A vast conspiracy on your screen?


What to make of television?  The debate began soon after television sets became commonplace in American homes in the 1950s.  It’s been described as the “boob tube” and the “idiot box,” and its content as “chewing gum for the mind.”  Television programming was described as a “vast wasteland” by the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission under President John Kennedy.


Television has also been heralded as a great communications innovation—a source of social cohesion and a valuable educational resource.  These arguments by the Media Awareness Network have been countered by research demonstrating the negative effects of television.   For example, a major long-term study in New Zealand demonstrated that “television viewing in childhood and adolescence is associated with poor educational achievement by 12 years of age.”


And so, the debate goes on—or does it?


Well, no it doesn’t, according to Jonathan Chait.  Writing in New York Magazine, he argues that the culture wars over television are over. 


By now, conservatives have almost completely stopped complaining about Hollywood, even as the provocations have intensified.


The funny thing is that, in the years since Hollywood lost its place of prominence in right-wing demonology, we now have a far more precise sense of its power. The fear that popular culture could exert some invisible pull upon the minds of its audience may have haunted its critics, but the industry’s defenders could just as plausibly deny that moving pictures exerted social influence at all. At the height of the nineties [culture wars], film lobbyist Jack Valenti breezily waved off Hollywood’s critics by insisting, “I haven’t found anybody who has said that movies cause anybody to do anything.” But new research—research that conservatives have failed to pay much attention to—badly undermines that line of defense.


Television and the movies do “make people do things.”  And Jonathan Chait is delighted since they reinforce the cultural momentum that is going his way—toward the political and cultural left.


This capacity to mold the moral premises of large segments of the public, and especially the youngest and most impressionable elements, may or may not be unfair. What it is undoubtedly is a source of cultural (and hence political) power.


We liberals owe not a small measure of our success to the propaganda campaign of a tiny, disproportionately influential cultural elite.


Chait’s article in the New York Magazine, “The Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy Is on Your Screen,” is well worth the read for the history and the analysis, with his conclusion that these media are effective vehicles for his favored cultural agenda.  For those of us who disagree with his cultural agenda, it should give us pause. 


Perhaps the power of television and film should cause the rest of us to take another look at these media, but not to start another culture war!  Rather, we need to understand their power and how they work.  In what ways do television and film shape our lives—our lifestyles, our ethics, and our loves?  Shouldn’t we, as Christians, understand a medium that has the power to change the demographics of a nation?


Several years ago, a trio of researchers working for the Inter-American Development Bank set out to help solve a sociological mystery. Brazil had, over the course of four decades, experienced one of the largest drops in average family size in the world, from 6.3 children per woman in 1960 to 2.3 children in 2000. What made the drop so curious is that, unlike the Draconian one-child policy in China, the Brazilian government had in place no policy to limit family size. (It was actually illegal at some point to advertise contraceptives in the overwhelmingly Catholic country.) What could explain such a steep drop? The researchers zeroed in on one factor:  television.


Television spread through Brazil in the mid-sixties. But it didn’t arrive everywhere at once in the sprawling country. Brazil’s main station, Globo, expanded slowly and unevenly. The researchers found that areas that gained access to Globo saw larger drops in fertility than those that didn’t (controlling, of course, for other factors that could affect fertility). It was not any kind of news or educational programming that caused this fertility drop but exposure to the massively popular soap operas, or novelas, that most Brazilians watch every night. The paper also found that areas with exposure to television were dramatically more likely to give their children names shared by novela characters.


Novelas almost always center around four or five families, each of which is usually small, so as to limit the number of characters the audience must track. Nearly three quarters of the main female characters of childbearing age in the prime-time novelas had no children, and a fifth had one child. Exposure to this glamorized and unusual (especially by Brazilian standards) family arrangement “led to significantly lower fertility”—an effect equal in impact to adding two years of schooling.


Jonathan Chait’s “The Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy Is on Your Screen” can be found here.


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