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Manhattan Institute

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A New Media Era


A New Media Era

April 17, 2005

WHEN Dan Rather retired a year early as anchor of the CBS Evening News this March, his departure symbolized the onset of a new media era that is proving far friendlier to the ideas and arguments of the Right.

Gone are the days when the Big Three networks, plus The New York Times and The Washington Post, decided what was newsworthy, often with a liberal spin. In my new book "South Park Conservatives," I tell the story of this remarkable — and sudden — shift and try to understand its scope and implications.

Ten years back, 60 percent of adult Americans regularly watched one of the Big Three evening newscasts; now only a third do. And the typical Big Three viewer is 60; less than 10 percent of the viewership is between 18 and 34, the age group that advertisers covet — and the nation's future leaders.

The big liberal dailies have taken heavy hits of late, too, especially the Times. In 2004, Pew Research found that just 21 percent of those it surveyed felt the "paper of record" reliably conveys the truth, a figure below the rating given the Wall Street Journal, Fox News and others in the same poll.

One in five Americans now gets his or her news from talk radio; two in five, from cable TV. And 30 percent of Americans now get their news online, up dramatically from 15 percent in 2000.

What makes this shift so revolutionary is that none of these new media is a liberal preserve. Conservatives completely dominate the radio dial: Four of the top five talk-radio programs have conservative hosts; none of the top 28 feature liberals.

As for cable news, right-friendly Fox News is the colossus, beating all its competitors — CNN, CNN Headline News, MSNBC and CNBC, combined —in audience share. Many of the most influential Internet sites and blogs lean right, too. And the blogosphere is helping the Right indirectly, too: Left-wing blogs have empowered the Michael-Moore-wing of the Democratic Party — those folks who think The New York Times is a conservative paper — thus hurting the party's chances nationally, since the radical Left turns off a lot of centrist voters.

THERE'S a second dimension to the transformation that "South Park Conservatives" describes, less immediately political than cultural.

For decades, with few exceptions, a liberal sensibility dominated American humor. From Lenny Bruce to Norman Lear's "All in the Family" to today's "Will & Grace," the laughs came at the expense of fuddy-duddy conservatives and bourgeois conventions.

But new media have allowed a new kind of cutting-edge humor to emerge, one whose primary target is the Left.

The anarchic, vulgar archetype of this anti-liberal spirit, which gives my book its title, is Comedy Central's brilliant, and wildly popular, cartoon series "South Park," depicting the adventures of four foulmouthed fourth-graders.

Many conservatives have attacked "South Park" for its mind-boggling vulgarity, calling it a "threat to our youth." But note what "South Park" mocks. As the show's co-creator Matt Stone sums it up, "I hate conservatives, but I really f--king hate liberals."

The show leaves no politically correct idol standing.

One typical episode, for instance, satirizes multicultural sentimentality about the supposed wisdom of native cultures. Kyle contracts a potentially fatal kidney disorder, and his politically correct parents try to cure it with "natural" Native American methods, with disastrous results.

Stan tries to get his friend sent to a hospital, but runs into fierce parental resistance. Kyle's mom reassures him: "Everything is going to be fine, Stan; we're bringing in Kyle tomorrow to see the Native Americans personally." Stan responds: "Isn't it possible that these Indians don't know what they're talking about?"

Stan's mom snaps back: "You watch your mouth, Stanley. The Native Americans were raped of their land and resources by white people like us." To which Stan has a perfectly logical rejoinder: "And that has something to do with their medicines because . . . ?"

"South Park" sometimes shows a socially conservative streak — one episode actually mocks pro-choice extremism, when Cartman's mother, Liane, decides to abort her son — then in the third grade.

She goes to the "Unplanned Parenthood" clinic. "I want to have an abortion," she tells the receptionist.

"If you don't feel fit to raise a child, then abortion probably is the answer," the receptionist tells her. "Do you know the actual time of conception?"

Liane: "About—eight years ago."

"I see," the receptionist says, "so the fetus is?"

Eight years old, Liane says, matter-of-factly.

"Ms. Cartman, uh eight years old is a little late to be considering abortion," says the receptionist.

Liane registers surprise, and the receptionist elaborates: "Yes — this is what we would refer to as the 'fortieth trimester.' "

"But I just don't think I'm a fit mother," Liane laments.

"Wuh? But we prefer to abort babies a little earlier on," the receptionist notes. "In fact, there's a law against abortions after the second trimester."

Later, Liane discovers, to her horror, that the word "abortion" means termination of life — and not the same thing as "adoption," as she had mistakenly thought — she abandons her plans.

"South Park" has satirized — with scathing genius — hate-crime laws and sexual-harassment policies, abortion and the divorce culture, and many other legacies of the Left, as well as meddling liberal elites. While it makes harsh fun of conservatives, too, I think its chief effect has been to help make liberalism uncool to many younger Americans, who make up the majority of the show's audience.

This anti-liberal comedic spirit characterizes the Dennis Miller Show, too, and other programming on Comedy Central, and it is responsible for the resurgence of comedy clubs in New York City, where anti-PC comics like Nick Di Paolo are drawing big crowds. And it can be found across the blogosphere, too. (You can read my chapter devoted to anti-liberal humor for free at

The third and final change that "South Park Conservatives" explores is taking place on the nation's campuses. For decades, the Right has bemoaned academe's monolithically liberal culture, with good reason. But the Left's long dominion over the university is showing its first signs of weakening.

Student views on most issues have moved steadily to the Right over the last decade. The change isn't coming from the faculty lounges and administrative offices but from self-organizing right-of-center or anti-liberal students themselves, helped by innovative off-campus groups — and by the new media, which allow students easy access to ideas considered verboten in many classrooms.

The number of College Republicans, for instance, has almost tripled, from 400 or so campus chapters six years ago to 1,148 today, with 120,000 members — more than the College Democrats on both counts. Other conservative groups, ranging from gun clubs — Harvard's has more than 100 students blasting away — to impudent anti-PC newspapers are budding at schools everywhere.

LIBERALS have greeted all of these historic changes with loathing. It's easy to see why. The old media regime allowed the Left to get away with simply dismissing conservative arguments as bigotry and extremism (a habit I dub "illiberal liberalism" in the book). New media have made that tactic a bust.

That rage may have consequences: "There has been a profound and negative change in the relationship of America's media with America's people," John Kerry recently complained.

"We learned that the mainstream media, over the course of the last year, did a pretty good job of discerning," he said with a straight face. "But there's a subculture and a sub-media," he went on, "that talks and keeps things going for entertainment purposes rather than for the flow of information . . . The question is: 'What are we going to do about it?' "

Kerry proceeded to lament the end of the Fairness Doctrine. That regulation, phased out by the Reagan FCC in the late '80s, required any broadcaster airing a political opinion to give "equal time" to opposing views — a ruling that would make anything resembling today's political talk radio or even Fox News unairable.

In other words, Kerry's implicit answer to the new-media challenge is: Shut it down.

Nor is this purely an idle threat. After all, in 1988 Kerry's colleague, Sen. Ted Kennedy, forced the sale of The New York Post — the newspaper you're reading right now — in a clear effort to stifle a conservative voice.

The right should above all recognize how it has benefited from the proliferation of media choices — and resist all efforts to suppress the new mediasphere — blocking any effort, for instance, to place blogs under onerous Federal Election Commission rules, or cable under broadcast FCC regulations or to restore the Fairness Doctrine.

These days, it's chiefly the Left that seeks to cut off the flow of information and argument — and that illiberalism shouldn't be allowed to prevail.