Brent Bozell, Kurt Sutter, and Cultural Relevance

True story: Sutter plays a character on Sons of Anarchy who bit off his own tongue.

True story: Sutter plays a character on Sons of Anarchy who bit off his own tongue.

The Parents Television Council is very upset with Kurt Sutter and FX over the season premiere of Sons of Anarchy, which culminated in a school shooting. Kurt Sutter, in turn, got very upset with the Parents Television Council and its founder, Brent Bozell. I tend to think Sutter got the best of the exchange, but then I would, being a liberal RINO squish in thrall to the media-industrial complex.

What I’d like to focus on here, though, is the difference between the two messages put forward by the PTC and Bozell. One was actually semi-reasonable and could have prompted some discussion; the other was an unreasonable, poorly thought out screed that may help fundraise from the base but will do little to influence the conversation and will further alienate the average person from the PTC** and conservative thought on culture more generally. The former suggests a path for the right to influence the culture. The latter suggests a path toward irrelevance—a path the right has already taken more than a few steps down.

Let’s look at the semi-reasonable response first. In the days following season six’s premiere, the PTC put out a press release calling for its supporters to contact Congress and support a bill that would allow cable debundling (that is, consumers would be allowed to choose individual channels to purchase rather than tiers of programming).

“Changing the channel is simply not enough—that’s a lazy excuse from the cable industry’s own talking points that does not address the real problem. Consumers are forced to subsidize cable networks like FX just to get access to networks they do watch. It’s clear to see that the cable industry model of forcing consumers to buy bundles of networks is broken,” said PTC president Tim Winter in a statement. “Think about the parents who have been personally affected by real-life school shootings—even they were forced to contribute to FX on their cable bills. This is an outrage, and the time for consumers to have real choice has come.”

This is an actual argument that combines a logical framework with an emotional appeal and closes with a call to action that is not only simple but also cannot be spun as a plea for censorship. You can sell this to people on an economic level as well: “Think of all the money you could save if all you had to buy was ESPN and A&E and Fox News!”* This gives them added incentive to get behind your cause and helps transcend the simple culture war aspects of the fight. The PTC could even join forces with the left, which wants debundling so as to cripple Fox News. This is a fight that you could theoretically wage and win.

Bozell’s response, meanwhile, was illogical and bombastic, jumping all over the place in an effort to tie Michelle Obama’s anti-fun-food campaign to the NRA to school shootings to FX. Or something. Here’s a taste:

So where are the Newtown-exploiting politicians on violent entertainment now? Where is the outrage at FX on behalf of the children watching? Don’t think that a splashy season premiere that draws eight million viewers doesn’t have thousands and thousands of children watching someone their own age blow away his schoolmates.

Meanwhile, Michelle Obama preferred to attack the people who promote unhealthy snack food to children. Kurt Sutter is fine, but the marketers of Froot Loops and Twinkies are the Evil Empire. See if her tone doesn’t apply to the marketers of extreme TV violence: “Whatever we all might believe about personal responsibility and self-determination, I think we can all agree that it doesn’t apply to children,” the First Lady said. “Through the magic of marketing and advertising you all have the power to shape our kids tastes.”

Taking the fight this way to a guy like Sutter—who is beloved by the gatekeepers in the media for his forthrightness and liberal sensibilities—is a remarkably foolhardy idea. He’s simply going to respond in kind, with more vulgarity, and earn plaudits for doing so. You’re giving him the space to sound reasonable when he writes things like this:

So keep holding your non-attended press conferences and writing your little Fox blogs. Because with every post you solidify your true message: I’m just an angry white guy with an exclusionary plan, using fear and god to spread a gospel of ignorance.

As Sutter shows in his (widely distributed, widely read, and widely praised) blog post, the tack Bozell has taken shifts the debate from ground on which the right might be able to win to one on which the right has no chance. As soon as the debate shifts from “We shouldn’t be forced by law to subsidize this!” to “Scolding scolds are scoldingly scolding!” the right loses. Every time. Every. Single. Time.

Maybe linking Michelle Obama to a fictional school shooting helps raise money. I couldn’t tell you. What it doesn’t do is shame the media into covering things the way you want them covered. What it doesn’t do is hit Kurt Sutter or FX in their pocketbooks. What it doesn’t do is shift the debate in your favor.

*The problem with this argument and the reason I think debundling is only a semi-reasonable argument is that you wouldn’t really save all that much money and you’d just end up with fewer channels to watch. In all honesty, FX would probably benefit from debundling because tons of people like myself watch the network and would gladly pay extra fees to get it in the event of a switch to an a la carte plan.

**To clarify: Bozell founded the PTC but no longer is associated with it. The problem for the PTC, and this is probably a bit unfair, is that whenever Bozell says something nutty, people in the public associate it with the PTC, especially when there’s a dustup surrounding the both of them. For instance: here and here and here. But I don’t want to perpetuate that, hence the clarification.