Published on Tuesday, December 21, 2004 by the Washington Post
GOP Corporate Donors Cash In on Smut
by Terry M. Neal
Since the election, the e-mails from readers have poured into my mailbox. The common theme from conservatives has been that Nov. 2 was a triumph of values -- embodied by the GOP heartland over the heathens of the coastal elite.
Typical of the comments was this one from Arizona: "I do think the Democrat Party is identified -- justifiably -- with much of the vulgarization so prominently displayed by many celebrities, particularly those in the entertainment industry. Hey, we pick our friends."
In this case, the Democratic Party's "friends" are the expletive-spewing Whoopi Goldberg and her Hollywood pals, whom conservatives demonize. But Republicans have their friends, too. While not as obvious as the Goldbergs of the world, this corporate elite also profits from the peddling of lowbrow entertainment and, in some cases, outright smut.
In fact, just as the Democratic and Republican elites both profit from creating and selling popular entertainment, red states and blue states don't differ much in their consumption of it.
In my recent Yahoo Political Players interview with Tucker Carlson, the conservative writer and CNN Crossfire co-host asserted that the red/blue divide is rooted in the dismay many Americans perceive in the vast social and cultural changes happening in the country and the fact that the masses of people in middle America blame a distant, coastal elite for fostering those changes.
"The people who run the Republican Party are elites just like any other elite, and they don't share the same cultural concerns as the center of the country," said Carlson. "They don't -- they're all pro-choice on abortion, they're all pro-gay rights, they're all thrice married, you know what I mean? And they summer in the Hamptons, too. And so they don't have anything in common, that's true, with evangelicals who make up the bulk of their party."
In this world of irony, corporate leaders at companies as diverse as News Corp., Marriott International and Time Warner can profit by selling red state consumers the very material that red state culture is supposed to despise. Those elites then funnel the proceeds to the GOP, which in turn has used the money to successfully convince red state voters that the other political party is solely responsible for the decline of the civilization.Community Values
There was never any doubt how the good people of Utah County, Utah, would vote on Nov. 2. It has long prided itself as a bastion of conservatism and family values. And so when voters were given the opportunity to choose between President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry, 86 percent of them went for Bush, making Utah County the second most Republican county in the most Republican state in the country. Utah County has a population of roughly 370,000. Its largest employer is the Mormon-run Brigham Young University.
But Utah County is also the home of a mid-1990s court case that demonstrated some of the ambiguity about "values," even in the reddest of the red states. Randy Spencer was the attorney that the court appointed to defend a the Movie Buff video store in American Fork from local prosecutors who had charged the store's owner with 15 counts of pornography for renting tapes such as "Jugsy," "Young Buns II" and "Sex Secrets of High-Priced Call Girls." The prosecutors claimed the store was violating the community standards of suburban Provo.
Spencer, who describes himself as a devout Mormon, challenged the prosecution's definition of the community's values by subpoenaing records that showed Utah County tolerated the consumption of porn in several outlets: Utah County cable subscribers had ordered at least 20,000 explicit movies in the past two years; the Sun Coast Video store in the town of Orem was deriving 20 percent of its rental sales from adult movies, even though adult movies only made up 2 percent of the store's inventory; Dirty Jo Punsters in nearby Spanish Fork was racking up on average $111,000 dollars per year selling sex toys, blow up dolls and other adult fare; the Provo Marriott across the street from the courthouse sold 3,448 adult pay-per-view movie rentals in 1998 alone.
"I was assigned to the case, and it was a real evolution for me," said Spencer in an interview last week. "The same religious values that I have are protected by the same Constitution that protects my neighbor's rights to do some things that I might not necessarily do."
About a year after the Utah case, a similar scenario played out in Hamilton County, Ohio, a conservative Cincinnati suburb. In 2001, under pressure from an influential local antiporn group, Citizens for Community Values, prosecutors filed obscenity charges against two local video stores for selling adult videos. The Cincinnati Enquirer launched an investigation of community standards and found that:
"Last year, more than 21,000 Hamilton County residents purchased 26,000 explicit videos from one of the nation's largest mail-order companies. A company spokeswoman described those sales as typical for a community of this size. . . . In January of this year, 182,000 Greater Cincinnati residents -- an estimated 70,000 from Hamilton County -- visited an adult Web site at least once. Nielsen - NetRatings found that 21.8 percent of all residents here who went online visited an adult site. The national average for January was 21.4 percent. In recent months, Hamilton County residents bought adult movies on pay-per-view TV at about the same rate as viewers did in other mid-sized TV markets. The numbers suggest county residents are quiet contributors to the adult industry's rapid growth. And with every purchase, they change Hamilton County's long-held notion of a community standard."
Again, the community standard in Hamilton County -- which favored Bush over Kerry 53-47 percent -- was pretty much what it was everywhere else. In this particular case, one of the video storeowners pleaded guilty and paid a small fine. The other decided to fight and was acquitted in a jury trial.
Adult entertainment is not the only area in which cultural tastes seem to be consistent across the country. Primetime viewing habits are very similar too.
Desperate Housewives, the hottest new show on television, features plotlines such as one in which a married woman is having an affair with her 17-year-old gardener and another in which a man murders his neighbor. Turns out, the show performed better in the November sweeps month in the red state markets of Dallas-Fort Worth (first), Atlanta (first) and Kansas City (second) than it did in the Blue state markets of New York (fourth), Chicago (fourth) and Boston (third), according to Nielson Media Research. The show did quite well in red state markets Salt Lake City (fourth) and Birmingham (sixth) as well.
While my e-mailer from Arizona focused his "values" argument on vulgarization of culture, post-election polls by the Pew Charitable Trusts and a new survey released this week by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal have shed some light on that lightning rod question in the National Election Pool exit poll. The "values" difference between Republicans and Democrats is more about abortion and gay marriage than it is about "Ren & Stimpy" or "Will & Grace."
But if the red states are more moral than the blue states in other ways, it's difficult to make that point quantitatively. In many of the social pathologies, the blue states are in better shape than the red ones. There are different ways of interpreting data, but a basic analysis of census data makes this point.
For instance, the average percentage of births to unwed mothers is slightly higher in red states than blue states. Washingtonpost.com producer Kevin Hechtkopf did some number crunching and found that the average number of births in unwed mothers was 33.2 per 100 in red states compared to 31.2 in blue states.
And if divorce is an indicator of family values, the red states lose out there as well. As blogger Andrew Sullivan pointed out recently, the states with the highest rates of divorce per capita are all red states, and the states with the lowest rates of divorce are blue states.
Some will argue that none of these facts are evidence of hypocrisy, that it's entirely possible that the liberal minority in red states is responsible for the consumption of all the cultural trash and the perpetrators of social pathology in those red states. Mathematically possible? Yes. Probable? No.Follow the Money
Spencer, the Mormon defense attorney in Utah County, said he couldn't help but be struck by a larger point: Big corporate America -- a staunch GOP ally -- was lining its pockets selling raunch to the masses, including the red state nation.
"A lot of it's coming from Republicans," Spencer said, referring to the corporate culprits who profit from smut. Spencer said he considers himself a Republican.
It's almost impossible to get a handle on how much money corporate America is reaping by peddling smut. General Motors Corp. is not eager to brag about how many dirty movies it sold last year through a subsidiary.
In the Utah County trial, Spencer asked the jury why a lone, small business vendor like Peterman should be held to a higher standard than the likes of W. Mitt Romney. At the time Romney was on the board of Marriott International, which was making huge margins on piping porn into hotel rooms. Currently, Romney is the Republican governor of Massachusetts and his travels around the country have helped fuel speculation that he might run for president in 2008.
Perhaps the most extensive mainstream media treatment on this subject ran four years ago in The New York Times. In a 4,000-word investigative opus, writer Timothy Egan connected the dots between porn and big corporate profits:
"The General Motors Corporation, the world's largest company, now sells more graphic sex films every year than does Larry Flynt, owner of the Hustler empire. The 8.7 million Americans who subscribe to DirecTV, a General Motors subsidiary, buy nearly $200 million a year in pay-per-view sex films from satellite, according to estimates provided by distributors of the films, estimates the company did not dispute.
"EchoStar Communications Corporation, the No. 2 satellite provider, whose chief financial backers include Mr. Murdoch, makes more money selling graphic adult films through its satellite subsidiary than Playboy, the oldest and best-known company in the sex business, does with its magazine, cable and Internet businesses combined, according to public and private revenue accounts by the companies.
"AT&T Corporation, the nation's biggest communications company, offers a hard-core sex channel called the Hot Network to subscribers to its broadband cable service. It also owns a company that sells sex videos to nearly a million hotel rooms. Nearly one in five of AT&'s broadband cable customers pay an average of $10 a film to see what the distributor calls 'real, live all-American sex -- not simulated by actors.'"
Egan's story is a bit dated -- corporate sell-offs and restructuring have changed ownership of some of the companies on which he reported -- but there's no evidence of a seismic shift in the adult entertainment industry during the intervening years.
For instance, Ruport Murdoch, the controlling owner of News Corp. -- which owns both the conservative Fox News and the popular and frequently salacious Fox TV -- continues to cash in. On one hand, Fox News employs commentators who promote the connection between Republicans and family values while other divisions of the company profit from sexually explicit content.
In fact, Murdoch's Fox TV network is fighting a record-setting FCC indecency fine for an episode of the now-canceled "Married by America" (which featured whipped-cream-covered strippers at a bachelor party and digitally obscured nudity) by arguing that the government should not even be in the business of regulating decency on the public airwaves.
"Indeed, the massive expansion of cable and satellite video programming, together with the advent of the Internet, renders obsolete the second-class treatment of broadcasters under the First Amendment," the Fox FCC filing reads. "These technological and marketplace changes make clear that regulation of indecency, which the commission itself recognizes is constitutionally protected speech, cannot possibly survive strict scrutiny review."
Last year, Murdoch won controlling interest in DirectTV from GM.
Of course pornography isn't the primary source of income for News Corp. or any of the other companies mentioned here. But it is a growing source. Multichannel News, an industry wag, wrote in June that adult entertainment revenue on cable had grown from $263 million in 1998 to $609 million in 2002, the latest year for which figures were available. Other articles on MSN, Insight on the News and Beliefnet provide more information on the industry's growth.
No one argues that the vast sums of money that flow into the Republican Party are based primarily on the self-interest of protecting the ability to profit from that sort of material. But money made off of pornography is finding its way into the Republican Party via very wealthy donors.
The lodging and tourism industry -- like most major industries, with a few exceptions such as entertainment and law -- has given a majority of its money to the GOP since 1990. . Other than a few exceptions such as Hyatt Corp, most of the large hotel chains give predominantly to Republicans.
Since 2000, Murdoch and family members (all executives or shareholders of the News Corp., Rupert's parent company) have contributed at least $100,000 of their personal money to the Republican Party, its candidates and right-leaning political action committees, according to the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics.
(To be fair, the News Corp. has given only a little more than half of its $61,000 in corporate contributions to Republicans since 2000.)
Executives and officials at EchoStar have given prodigiously as well, but the company has spread its money around between the parties, with a heavy focus on contributions to congressional regulators of its industry.
Since 1994, General Motors Corp. has given all of its $53,850 in political contributions to the Republican Party.
This figure does not include the millions more spent by GM affiliates and subsidiaries since the early 1990s, including Hughes Electronics (the former parent of DirecTV), which has given 61 percent of its $878,259 contributed since 1990 to the GOP and its candidates. (See also: Automotive industry's top contributors to federal candidates and parties)
AT&T, which sold its broadband cable system to Comcast a couple years after the Egan story ran in The New York Times, has given 54 percent of its $19,672,908 to Republicans. AT&T continues to own Liberty Media, which is the principle owner of On Command, a Denver-based company that is one of the two largest providers of pay-per-view movies to hotel chains.
In Vanity Fair's annual list of top 50 "new establishment" information age titans, the magazine sought to determine which of the presidential candidates each person on the list supported. Of those that could be determined, the field was split almost evenly between Bush and Kerry. After the list was published, Viacom's Sumner Redstone, who had been listed as a Kerry supported, announced he was supporting Bush. Viacom owns MTV.
Redstone was listed as the third most powerful information age titan, right behind Murdoch. Of the top 10 titans, four were primarily in the business of media. And with Redstone's announcement, three of those four -- Murdoch, Redstone and Comcast chairman and CEO Brian Roberts -- were all Bush supporters. Barry Diller was the Kerry guy.
Another high-ranking media mogul was Time Warner CEO Richard Parsons. Time Warner, of course, has vast holdings in cable television, publications, online and music mediums. Parsons, a former assistant to New York governor and U.S. vice president Nelson D. Rockefeller, contributed a total of $2,000 to Bush in 2000 and 2004 and none to Al Gore or John Kerry.Marriage of Convenience
I vividly recall one of Bush's most popular stump speech lines from the 2000 election: "My job will be to usher in the responsibility era, a culture that will stand in stark contrast to the last few decades, which has clearly said to America: If it feels good, do it. And if you've got a problem, blame somebody else."
But this strategy conveniently exempts the corporate elite from those high standards of responsibility.
In his buzzed-about book, "What's the Matter With Kansas," the liberal writer Thomas Frank hypothesizes that today's winning GOP majority is the culmination of a marriage of convenience between the GOP's economic elite and social conservatives. The economic elite needs the votes of the social conservatives to win elections. And the economic elite needs to win elections to pursue the tax cuts and deregulation they seek.
Frank believes that the economic conservatives convince the masses to vote against their economic interests by creating an angry and permanent cult of victimization that diverts attention from the elites and pins all of the country's problems on the eponymous liberal bogeyman. Even as the GOP continues to consolidate and hoard its economic and political power, the Washington-based leadership and strategists of the GOP mask its lack of progress in the culture war -- even as it accomplishes its goals of tax cuts and deregulation -- by convincing the masses to rise up against their true oppressors, Sean Penn, Harvard and the New York Times editorial page.
In the end, the Rupert Murdochs of the world could not exist without the Utah Counties of the world. His political party needs their voters. His businesses need their patronage.
While the debate over abortion and gay rights remains as relevant as ever, the preponderance of evidence suggests that the larger "cultural" values debate is as over-hyped as most of Don King's fights.
Popular culture isn't popular because members of the "tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving left-wing freak show" (to borrow a line from a campaign ad this year) are the only customers. It's because there is an unquenched thirst for it, and the corporate profiteers (who are members of and contributors to both political parties) see a nationwide market for it.
Jeffrey J. Douglas, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based criminal defense attorney and chairman of the Free Speech Coalition, an adult entertainment advocacy and watchdog group, summed it up: "Any time you can find a way to market sexual entertainment, rest assured that the largest entities will make sure they can make money off of it and make sure they have deniability."
Conservative syndicated columnist Armstrong Williams said most conservative voters understand this but have rewarded the GOP with their votes because of the sincere religiosity of President Bush and his ability to reassure them that he shares their concerns about the culture.
"I don't draw much of a distinction between corporate America and Hollywood," Williams said. "It's not only Hollywood that produces this filth, but corporate America too. They exploit it to take advantage of it to make money off of it."
While Democrats will never be able to reach certain voters because of issues such as abortion and gay rights, it cannot abdicate the values debate, many party leaders argue. The political divide is narrow enough that Democrats can win by peeling off a small percentage of values voters by casting its own priorities in terms of morality and by sending a message that they empathize with those concerned about the vulgarization of the culture.
"You're not going to convince the hardcore to turn around, and you shouldn't even try because you would compromise your own values," said Al From of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. "You've got to talk about giving something back. We did that in '92 with national service. Clinton got criticized in 1996 for small bore ideas like the V chip and school uniforms. But he made it clear that he was concerned with how hard it is to raise kids today."
Clinton won a dozen states in his 1996 re-election that went to Bush this year.
© 2004 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive