When the TV watchdog org Parents Television Council named “24” as one of the worst and most violent shows on television, its founder L. Brent Bozell III was conflicted.
As a longtime conservative, he sees the show’s Jack Bauer as a rare Hollywood portrayal of a “John Wayne of post 9/11 America.” Then again, his watchdog group is bent on ridding television of gratuitous sex and violence. Even he called it the “24 Quandary” in a recent column.
But that conflict is what the Parents Television Council has been looking for — proof that it is non-partisan despite having been conceived and run for so many years by Bozell, one of the longtime champions of the notion that the media has a distinctly liberal bias.
Bozell recently ceded day-to-day control of PTC, although he remains an adviser, but the question is how the org will survive without him. He was able to tap into a political base of donors for which he is a well-known leader and watchdog for liberal media bias through the Media Research Center, which he continues to run.
His successor, Tim Winter, is a registered Democrat and a low-key former network exec and lawyer. In the past few months, he has been particularly visible and critical of the networks for the proliferation of violent programming on their schedule — a case that is also being championed by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the Democratic senator from West Virginia.
To Winter, Bozell’s departure is a natural evolution for the organization.
“When you have someone that outspoken on that side of the political spectrum, it’s hard to shake the appearance of being partisan,” he says. “Hopefully it will allow for folks of different political stripes to listen more intently to what we have to say.”
In its 11 years of existence, the PTC has been somewhat of a thorn in the side of the television networks, and as much as executives have tried not to give them too much credit, the PTC can claim some high-profile recent successes. The org was out front in filing complaints against CBS for Janet Jackson’s Nipplegate in 2004 and for Bono’s “fucking brilliant” comment at the Grammys a year earlier.
They count 1 million members, who routinely flood the FCC, broadcasters and advertisers with complaints, with forms readily available from the org’s website. Only about 10% to 15% of their members provide financial support, and the group’s budget is $5 million.
“The PTC has organized the filing of more complaints than the FCC has ever fielded in its history,” says John Crigler, veteran communications attorney who has watched Bozell for two decades.
Network execs cried foul when they learned that so many complaints to the FCC came from PTC members, but the agency is required to act on them anyway. And network execs see the org as using big media to gain publicity. “Nobody has lost any votes by attacking network television,” says one exec.
But some contend that while those campaigns give politicians ammunition to grandstand on the issue, they have little effect at the agency. “People at the FCC know it’s a form letter,” says former FCC staffer Howard Liberman. “I don’t get the impression his organization is the cause of such great concern at the FCC or in Congress, at least directly.”
When the PTC was formed in 1996, it was viewed as an outgrowth of Bozell’s work with the Media Research Center. That group, founded 10 years earlier, had a goal of grafting the conservative agenda on a news media seen as dominated by liberals.
Today, when one looks at the landscape of the media, be it Fox News and talkradio and the legions of bloggers and activists, it looks like a battle largely won.
“His group provides the data that goes out to millions of Americans, mostly via talkradio,” says Bernard Goldberg, the former CBS News correspondent and author of the media-is-liberal tome “Bias.” “You almost don’t know that it came from the MRC. They fly beneath the radar.”
Bozell’s strident pursuit of conservative causes, however, made it difficult to prove the Parents Television Council’s case that it was without its own set of biases. When it began, its P.R. execs tried to stress its non-partisan nature, despite having Bozell at the helm.
“It has a history of being known as a political organization,” says Jim Steyer, director of Common Sense Media, an organization that sometimes works with the PTC on decency issues. Bozell “has a well-established political identity and he is the identity of the PTC.”
Nevertheless, Steyer says the group is one of the few heavy-hitters in the space, “a player taken seriously by the entertainment industry.”
That will be a big test for the organization as it presses its case without Bozell at the helm.
The director of the PTC’s main opponent, the network-funded TV Watch, says the group must forge a nonpartisan identity, because a significant cadre of conservatives believe the government has no role in regulating media.
“Consumers came to the conclusion a long time ago that government-as-parent is failed policy,” says director Jim Dyke.
In one of his early forays as PTC topper, Winter took on the broadcast nets’ $550 million “TV Boss” campaign designed to inform consumers on TV ratings and let them know about the technology available to screen programming.
Winters commissioned a Zogby Poll that found that the campaign hadn’t increased usage of filtering technology and didn’t increase awareness of TV ratings.
Yet Winter faced critical questioning from the press of the group’s methodology, especially failing to specify if TV viewers didn’t use the technology because they weren’t aware of it, or if they simply didn’t want to use it.
The organization would have done a more comprehensive survey, Winter said, but the budget is limited.
Does the PTC have an effect on Hollywood’s creative minds, which produce the material that ends up, in Bozell’s words, “polluting the culture?”
“Not in the least,” says “Law & Order SVU” exec producer Neal Baer, who is prepping an episode on an evangelical preacher accused of murder.
“We don’t have an agenda on what’s proper or improper,” Baer says. “We tell stories that span the variety of foibles and beliefs of people in society.”
Asked recently, “24” producer Joel Surnow, a friend of Rush Limbaugh and producer of two pilots of Fox News’ right-wing news satire show, says he hadn’t heard of Bozell or the PTC’s concerns.
But he agreed with at least some of the group’s conclusions.
“It’s a violent show; I don’t let my kids watch the show,” he says. “But shouldn’t there be shows for adults on television?”
* * *
Bozell was practically born into conservative royalty.
His father, Brent Bozell, Jr., a prominent activist in the 1950s and ’60s, ghost wrote Sen. Barry Goldwater’s 1960 Conscience of a Conservative. He is nephew, through his mother, Patricia Buckley Bozell, of National Review founder William F. Buckley.
His grandfather, Leo Bozell, co-founded what was at one time one of the nation’s largest ad firms, Bozell & Jacobs, famous for coining the slogan, “Pork: The Other White Meat.”
Bozell joined the National Conservative Political Action Committee straight out of the U. of Dallas, working for his mentor and the group’s founder, Terry Dolan, to help elect conservative politicians. Dolan, who once campaigned against gay rights, recanted that position before he died of AIDS in 1986.
The idea for the MRC came out of a conversation Bozell had with Dolan in an Avis parking lot in Dallas in 1982. “I maintained that NCPAC could work for the election of as many conservatives as we wanted to, but I felt like the great Sisyphus rolling a boulder uphill and having it rolled back down on me,” he says. “It wasn’t addressing the problem: a press corps dominated by liberals that were controlling the information stream to the public.”
Bozell’s daily email memos are constant fixtures arriving at the inboxes of editors and executive producers around the country, and it would be hard to find a national reporter who hasn’t taken at least one Bozellian hit.
Last week’s victims included NBC’s Meredith Vieira for intoning, “this could be the beginning of the end” for Vice President Chaney, while incoming CBS “Evening News” EP Rick Kaplan was knocked for his friendship with the Clintons.
William Triplett contributed to this report.