Author, comedian and late-night talk show host Steve Allen spoke out courageously against the entertainment industry’s ongoing debasement of society, especially in his landmark exposé Vulgarians at the Gate: Trash TV and Raunch Radio—Raising the Standards of Popular Culture, which was published in 2001, just after his death in 2000.
U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman had this to say about it: “This book is the last of many gifts that Steve Allen has given to the American people. Just as he so brilliantly made a generation laugh, Steve compellingly shows us why we should all cry for the degradation of our culture and our common values. Through this book he challenges his fellow citizens to assert their First Amendment rights to demand a safer, saner culture for their children and generations to come” (back cover).
The book shared this insightful quote from The New York Times: “Like a child acting outrageously naughty to see how far he can push his parents, mainstream television this season is flaunting the most vulgar and explicit sex, language, and behavior that it has ever sent into American homes” (p. 17, quoting Lawrie Mifflin, “TV Stretches Limits of Taste, to Little Outcry,” April 6, 1998). This is a remarkable assessment coming from a liberal newspaper—indicating how depraved media amorality had become even more than a decade ago.
Allen’s title pointedly labeled those in the media responsible for this as vulgar—defined as lewd, morally crude, unregenerate, coarse and/or profanely indecent.
Of course, he also showed that the public bears responsibility too, identifying the problem as both a pandering media and an apathetic audience. On balance, he reasoned that if no one watched trash TV, the flood of anticultural brainwashing would dry up.
In his introduction, Allen stated that we must oppose the coarsening of our entire culture, stating that “the consequences of rearing millions of initially innocent children in a social atmosphere characterized by vulgarity, violence, brutish manners, the collapse of the family, and general disrespect for traditional codes of conduct is to chill the blood of even the most tolerant of observers” (p. 13, emphasis added throughout).
He went on to note that “the dependence of popular entertainment on vulgarity and violence, is today so pervasive as to be almost inescapable” (p. 15). And this was in 2000!
He further pointed out the pervasive influence of television: “Of the two visual media—films and TV—television is the more socially dangerous. This is not so because people who create television programs are personally more depraved than those who create films. Indeed, the degree of offensive material in motion pictures is often worse.
“But movies do not invade the home, at least initially, whereas television sets are almost permanently in the ‘on’ position, in the same almost mindless way that electric lights, air-conditioners, and heaters are used. It is by no means an exaggeration to describe the present controversy as involving cultural warfare” (p. 16).
Of course, matters have only worsened in recent years with the growth of the Internet.
Steve Allen’s is not the only voice in the entertainment industry that has been crying in the wilderness. Film critic, author and talk-show host Michael Medved has long been a champion of the same cause.
In 1992, some nine years before Allen’s book was published, Medved wrote an insightful book about the ongoing culture war titled Hollywood vs. America. He called on the country to wake up to the cumulative negative influence modern media, especially television and movies, have on the traditional American family unit.
In his preface Medved pointed to the long-term impact of TV advertising of a luxury car on typical viewers as a pattern for wider influence, writing:
“Nearly all the available research suggests that the media sell violence and other forms of socially destructive behavior in much the same way they sell cars. Only a miniscule percentage of all pop culture consumers will be directly and immediately influenced to imitate what they see on screen, but for nearly everyone else Hollywood’s messages help to redefine what constitutes fashionable or desirable conduct.
“If nothing else, repeated exposure to media images serves to alter our perceptions of the society in which we live and to gradually shape what we accept—and expect—from our fellow citizens” (p. xxiii).
He further explained: “Hollywood’s impact on society is subtle and gradual, not gross, dramatic, or instantly apparent. That is why responsible observers will focus on the question of cumulative impact, rather than singling out conspicuous but isolated examples of offensive material …
“No single piece of entertainment represents a serious threat to our civilization, but the cumulative impact of this material (which assaults the average American more than thirty hours each week) plays an obvious and inevitable role in shaping the perceptions and values of this society” (p. xxiv).