CBS's unprecedented cancellation this week of its planned four-hour mini-series "The Reagans," improbably starring Barbra Streisand's hubby, James Brolin, as President Reagan, marks a watershed in America's culture wars. Ten years ago, CBS would have happily aired the libelous series - the working script of which depicted, based on zero evidence, the 40th president declaring himself the Antichrist, dismissing AIDS sufferers with a cruel "They that live in sin shall die in sin," and raging and cursing at his staff.
These days, thanks to a remarkable transformation in mass communications, such left-wing humbug isn't getting a free pass anymore. Conservatives have long lamented the left's near monopoly over the institutions of opinion and information, which has enabled liberal opinion makers, including television producers, to present their own views as gospel truth and to sweep aside ideas and beliefs they don't like as if they were beneath contempt, unworthy of argument. However, as CBS has discovered to its dismay, conservatives suddenly have a sizable - and growing - press presence of their own, and not just on talk radio.
Consider the Internet, where conservative-friendly news and opinion Web sites such as Drudge Report, Dow Jones's Opinion Journal, NewsMax, Free Republic, WorldNet Daily, National Review Online, and FrontPage, along with current-event "blogs" - such as Andrew Sullivan and Instapundit - all of them launched in the last several years - are having a seismic impact on politics and culture.
Consulted daily by millions, including just about everybody who works in print and broadcasting, these sites (usually running on shoe-string budgets) serve as 24/7 B.S. detectors, relentlessly exposing liberal bias and lies wherever they rear up - as they did in the script for this miniseries.
It was Matt Drudge's Drudge Report that on October 20 first leaked the script excerpts from "The Reagans," which were to appear in a New York Times story the next day, and then kept on top of the story. With more than a billion hits a year, the Drudge Report has become impossible to ignore. Just ask ultra-liberal Babs: after Mr. Drudge reported that Ms. Streisand has spent weeks on the set of "The Reagans," she rushed to distance herself from the film.
However, it wasn't just Mr. Drudge: the whole "blogosphere" soon was buzzing about the myriad fabrications of "The Reagans." Soon, Michael Paranzino, a freelance writer from Washington, D.C., began an Internet campaign to boycott CBS, and conservative talk radio weighed in, as did Nancy Reagan and other Reagan family members and congressional Republicans.
Then the Fox News Channel fanned the growing controversy, with Mr. Paranzino doing guest spots on "The O'Reilly Factor" and "Fox and Friends." Nothing like Fox existed in television news before 1996, when the station first launched with the purpose of providing what its CEO, Roger Ailes, calls "a haven" for viewers fed up with the liberal bias of the print and broadcast industry. Fox viewers get to see Republican politicians and conservative pundits sought out for meaningful quotations and right-leaning ideas given a fair shake.
Fox's success has made it, too, impossible to ignore. It trounces the cable news competition, and its viewers (not all of them conservatives) are younger, wealthier, and watch longer than CNN's or MSNBC's. Without Fox's coverage, the Internet and talk radio outrage might not have been enough to get CBS to reconsider "The Reagans."
Facing this conservative print-and-broadcast storm, CBS decided to dive for cover. CBS's liberal boss, Les Moonves, shunted the series to Showtime, a cable subsidiary, saying it was unfair to the former president. "It just doesn't work," Mr. Moonves informed staffers, Mr. Drudge reported. "Listen, we are not afraid of controversy; we'd go out there if it came in at 50-50, pro and con, but it simply isn't working. It's biased."
A New York Times columnist, David Brooks, sees the left falling into despair over these new conservative print and broadcast outlets, which have "cohered to form a dazzlingly efficient delivery system that swamps liberal efforts to get their ideas out." If you want to see a for-instance, look at the best-seller list today. No longer does a cabal of left-wing book editors and reviewers maintain control of book publishing, as it did even a few years ago.
Conservative titles, touted on conservative Web sites, talk radio, and Fox News, are cascading forth, many of them pointing out how the mainstream print and broadcast industry has a left-wing bias and distort the news. Meanwhile, left-wing best-sellers such as Al Franken's jeremiad against Fox News, "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them," amount to book-length tantrums over the liberal monoculture's loss.
The left needs to get used to the fact that, thanks to talk radio, the Internet, cable television, and this big shift in the publishing world, we now have a real public debate going on. This is a healthy development, since the true "lying liars" - the producers and writers of "The Reagans," for instance - will no longer go unchallenged. Leftwingers will have to argue their ideas, not just assert them - which means they'll have to make sure they have ideas worth arguing.