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Wednesday November 22, 2000

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Blurring the line

By Graig Uhlin

Arizona Daily Wildcat

Under the heading of "doesn't surprise anyone," Rosie O'Donnell has a new cause that she is stumping. However, this one has had greater ramifications than pissing off Tom Selleck.

A day before last week's presidential election, the talk show host aired a four-minute pro-Gore speech by her friend and ardent Clinton-Gore supporter Barbra Streisand. The decision to air the segment came after ABC's "20/20" would only broadcast 40 seconds of the speech during a Streisand interview. Streisand had thought it would be aired in its entirety, and Rosie came to her rescue by threatening not to renew her talk show contract when it ends in two months. Warner Bros., Rosie's syndicator, gave in.

This is just one of a long line of political activist segments - all Democratic - that the upbeat host had included in her show. Last year, she sparred briefly and much to the audience's discomfort with actor and NRA advocate Tom Selleck on gun control. During the debate Selleck made a remark about the inappropriateness of discussing such a topic (i.e. political) on a talk show intended for something else (i.e. entertainment).

American television, in general, is blurring the lines between entertainment and politics, representing an almost conspiracy-like attempt by Hollywood moguls to push the Democratic agendas of the candidates that they financially support. This, by the way, is not a column of conservative backlash. I am, without a doubt, a Democrat, but what I also am is a believer in the need for the representation of diverse opinions and ideologies in mass media, avoiding what bitter cynics dub the homogenization of America.

Is it all right for producers and celebrities to use their television shows as forums through which to stump a political platform? Are they forcing their liberal rhetoric on the masses? What are the ramifications of such non-complacency?

Let's look at one of the worst offenders on television besides the liberal-til-she-dies Rosie - NBC's "The West Wing." Being a politically themed show the show must address relevant political topics, but recently the drama has taken its stumping to extremes.

Three weeks ago, the show featured a radio talk show therapist that was remarkably similar to the much-vilified Dr. Laura, who has called gays and lesbians "biological errors." The fictional President Bartlett, played by Martin Sheen, condemned her in not-so-subtle terms for her discrimination against the gay community.

Then last week, "West Wing" tackled the gay marriage issue, featuring a Jim Kolbe-like, gay Republican senator who supported the "Marriage Recognition Act," a bill bearing a likeness to the recent Defense of Marriage Act that limits marriage to a union between a man and a woman.

Now, here is where the issue becomes tricky. Most people, myself included, would posit that pro-gay sentiments should be voiced in the media, but the media all to often vilifies the other side. And what about when "West Wing," addresses, as it inevitably will, more contested issues like abortion or gun control? Will television become the battleground on which we debate major social and political issues? Is that its role? Or is it just there to entertain, to delight and make us forget about all the bickering?

I don't have the answers to these questions, but regardless, it is dangerous when television presents a single-sided (which it then posits as morally right) view of the world, even if it is a view I hold. Just don't tell Rosie I said that.