Mod squad or mind squad?

JEFFREY S. MILLER

November 14, 1991|By Jeffrey S. Miller

NOT SINCE George Bush's "kinder, gentler America" has a phrase caught the imagination the way "political correctness" has. Even after a war in the Mideast and the collapse of communism, critics from the right still are on the offensive, attacking higher education for its alleged indoctrination of leftist ideals in naive, fair-minded students.

All the PC tempest, however, has never signified anything but a lot of hot wind and very little rain. Colleges and universities are no more the primary arbiter of political correctness in this country than is Manuel Noriega. For that, we need only look to the corners of our living rooms, where the gleaming patterns of television shine out an average of seven hours a day.

From its inception, television has defined political correctness in America more powerfully than any other institution. The medium was fed in its infancy by the hysteria of the McCarthy years, which not only affected industry hiring practices through "blacklisting" but shaped the programs TV would present: tried and true formulas; no controversy or criticism.

Sponsors of those early programs further outlined correctness according to their own interests. Cigarette companies insisted that doctors in their shows smoke; utility companies changed scripts dramatizing the Nuremburg trials to omit mention of gas in concentration camps.

McCarthyism faded, and the "producing sponsor" is largely a thing of the past (although Procter & Gamble, as recently as the late 1970s, forbade the use of issues including abortion and homosexuality in its soap operas). But overt examples of establishing limits -- correctness -- to political discussion have continued to characterize television's role in our lives.

One can point to the oil companies' funding of PBS during the early 1970s, paying for acclaimed programs of high culture and thereby circumscribing debate on contemporary social and political issues -- just as the first major energy crisis hit. (Not for nothing was PBS called "the Petroleum Broadcasting System.") One can also point to networks' and stations' decisions to cancel controversial shows when groups threaten protests or boycotts.

And one can, as everyone does, point to the curious editorial policies of TV news programs, whether it's the anti-war bias conservatives saw in Vietnam coverage or the pro-war bias liberals saw in Persian Gulf coverage, the anti-Nixon hounding conservatives complained of in the handling of Watergate or the acquiescence to the "Great Communicator" liberals deplored the media handling of Ronald Reagan.

Those feasting on the PC carcass will view all of this as old potatoes, served mostly on the left side of the plate. Perhaps more digestible is the fact that the prime target of their derision -- imposed diversity -- also originated on television. The reasons why, however, are not exactly noble.

It was indeed in the halcyon days of the revolution in the late 1960s when television began to countenance ethnic groups and women, both as parts of ensembles ("The Mod Squad," "Ironside") and as leads ("Julia," "The Bill Cosby Show"). This structured diversity continued throughout the 1970s, as more black, brown and yellow faces began to be seen and as gruff commands of male bosses began to be answered sharply by self-sufficient women. Today's television, with "Cosby," "Roseanne," "A Different World" and "L.A. Law" among the most popular shows, is a virtual encyclopedia of political correctness.

Has the New Left secretly triumphed after all? Was Aaron Spelling -- he of "Charlie's Angels," "The Love Boat" and "Dynasty" -- up to Marxist mischief when he created a black, a white and a blonde to fight crime on "The Mod Squad"?

Hardly. Spelling and others were merely examining the Nielsen ratings, which in the late 1960s began to break viewing audiences into demographic groups -- age, gender, race, economic background, education. To reap the high rating determining advertiser rates and profits, producers and networks recognized it would be prudent to appeal to as many groups as possible. Voila! -- programmed diversity, imposed on the tenets of free-market capitalism.

Critics of PC in academia may well scoff, arguing that professors steeped in leftist ideology mandate multiculturalism more thoroughly than does capitalism. Budgets and bills, however, do not dance lightly through the dreams of college administrators looking at ever-growing pools of African-American, Hispanic and Asian students next to a stagnant puddle of traditional white middle-class enrollees.

One television show, however, speaks more succinctly to issues of diversity and correctness than any academic. Also a product of the late 1960s, it featured characters chosen specifically for their correctness: an old Jewish storekeeper, a black couple, a Hispanic handyman, a friendly white guy. Later, other Hispanics and Asians and blacks appeared, along with the even more correct deaf and disabled.

The show tossed out traditional texts, choosing instead to speak in the vernacular of its viewers, even incorporating foreign languages. And to sweeten the propaganda, it introduced huge birds, talking frogs and cute, fuzzy blue and orange and purple creatures.

"Sesame Street," in the world according to those attacking PC, would be its unholiest avatar, the bastard child of the mind manipulators Education and Television.

But if Kermit the Frog croaking, "It's Not Easy Being Green" is committing a "neo-McCarthyist" act of "indoctrination," then what a sad and confused world this must be!

Jeffrey S. Miller teaches a seminar on television as a cultural institution at Lafayette College, Easton, Pa., and is editor of the Lafayette Magazine.

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