Selected Writings

Norman Lear Selected Writings

Liberty and Its Responsibilities

From: Broadcast Journalism 1979-1981; The Eighth Alfred I. DuPont Columbia University Survey, Ed. By Marvin Barrett, Published by Everest House, New York, copyright 1982 by the Trustees of Columbia University.

By Norman Lear

IT IS THE BUSINESS of television to deal with, to reflect, and to report on the times—so the pressures and tensions touch on this industry in a very special way.  America and television face a new brand of monopolists—not monopolists of money or goods but of truth and values.  In times of hardship, voices of stridency and division have always replaced those of reason and unity, and the results have always been a deterioration of free and open dialogue, a tension among races, classes, and religions, and the temptation to grasp at simplistic solutions to complex problems.

In our time of hardship, we find the New Right and the Religious New Right—a new breed of robber barons who have organized to corner the market on morals.  And who would feel that more keenly than those of us who labor in the marketplace of ideas?

We have lost our way, they say, because, in and out of television, we have turned our backs on God and followed the devices and desires of our own hearts.  America’s purity and strength can be restored only if the nation submits to the political and moral answers that they see as biblically self-evident.

Our founding fathers never treated the God they worshipped as the creator of a political platform—or as a rubber stamp to imprint private doctrines on public policy.  They all believed, as Abraham Lincoln later warned, that we should never assume God is on our side but should always seek, as best we can, to be on God’s side.

Lincoln understood the spirit of liberty.  So did the late Justice Learned Hand, who defined it as follows:

The spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is a spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias; the spirit of liberty remembers that not even one sparrow falls to earth unheeded; the spirit of liberty is the spirit of Him who, near two thousand years ago, taught mankind a lesson it has never learned, but has never quite forgotten.”

I love those words, “…to seek to understand the minds of other men and women” and “…which weighs their interests alongside our own without bias.”  But that is a two-way street.  If the television community truly believes in the spirit of liberty, we must seek to understand the minds of those hun­dreds of thousands—or millions—of people across the coun­try who are currently finding fault with us, and try to weigh their interests alongside our own without bias.

I will come back to our responsibility, but, first, let us recog­nize that the basic principle of tolerance, that principle which allows us to live together as Americans—a people dedicated to achieving consensus through the expression of diverse and conflicting ideas—that principle is threatened today.

It is threatened by that extremist coalition of the New Right and some evangelical fundamentalists, who would refuse a hearing to any conflicting opinion because they assume that their certainty is the same as absolute certainty.  They overlook the fact that every age has held opinions that subsequent ages have deemed not only false but absurd.  And so, to disagree with the conclusions of the New and Religious New Right on numerous matters of morality and politics is to be labeled a poor Christian—or unpatriotic —or anti-family.

As communicators ourselves, it should be interesting to look at how well they are able to spread their absolutist views.  There are now over 1,500 Christian radio stations blanketing the country—with approximately one new station being added each week; there are forty-some independent televi­sion stations with a full-time diet of religious programming, largely fundamentalist; and three Christian Broadcasting Networks.  There are Falwell, Baker, Robertson, Robison, Wildmon, and others—the “superstars” among TV evangelicals—some taking as much as $1 million a week from their direct solicitations and the sale of religious merchandise.

There are also scores and scores of local radio and TV evangelicals, espousing the same absolutist fundamentalist points of view while attacking the integrity and character of anyone who does not stand with them.

It’s important that we not be misled into thinking that these are simply old-fashioned throwbacks—like the Bible-thumping, openly racist, blatantly anti-Semitic, rough-hers whackos of another era.  No, sir.  These are smooth, buttoned-down, middle-America, business-oriented evangel­icals who, borrowing a line Paddy Chayevsky intended for others, are saying: “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take itanymore!”  These are revivalistic salesmen – entrepreneurs – who have a genius for responding to the market’s desire for stable values.  Unlike so many of our lead­ers who are currently out of touch with their constituencies, these fundamentalist preachers have their fingers and their computers on the pulse of the emotional needs of the crowd.  And that is power.  In the name of these preachers—and as members of secular groups such as the Christian Voice, Reli­gious Roundtable, Christians Concerned for Responsible Citizenship, the Plymouth Rock Foundation, the Heritage Foundation, etc.—here is some of what is occurring on the local level across the country:

  • The American Library Association reports that libraries in some forty states are being pressured to remove as many as 126 titles and authors from library shelves.  They include John Steinbeck, Kurt Vonnegut, Bernard Malamud, George Orwell, J.D. Salinger, and even William Shakespeare, because in certain communities so-called “concerned parents” don’t want their children contaminated by the relationship of Hamlet to his mother.
  • In Washington and Virginia, Moral Majoritarians have attemp­ted to secure the names of all those who borrowed books on sex education from the public library.
  • Five dictionaries have been banned from use in schools throughout the state of Texas because “concerned parents” objected to such “filth” as the word “bastard” and the word “bed,” when used as a verb.
  • Textbooks across the country are not being bought by some school boards, under pressure from local groups, until all “liberal dogma and secular humanism” has been excised by a fundamentalist couple in Texas, the Gablers.
  • In North Carolina, a social studies test was found objectionable and removed because “seventh graders are not emotionally or intel­lectually capable of dealing with such complex problems.”  The problems they didn’t want seventh graders dealing with were food shortages, overpopulation, and ecology.
  • And the Independent News Service reports that in Anaheim, California recently, there was a high school course for seniors entitled “Free Enterprise.”  Part of the curriculum included this question: “True or false—the government spends too much money on the environment.”   The correct answer—the only correct answer—was “true.”

The New Right or­ganization that could be of most interest to readers of this publication is the Coalition for Better Television and its leader, the aforementioned Reverend Wildmon.  I don’t know what can be said about the Coalition and Wildmon that hasn’t been said—except that it is worth reminding ourselves that they have every legal right under the First Amendment to speak their piece in any way they choose, to threaten boycott, or to engage in boycott if that is their desire, because that is their legal right under the First Amendment.  So the Reverend Wildmon, like his evangelical counterparts on TV, does not break the letter of the First Amendment.  But they do break its spirit.  Reverend Wildmon does not seek to understand the minds of other men and women and weigh their interests alongside his own without bias.  Reverend Wildmon and Rev­erend Falwell and Reverend Robison and the others see a society out of control, and what they want is a society com­posed of solid, middle-class, one-morality families leading conventional lives on the model of a colony of ants.

These moralists see the dissonant variety inherent in a pluralistic society; they see people of all races and religions and lifestyles—hotheads, sybarites, and ascetics, the poets, mockers and madmen—they see people who decline to sub­mit to an ordered morality—and it frightens them.

And so, they would tame the dissidents.  They would contract this multifaceted land into their own tiny garden of saints.  To make us properly moral, they would settle for a nation where there is no way of life that differs from their notion of a biblically oriented family.

Ironically, this occurs at a time when the communications industry is witnessing an explosion of new technologies, deliv­ery systems, and satellite networks, promising as many as 100 channels to the home.  With this overabundance of sources, there will be room for a diversity of voices, a place for the emergence of cultures and subcultures that have not been heard from before.  To insure the broadcast possible access for these voices, consistent with the First Amendment, it might be wise to limit the number of stations, transponders, and chan­nels that may be controlled by any single entity.

The history of network television teaches that the concent­ration of most of the resources of broadcasting in three com­panies results in the kind of fierce competition that invites the kind of homogeneous broadcasting which allows for too little diversity and retards the development of new and competing technologies.

The opportunity for those in the creative end of the televi­sion business never looked brighter.  Narrowcasting may finally become a reality.  Channels will exist to inform as well as entertain; to inspire and improve the quality of life.  These will be businesses, but smaller businesses, without the need for profit margin that broadcasting is accustomed to today.  We will also see new and experimental drama, allowing talents and pieces of our culture to surface that have never before had the opportunity.  There will be new approaches to science and to the discussion of issues for which commercial television, with its concentration on ratings and instant success, has had no time.  All of this and more is possible so long as there is sufficient access to the delivery systems for the small communications entrepreneur, wherever he or she may be.

If there are indeed going to be as many as a hundred or more channels to the home, the Tulsas and Orlandos and Perth Amboys must have a crack at them, too.  The capitol of country-and-western music is Nashville, not Los Angeles.  And jazz was born in New Orleans, not New York.

It would also be good for the country to have the dissonant variety inherent in our pluralistic society find its way to the tube—people of all races and religions and lifestyles—the “hotheads, sybarites, and ascetics, the poets, mockers and madmen” mentioned earlier.  Let’s have them all.  We might benefit from the return of the soapbox orator, and since the Pershing Squares and Union Squares of another era are gone, perhaps the Fates intend Channels 66 or 81 to be their replacement.  The First Amendment says that “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech.” It says “no law…” It doesn’t say that there will be freedom of speech provided that said speech does not run contrary to popular thought.  It doesn’t say that there will be freedom of speech provided said speech has no tendency to subvert standing institutions.  In the Soviet Union and other totalitarian na­tions, there may be debates concerning the course of action to follow, but no one is allowed to challenge the government itself nor any activity of the government.  How different in America, with the blessings of the First Amendment.  But, and this is a very big but, this is not the America of the early 1900s — and today the blessings of the First Amendment can­not be realized fully by every segment of our society without access to the mass media.

Which brings us back to Reverend Wildmon and others who would deny access to those voices, ideas, and attitudes that do not match their prescribed morality.  Well we know about them.  Where they come from is clear.  Now what about the people who make television—the creators, the production heads, the news programmers, the network executives—the people responsible for the content of television.  How are we responding to Learned Hand’s definition of the spirit of lib­erty?  Are we seeking to understand the minds of other men and women, those hundreds of thousands, or millions, of television viewers whose frustration with the content and qual­ity of television is, for them, very, very valid?  Are we weighing their interests alongside our own without bias?

We know that every born-again Christian is not a Biblical absolutist.  Every frustrated television viewer is not a would-be censor.  If we are to weigh their opinions, their feelings, their frustrations alongside our own, then, without bias, we must ourselves observe those basic principles of tolerance and listen to them.  But not as they are interpreted to us by their leaders—their leaders may have other axes to grind.  We must listen to them directly, and the only way to do that is to get out among them!

A professor of sociology and theology at a southern univer­sity told me recently that he was visited by a well-known Hollywood director who allowed as to how he had never been outside of California except for visits to New York.  That only meant, said the professor, that the director had no real contact with the American people, his viewers, but that those same viewers had no real contact with him, or anyone like him, from television’s creative community.  The lack of personal contact is the director’s loss, the creative community’s loss, and in more ways than one.  In addition to never really knowing our viewers, except as they are interpreted to us by the likes of Reverend Wildmon, our viewers never, ever get to know us, except as we areinterpreted to them by such articles as the infamous TV Guide cover story on drugs in Hollywood, and the puff and personality pieces that tell the public everything but how hard we may be working and how much we care.

The television industry should make it its business to name its spokespeople and send them out about the country on a regular basis, in whatever forums are chosen, so that America can come to know us as we are: hardworking, family-oriented people, tied to them by the same human umbilicals that con­nect us all.  And we in TV, in turn, can learn at first hand that they are not strangers.  They are us.

If we get in touch with our constituents and give them an opportunity to vent their feelings, perhaps they would not wind up in the hands of opportunists like Reverend Wildmon.

And if we can—when our spokespeople return to Los Angeles to communicate their experience to us—perhaps then we canbegin to communicate with each other in new and fundamental ways.

Is there too much gratuitous sex and violence on TV?  Let’s talk to each other.  Directly.  How many cars smashed head-on and burst into flames on television last week?  How many went through storefronts or over a cliff?  Since America is upset about the possibility that there may be too much of this, wouldn’t it make sense to get together to discuss it?  Not to censor one another, certainly, but to hear ourselves think; to learn from our peers and perhaps to help and influence one another.

Gratuitous sex.  Do we really need young women in braless sweaters running and bouncing across a set—and I do mean running and bouncing—because someone has said that dinner is ready?  Do we need the same young women jumping up and down in their braless sweaters when they are told that dinner will consist of lamb chops?  “Not lamb chops?!”  Jump, jump.  What could we lose if we were to talk together about these things?  This sort of TV behavior is not motivated by the artistic needs of the writer or the director or the actress.  It is motivated, primarily—in a long, circuitous fashion—by the needs of the three networks to win in the ratings next Tuesday at 8:30; by three networks’ obsession with the bottom line.  An obsession it shares with all of the rest of American business.  And that, of course, includes us.

Not that the quest for monetary gain is wrong at all, but it needn’t be the primary motivationIt seems to have become that, however, in too many places.  It has destroyed Detroit and is eating away at the future of most industries —including ours.  It is the greatest societal disease of our time, and it starts at the top.  Also, in my opinion, our industry’s obsession with ratings and profits, the bottom line, which, more than any other factor, including pressure groups, is squeezing the joy out of our efforts.

The pressure to do one’s very best, creatively, has been forced, as a result of pressure from the marketplace, to take a back seat to the need for high ratings.  And I am convinced that if we could reverse that—if we care enough to reverse that—if the desire to create out of one’s own inner vision was the dominant motivation for the existence of a show, chances are that that show would rate higher simply because it was better! And if everyone, writers, actors, directors, producers, created out of their individual and collective inner visions, the work would still be backbreaking but the joy and the fun would be back!

Now, if all of that is easier said than done—and it always is—let’s take our case to the people.  With a sense of self-confidence and self-assurance, because we have earned it, let’s tell them that the hundreds of thousands of hours of television entertainment that we have provided them with through the years did not comeout of indifference; that popular art is a great profession, not a way station on the way to the classics; that our work in public affairs broadcasting has enlarged the viewer’s vision; that we are proud of what we have ac­complished; and that if it could have been done better, other people in this free enterprise system would have done it!

And let’s listen to the people.  Learn from what they have to tell us.  Show them that we believe in them—that we value them—because we really do.

We must.  Because there is no way we can get along without them.