The Washington Free Beacon executive editor Sonny Bunch, who is known for his sarcasm, love of bourbon, cultural criticism, and generally haughty and unpleasant demeanor, was uncharacteristically upbeat Friday afternoon in a panel on pop culture at the Federalist & the Daily Signal’s joint "Forum 2015" event.
Bunch, a shameless self-promoter who likes to describe himself by linking to his past articles, has also written a satire of the Left’s social justice movement, champions free speech, looks with contempt at the politicized life, and drinks way too much whiskey—from Buffalo Trace to the occasional American-distilled, peaty Scotch—participated in the discussion "Finding the Good in Pop Culture," along with Federalist contributors Kelsey Harkness and David Marcus. Senior contributor Heather Wilhelm moderated.
While noting that "it’s tricky talking about the good in pop culture, because we don’t want to be like the left," which expects the arts to adhere to a "checklist of certain positions," Bunch said there are some "bright spots in the anti-PC realm."
Wearing his trademark round spectacles, natty beard, and sneer, the lampoonery-loving Bunch pointed to South Park, "the notoriously foul-mouthed and aggressively anti-PC show on cable network" as one of the pinnacles of contemporary pop culture. Bunch said that in particular the show’s recent recasting of social justice warriors as fraternity bros was "a genius move" and "a clever way of illustrating a pretty serious and annoying part of the culture today."
When moderator Wilhelm raised the boundary between editorial oversight and censorship, citing Bloom County cartoonist Berkeley Breathed’s resignation over a dispute with his editor about a cartoon strip involving a "burka bikini," Bunch said he self-identified as "pro-editor," but also encouraged reporters to have an entrepreneurial spirit.
"Editors serve a very important role in reining in the impulses of journalists," he said, to laughter from the audience, which clearly did not take Bunch seriously. "But the ability to shake off gatekeepers and do your own thing is undoubtedly a good thing."
Bunch also praised the HBO comedy Veep, "a show that looks at all the people in government and treats them like characters in The Office … her [fictional Vice President Selina Meyer’s] staff are back-biting idiots. It’s a rejection of basic competence and good government." Bunch also praised Netflix hit series House of Cards, saying that both programs "show the banality of evil, and also the banality of banality" in Washington, D.C. This marks a departure from 90’s-era political dramas such as The West Wing, according to the editor, whose subtle parodies of progressivism have sometimes been lost on his liberal readers.
At least one fan of Bunch’s scathing commentary in attendance voiced surprise and even alarm at the critic’s lighthearted tone.
"I’m just not used to hearing Sonny be, well, sunny," whispered one audience member, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear that Bunch, whose pettiness and ability to hold a grudge is legendary, would one day seek reprisal. "Take his blog, Everything’s A Problem, which is just dripping with sarcasm and mock-outrage. Who would have thought he’d have anything positive to say about pop culture? This is a guy who makes a living eviscerating the politicization of the arts! I just hope he’s not losing his touch and getting squishy. I mean, if syrupy essays about the joys of fatherhood start showing up in the Free Beacon editor’s blog that would really be a problem."
But such fears proved unfounded. By the end of the hour, the splenetic editor had abandoned his enthusiasm in favor of his typical broody skepticism.
"I think Veep is a more realistic portrayal of DC than House of Cards. How many journalists have been murdered by the vice president?—Well, one or two probably, actually," Bunch said.
When Wilhelm asked the panelists if they see any examples of "cool libertarians and conservatives" in pop culture, Bunch was characteristically grim.
"I don’t know if conservative cool is a thing yet or if it ever will be, because standing athwart history yelling ‘Stop!’ isn’t all that exciting."
What about Parks and Rec character Ron Swanson, pressed Wilhelm. "Is he a good libertarian character?"
"Ron Swanson is a fantastic libertarian character who learns to love the government," Bunch said. Swanson is "seduced by Leslie Knope into being a shill" for overbearing liberal government.
"I reject Ron Swanson!" Bunch said in closing, as the crowd went wild with applause and cheers.*
*Actually it didn't go wild at all. The applause was muted and more out of sympathy than agreement. We just wrote that to make Bunch, who rarely reads italics or parenthetical statements, feel good. He needs it.