The `Poison Factory'

NO hidden agendas here. The title of Michael Medved's new book, "Hollywood vs. America: Popular Culture and the War on Traditional Values," indicates the author's main concerns from the outset. Movies, pop songs, and TV shows have become our enemy. Popular culture, propelled by "some dark compulsion beyond simple greed," has become a "poison factory" spewing "malign propaganda" into American life.

Medved is tapping into a tremendously important issue here. The character of American entertainment has changed drastically in recent decades. Television pipes titillation into living rooms; radios blare sexism and violence into the air we breathe; movies fill the wide screen with all of the above.

Nor does the pop-culture establishment have good excuses for all this. Hollywood keeps spicing its products with sensationalism, yet Medved's figures indicate that mild PG films are more likely than racy R films to turn a profit. Meanwhile, polls of Americans indicate more loyalty to religion, marriage, and other "traditional values" than one could guess from today's entertainments.

Measured by either profitability or concern for the public interest, Medved concludes, Hollywood has gone desperately wrong. Industry executives deny negative social effects from their products, yet they collect fees from advertisers who obviously think the media have a strong impact. As for pundits, most seem oblivious to the notion that morality, enlightenment, and old-fashioned decency still have a place in mass culture. Such allegations cry out for serious examination. Unfortunately, the arguments in

Medved's book are so riddled with slipshod reasoning and glaring contradictions that they could harm rather than help his cause.

The worst problem is a gaping discrepancy that pervades the book. Medved argues that Hollywood devotes its energy to attacking religion, assaulting the family, and glorifying degradation. Yet he states with equal fervor that the enduringly wholesome American public wants no part of this repellent stuff and remains overwhelmingly committed to the things Hollywood vilifies. If the second argument is true, the media-excess problem is a self-correcting one, and there's nothing for Medved or us to worry about .

Medved fails to acknowledge this disparity until late in the book, when he announces that the ill effects haven't started yet, but surely will commence at some time. Recent history points in the opposite direction, however. Censorship broke down almost completely in the 1970s, and what followed was a stunning surge in conservative politics and evangelical religion.

"Hollywood vs. America" is flawed in its details as well as its overviews. Charging such films as "Yentl" and "The Chosen" with "religion bashing," for instance, Medved never mentions that the themes of these movies are taken from stories by I.B. Singer and Chaim Potok, authors with profoundly religious interests. He charges a producer with "sincere stupidity" for making a money-losing film on reincarnation, as if it were "stupid" to make a film for principle rather than profit and to hold beliefs outsid e the Judeo-Christian tradition. The book contains many instances of distorted description and withholding of information.

Early in his book, Medved links today's mass-media degradation with the turn away from "representational painting, rhyming poetry, [and] melodic music" in modern aesthetics. By so denigrating the work of Pollock, Eliot, Stravinsky, and other glories of our artistic heritage, Medved stakes out a surprising position: not as a responsible conservative but a raging reactionary, hoping to regain a premodern paradise by aiming moral invective at works that displease his aesthetic sensibility.

It is no pleasure to report that signs of intellectual dishonesty and ethical self-righteousness course through his arguments. The worthy fight against pop-culture excess deserves a more trustworthy ally.

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