Hollywood Revives McCarthyist Climate By Silencing And Sacking War Critics
Monday 21 April 2003
Hollywood is often depicted in the US media as a hotbed of anti-government dissent and left-wing politics but that is not how it feels to Ed Gernon.
Mr Gernon was, until recently, a television producer at CBS responsible for a four-part miniseries on Hitler's rise to power, which will be shown next month. He thought the timing was apt, and said so in an interview with TV Guide magazine. "It basically boils down to an entire nation gripped by fear, who ultimately chose to give up their civil rights and plunged the whole nation into war," he said. "I can't think of a better time to examine this history than now."
That was far too strong for Leslie Moonves, CBS's chief executive, who promptly fired him. No reasons were given, although politics and a strong desire not to fall foul of the Bush administration apparently had plenty to do with it.
Another person who does not find Hollywood particularly liberal these days is the comedian and actress Janeane Garofalo, whose outspoken views on Iraq have made her the object of a vicious e-mail and telephone campaign that has intimidated ABC into pushing her new sitcom, Slice O'Life, into next year's mid-season. Again, the network's fear of losing viewers and advertisers seems rather stronger than its desire to defend one the freedom of speech of its stars.
The clearly emerging pattern is that entertainment personalities who speak out on touchy political subjects particularly Iraq do so at their peril. The group intent on stringing up Ms Garofalo, Citizens Against Celebrity Pundits, has campaigned energetically against everyone from Martin Sheen, whose anti-war views led to a credit card commercial of his being scrapped, to Susan Sarandon, dropped as a speaker at a Florida branch of the umbrella charity group United Way, to Sarandon's husband, Tim Robbins, whose invitation to a 15th anniversary screening of the baseball movie Bull Durham at the National Baseball Hall of Fame was withdrawn because the Hall's president, a former Reagan administration press secretary, felt his very presence might undermine the efforts of American troops in Iraq.
Beyond the film world, powerful radio station chains with strong political ties to the Bush White House have been orchestrating boycotts and hate campaigns against several anti-war performers, most notably the Dixie Chicks, the Texas country trio now fearing for their safety not to mention their plummeting record sales after their singer, Natalie Maines, said at a concert in London last month that she was ashamed to hail from the same state as the President. One radio chain, Cumulus Media, responded by arranging for a tractor to crush Dixie Chicks CDs, tapes and videos in an episode that carried uncomfortable echoes of historical book-burnings and other cultural purges.
The venom behind these campaigns is disturbing enough but there is a second strand to the story. And that is that Hollywood might not be such a liberal place after all. As Robbins said in a speech to the National Press Club in Washington last week: "I am sick of hearing about Hollywood being against this war. Hollywood's heavy hitters, the real power brokers and cover-of-the- magazine stars, have been largely silent on this issue."
While several dozen prominent actors and musicians opposed to military action in Iraq signed up for a celebrity-led group called Artists United To Win Without War, recent experience suggests that they are in the minority. Nowhere was this more clearly illustrated than at the Oscars, when the most outspoken of the evening's war critics, Michael Moore, was roundly booed, and those who had suggested it might be distasteful to go ahead with the shameless glitz of the Academy Awards with the bombs falling on Baghdad were systematically ridiculed by the host, Steve Martin.
The wife of a prominent Hollywood entertainment lawyer who attended a high-powered pre-Oscar dinner party was shocked to find that most of the assembled company was in fact heavily pro-war. "Here they were, all these so-called Hollywood liberals, and they were making jokes about peace activists and cheering on the troops," she said.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with Hollywood actors or executives being less liberal than their stereotype, but there is something troubling in the way in which their public image is manipulated, especially by the political spin doctors in Washington.
Hollywood has long been a favourite target of conservatives, who have repeatedly blamed the entertainment industry for gun violence, or drugs, or sexual promiscuity. Now there is an attempt to dismiss the anti-war celebrities in similar fashion as morally irresponsible, overpaid know-nothings who would do better to keep their mouths shut.
Mike Farrell, one-time star of Mash who is now one of the industry's most prominent liberal activists, sees a distinct political strategy at work. "The suggestion that Hollywood speaks with one voice is of course silly," he said, "but the perspective articulated consistently in the media, courtesy of the right wing, is that celebrities are taking advantage of their forum to spew left-wing views. What this is really about is stifling dissent on a national scale. It does not matter a whit whether we are celebrities or not. What galls them so much is that we have access to the media."
The intimidation experienced by Ed Gernon, the CBS producer, or the Dixie Chicks, is certainly having its effect. In his speech to the National Press Club, Robbins cited an unnamed "famous middle-aged rock-and-roller" who thanked him for speaking out against the war but said he did not dare do the same himself because of the power of Clear Channel, the nation's largest radio station owner, which has an unabashed pro-Bush agenda. "They promote our concert appearances," the rocker said. "They own most of the stations that play our music. I can't come out against the war."
The Screen Actors Guild has likened the atmosphere to the McCarthy-era anti-Communist witch-hunts of the 1950s. It issued a statement saying that no performer should be denied work on the basis of his or her political beliefs. "Even a hint of the blacklist must never again be tolerated in this nation," it said.
Within three hours of that statement being posted, the guild was inundated with the by now familiar deluge of hate mail. Nevertheless, the statement remains steadfastly posted on the guild's website.
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