact is that it was lousy, people went to it the first weekend, and it began to--it began to sink.

Peter Robinson: Michael, let me try…

John Podhoretz: Where as Shrek is exactly the opposite.

Peter Robinson: Okay. Judge Bork, I'm trying him again because he has an interesting partial--he--he--he provides this as a partial explanation. I quote him, "Affluence. Affluence brings with it boredom. Of itself, affluence offers little but the ability to consume and a life centered on consumption will appear and be devoid of meaning. Persons so afflicted will seech--will seek sensation as a palliative." So the degradation of popular culture arises directly--popular culture goes down as our living standards rise.

Michael Medved: I--I think in part he's correct. And I--I think more--that more at the moment, uh, in the reaction to the TV show, The Fear Factor, which actually has unified critics in a way that I've never seen any other item of popular culture unify…

Peter Robinson: I have missed this one somehow. What is it?

Michael Medved: It's a reality show where basically they subject contestants for a fifty thousand dollar prize to all kinds of life threatening indignities. Like being dangled from a crane above a high dam, or being in--placed in a coffin with four hundred rats. And it is unanimous, every one from Tom Shales, who is on the left, to all kinds of critics on the right, the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere, say, it's the worst show ever on series television.

Peter Robinson: Worst because it's unethical or worst because it's boring…

Michael Medved: It's all of the above.

Peter Robinson: All of it.

Michael Medved: It's--it's--it's--it's unspeakable frankly. I've actually watched it. But guess what, it's getting ratings. It's--and again the only explanation is boredom because what Fear Factor….

Peter Robinson: Last question, Michael believes that popular culture is unhealthy, but what would he do about it?

Title: Viewer Discretion Advised

Peter Robinson: I've been quoting Judge Bork, to lead to this very moment because Jud--Judge Bork goes out on something of a limb here. I quote him, "Sooner or later, censorship is going to have to be considered as popular culture continues plunging to more--ever more sickening lows. I am not suggesting that censorship should be employed to counter the liberal, political, and culture propagandizing of popular culture. I am suggesting that censorship be considered for the most violent and sexually explicit material starting with the obscene prose and pictures available on the Internet." Censorship?

Michael Medved: Yeah. And--and as--as you know Peter, I--I can't follow Judge Bork to the logical conclusion of--of all of his previous statements. But I--because I'm not sure it is a logical conclusion. My problem with censorship…

Peter Robinson: Right.

Michael Medved: …is not that I believe that it's immoral or a threat to our democratic way of life, I don't believe it is. There have always been limits on obscenity and they still exist, they've just been greatly atrophied over the years. The problem with censorship is it doesn't work.

Peter Robinson: You know, Judge Bork makes the point, he's not actually calling for anything new, he would just permit a restoration of decency codes that existed across the country right up until the Supreme Court stated knocking them down.

Michael Medved: You can't put that toothpaste back in the tube.

Peter Robinson: You cannot?

Michael Medved: And simp--and partially because of what John has been emphasizing in this whole conversation, which is the atomization of the market place. Those decency codes work because once upon a time you could get the eight presidents of major studios in Hollywood together and they'd shake hands, and they'd agree on a production code.

Peter Robinson: They'd behave.

Michael Medved: And--and that could be imposed on everyone. That could never work today. And--and to get the government involved, I don't want to give Sex In The City the cache of "We are defying the government, we're fighting for your free speech," we tried that with the--the--the rap group Two Live Crew, and what happened is by--because an aggressive prosecutor…

Peter Robinson: What did we do, what happened to them?

Michael Medved: They were arrested.

John Podhoretz: They were prosecuted in Miami.

Michael Medved: They were--they were performing in a club, people had paid money to hear them perform. And a--a guy named Jack Thompson, who was a local prosecutor sent the cops out, they put these guys in handcuffs and led them off. And they suddenly became first amendment heroes. Bruce Springstein wrote a song in their honor. Uh, they--they won at some ACLU award, these thugs, and talentless jerks. Uh, I--I do believe that what you have here is--is exactly the same situation that, uh, Talleyrand criticized Napoleon for, for assassinating the Duke to Enghien, which is--it is worse than a crime, censorship, it is a blunder, it cannot work.

Peter Robinson: Okay, so if censorship doesn't work, now you listen closely, because I'm going to ask Michael to say what he would do about popular culture and then we'll let you comment on Michael's solution. What would you do?

Michael Medved: Emphasize the reality, which is that the problem today is not the low quality of popular culture as much as it is the high quantity of popular culture. Partially, that's related to the low quality, because there is so much material filling up these gaps in our lives. The real need right now is for sensitive parents. People who are listening to us right now. For sensitive individuals to recognize that twenty-six hours a week of TV is too much, even if you spend all that time watching PBS.

Peter Robinson: You wouldn't go down to Hollywood and say stop making this stuff, you'd go to parent's homes.

Michael Medved: Right.

Peter Robinson: You wouldn't even attempt to…

Michael Medved: Right.

Peter Robinson: …ascertain any control at all on what gets made.

Michael Medved: What we need is demand side solutions, not supply side solutions. The supply side solutions are--it--it's not going to work.

John Podhoretz: The problem with American popular culture is an aesthetic problem. The problem with violence on television and parents who dis--who dislike it and are--and are upset by it, I believe, is that they can flay to different things. They--they--they find it distasteful. Aesthetically distasteful and sort of pictorially distasteful. It is very difficult now for people to say, I don't want my children to watch this because I think it lowers their cultural understanding. So what they say is, I don't want them to watch it because it is immoral. I do not believe that the depictions of that sort of thing are immoral, but I do believe they can be coarsening in an aesthetic sense. That is a matter for individual people to deal with individually.

Peter Robinson: Let me ask you to close with a prediction. John, listen to this--both of you, but John especially, 1939, this is what Hollywood turned out, partial listings: Mister Smith Goes to Washington, Gone With The Wind, The Wizard Of Oz, Wuthering Heights, Stage Coach, Of Mice and Men. In your--question for both of you--but in your huge, variegated, diverse American culture, is it a prospect that within our own lifetimes, we'll ever see any outpouring of popular culture of that level of entertainment and uplift and inspiration ever again?

John Podhoretz: Well that's--picking that year is a little like, you know, picking the year of 1815 for world change.

Peter Robinson: But it happened, it happened. It happened.

John Podhoretz: Yeah, it happened once, and I'm not sure it can happen again.

Peter Robinson: Michael?

Michael Medved: No, I--I think that it's unlikely that it happens again. But I think what can happen that will be very encouraging is more and more people are doing exactly what John and I have both talked about; giving up at least some hours of watching television. Uh, being far more discriminating consumers of popular culture. We need to return to the written word, to alternatives like conversation, to be engaging, uh, so much of your life with flickering shadows on a cathode ray tube.

Peter Robinson: Michael Medved, John Podhoretz, thank you very much.

Peter Robinson: John Podhoretz admits that popular culture can be crude, vulgar and violent, but he doesn't think it's doing any damage to the national psyche. Michael Medved, on the other hand, believes popular culture can be dangerous, but the answer in not censorship but, um, self-restraint. I'm Peter Robinson, thanks for joining us.