Written by: Alex Witt
In episode three of the second season of The West Wing President Bartlett, busy campaigning in the midterm elections, takes a moment to meet with radio talk show hosts to discuss the important role they play in the democratic process. Upon addressing the group, he sees, sitting, Dr. Jenna Jacobs, a talk-show host known for incendiary statements regarding homosexuals. After questioning her on her educational experience (Dr. Jacobs holds a doctoral degree in English literature), he brings up her homophobic statements, and she responds by citing the Bible. Then comes an onslaught of references by President Bartlett of Biblical citations that are no longer considered acceptable, such as selling one’s daughter into slavery or stoning one’s employee for working on the Sabbath, as well as a final searing look that lasts until she defeatedly stands (Sorkin, 2000).
This scene in “The Midterms” was allegedly inspired by a letter written to Dr. Laura Schlessinger, a conservative radio talk-show host known for her homophobic rants. Dr. Laura, as she is known by listeners, similarly does not hold a Ph.D. in a relevant subject, such as theology or psychology. Instead she holds a degree in physiology and a certificate in marriage, family, and child counseling. Dr. Laura’s position on homosexuality is illustrated by her endorsement of books such as Restoring Sexual Identity: Hope for Women Who Struggle With Same-Sex Attraction. She has been quoted as calling homosexuality a “deviant behavior, a dysfunctional behavior (“Dr. Laura,” 2010).” Similarly, she once asked, “When a man cannot make love to a woman, how can that be normal (“Dr. Laura,” 2010)?”
Although Dr. Laura was targeted most directly by writer Aaron Sorkin, his rebuke was not only addressed towards her personally. This was also a general critique of the Religious Right. Other groups such as Focus on the Family have expressed similar feelings to those of Dr. Laura. In fact, on their website Focus on the Family states in regards to homosexuality, “If a spouse refuses to seek help and refuses to change, it is almost impossible that your child will escape their youth without some scars and bruises (“Focus on the Family,” 2010),” thus making the assumption that it is necessary, and possible, for homosexuals to “change” their sexual preference. In defense of their use of the Bible in condemning homosexuality, the organization states that leaders of the Gay-Christian movement claim, “Scriptures that supposedly condemn homosexual behavior have been taken out of context and do not apply to our present society (“Focus on the Family,” 2010).” This is true; however, Sorkin counters this statement by pointing out other idiosyncrasies that the Religious Right choose to ignore. Christians are convinced the Bible is the last word on homosexuality, yet they fail to follow many of its other mandates, such as stoning ones mother for wearing different materials or touching the skin of a dead pig.
In this episode, President Bartlett not only discusses the importance of the radio media, but also alludes to their power with the very vehement anger with which he addresses Dr. Jacobs. According to Hollihan (2009), commercial talk radio has emerged as a major news source in modern America, especially for Republicans. 24% of Republicans listen to interactive radio shows, and 13% of Democrats do. 91% of political radio talk show content is skewed toward conservative positions, and 77% of Rush Limbaugh’s audience consider themselves conservative, versus 36% of the general public. This gives those listeners a distorted representation of what they country truly feels. Surrounded by people with similar political beliefs, these listeners have their opinions validated daily. This validation from fellow listeners gives them the confidence that they are not alone in their beliefs. Unfortunately, a very small percent of the population is actually reflected in this sample, thus making the conclusions invalid.
Hollihan also discusses the use of wedge political strategies and their negative influence on public confidence. According to Hollihan (2009), people who have experienced this brand of negative advertising will not have faith that their interests will be represented or considered if their party is not elected. He further elaborates that both the Democrats and Republicans are growing increasingly polarized and that this phenomena is encouraged by the emergence of hard-lined activists on both sides of the aisle, activists like Dr. Laura. This is undermining the faith of the American people, which only contributes to apathy among citizens.
Rozell discusses the increasingly popular use of a bully pulpit by nonstate actors. With access to media outlets increasing and becoming more polarized, more and more shows, such as those of Dr. Laura and Glenn Beck, are finding a channel for their opinions. Rozell points out that non-governmental media users have some advantages over others, such as their ability to oversimplify issues into good versus bad dilemmas and their ability to shirk accountability when it comes to credibility (2008). This is illustrated often in the case of the Religious Right. Christians are good. Gays are bad. And don’t even try to accuse the broadcaster of being a bigot because they’re just speaking the Truth the Bible offers. The Bible is a perfect iron curtain to hide behind, as its authors have been dead for millennia, and no one wants to be perceived as a sinful Christian-hater. After all, who knows whether Rush Limbaugh has a direct line to God and to what extent he can influence where you spend eternity.
Dahlgren (2009), in examining the relationship between the media and political engagement, points out that the media audience is becoming more and more fragmented as a greater variety of outlets and channels become available to consumers. This aspect has been very important in the development of the Religious Right, as conservative media stars like Glenn Beck, Dr. Laura, Rush Limbaugh, and Sean Hannity have found outlets for their particular brand of controversial journalism. Networks such as Fox News, radio outlets such as Sirius satellite radio, and infinite numbers of blogs have triggered a movement of “journalists” rushing to become more polarized than ever in order to gain the ratings necessary to stay on the air. Unfortunately, these options seem to be more sensational than factual and often only enforce the political beliefs of their consumers, instead of actually enlightening them with the truth.
In the article, “Political Parody and Public Culture,” Hariman (2008) examines the relationship between the two. He finds that parody is useful in many situations, including helping people see what they’ve done wrong and letting leaders know what they’ve done wrong, by placing emphasis on certain elements of the discourse. This is true in the case of The West Wing. The West Wing is writer Aaron Sorkin’s idea of what politics should be, not necessarily what it is. Therefore, in the episode “The Midterms” the response by President Bartlett displays the way in which Sorkin believes moderates and liberals should handle the rhetoric of the Religious Right. The idea is to wake up the audience, and ideally the politicians, to make them see the shortcomings of their actions. In order to point out those shortcomings, though, a writer cannot be a dispassionate observer. He must let his reaction become part of the story in order to make a truly honest critique (Baym, 2005).
The most relevant pieces of critical literature, however, do not simply make critiques. They also become incorporated into real life, and The West Wing has done just that. In February of 2006, British newspaper The Guardian published a piece listing the top ten political tips gleaned from the television program after the British House of Commons allegedly used a technique outlined in the show to pass real life legislation by waiting until the opposition was indisposed to call for a vote (Stelter, 2008). And while President Obama’s presidential campaign was not necessarily based on the one run in the final season of the series by candidate Matthew Santos, many of the similarities were uncanny (Lawson, 2006).
Media such as The West Wing plays an important role in modern American democracy. In a day and age in which audiences are bombarded from every side by radio shows, outrageous television “news” stations, and infinite political blogs, traditional media can no longer be solely trusted to relay the most important, truthful news that can be offered. In many instances, it is up to the viewer to critically examine the information being fed, and draw their own conclusions. Thankfully, there are aids such as The West Wing to help audiences make those decisions.
(2010, December 5). “Dr. Laura.” Retrieved from http://www.drlaura.com/
(2010, December 5). “Focus on the Family.” Retrieved from http://www.focusonthefamily.com/
Baym, G. (2005). The Daily Show: Discursive integration and the reinvention of political journalism. In Political communication. Taylor and Francis Inc.
Dahlgren, P. (2009). Media and political engagement. Cambridge University Press.
Hariman, R. (2008). Political parody and public culture. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 94 (3), 247-272.
Hollihan, T. A. (2009). Uncivil war: Political campaigns in a media age. Boston, MA:
Lawson, M. (2006, February 3). Ten top political tips from The West Wing. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.guardian.co.uk/
Rozell, M.J., & Mayer, J.D. (Eds.). (2008). Media power, media politics. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Sorkin, A. (Writer), & Graves, A. (Director). (2000). The midterms [Television series episode]. In J. Wells (Producer), The west wing. Burbank, CA: Warner Brothers Burbank Studios.
Stelter, B. (2008, October 29). Following the script: Obama, McCain and “The West Wing.” The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com