The View from Sunset Boulevard


The View from Sunset Boulevard, by Benjamin Stein, New York: Basic Books, 1979, 156 pp., $8.95.

Ben Stein's little action-packed book is the sort of work one would expect a lot more of in this era of investigative journalism. When we have up for grabs such juicy topics as the political and ethical views of the people who make things happen on our television screens, why do most investigative reporters run around trying to dig up dirt on fourth-rate politicians and to write exposes of chemical companies already under indictment for being rich? Because to research the material for the kind of book Mr. Stein has written requires a lot more work than merely going to public records and the Library of Congress. (In short, a lot of investigative journalism is in fact journalism at cut-rate costs.)

Instead of taking the cheap way out, Mr. Stein went knocking on the doors of people whose views and behavior are not recorded in public places for everyone (including lazy reporters) to read about. And what he has found is something of a horror story.

Stein tells us that television "represents nothing more than the views of a few hundred people in the western section of Los Angeles. It is a highly parochial, idiosyncratic view of the world that comes out on TV screens, the world view of a group whose moment has come."

What is this world view? Mainly that wealth necessarily means evil and poverty necessarily means innocence. As one famous television mover says it: "The whole idea of making money changes a person's attitude. It makes people callous towards other people. You cannot make a lot of money without stepping on people." Another tells us: "For some people to be poor, others have to be rich. The poor are taken advantage of by the rich." And again, "Poor people are the victims of a social malfunction."

The folks speaking—Thad Mumford, Gary Marshal, and Stanley Kramer, respectively—have been regulars, indeed, constants, on the American television scene. They produce, write, edit, and otherwise shape the character of television humor and drama. And Stein demonstrates that they are economic and moral illiterates—perhaps outdone in this respect only by the crowd that controls America's liberal education at present.

Mr. Stein does not say these things himself. He vows that "there is no normative conclusion to this book" and naively exclaims that "people should be free to make television as they want, in the operation of a free and open system." That is a characteristic conservative comment—as if the present oligopolistic broadcast system, with the Federal Communications Commission making sure that outside of the three networks the electromagnetic spectrum shall not serve to profit anyone very much, could be said to constitute "the operation of a free and open system." In fact, contemporary American broadcasting is a virtual government monopoly, only a bit less centralized than the systems of Europe and the socialist bloc. Ours is a mixed system, but one that is far less laissez-faire than most other enterprises, since the government legally owns the airwaves. Once this is recognized, the normative implication's of Mr. Stein's extremely useful observations and exposes cannot escape any reasonable person: Pull the monopolistic rug from under the broadcast "business," and let's get a competitive enterprise going. It's our only hope for seeing some quality, let alone variety, on the screen.