Consider the state of three longstanding, once (and arguably still) powerful institutions: the University of Missouri, the sports cable channel ESPN, and Marvel Comics.
As our former colleague Jillian Kay Melchior detailed earlier this week, the University of Missouri is paying a hefty price for becoming the face of angry leftist protests in 2015. Students claimed the administration was ignoring racial bigotry and more or less took over campus, forcing the resignation of the university system’s president and the campus’s chancellor. Demonstrators tried to block the news media from protest sites, and Melissa Click, a communications professor, epitomized thuggish leftism when she was caught on video calling for “some muscle” to oust a student recording events.
Unsurprisingly, when an institution becomes the national face of surrender to ideological extremists, students lose interest in attending and alumni don’t want to donate. Freshmen enrollment is down 35 percent since the protests, and the university begins this year with the smallest incoming class since 1999. The campus has taken seven dormitories out of service, laid off 100 people, and eliminated 300 more positions through retirement and attrition.
Perceptions of a leftist takeover aren’t the university’s only problem; the athletic teams have been terrible, and every school struggles to maintain funding, solicit donations from alumni, and so on. But the decision to capitulate and submit to angry protesters appears to have done lasting damage to the institution.
Across the country, on ESPN’s campus in Bristol, Conn., the long winning streak of the “worldwide leader in sports” has come to a crashing end. After nearly three decades of ever-growing ratings, new channels, Web dominance, and viewer enthusiasm, the Disney-owned institution made a series of high-profile layoffs, from longtime correspondents to ex-player color commentators to a slew of SportsCenter anchors. Undoubtedly, the biggest financial factors were the network’s expensive purchases of broadcasting rights and consumers’ “cutting the cord” from traditional cable packages. But more than a few viewers pointed to the network’s relentless coverage of Michael Sam (an openly gay football player) and Colin Kaepernick (who famously knelt during the national anthem in protest), the prestigious award it gave to Caitlyn Jenner, and its firing of baseball analyst Curt Schilling over an offensive social-media post as evidence that the Disney-owned company had become increasingly overt in progressive political messaging, at the expense of its previous identity focused upon sports.
Sports-media analyst Clay Travis put it bluntly: “Middle America wants to pop a beer and listen to sports talk, they don’t want to be lectured about why Caitlyn Jenner is a hero, Michael Sam is the new Jackie Robinson of sports, and Colin Kaepernick is the Rosa Parks of football. ESPN made the mistake of trying to make liberal social media losers happy and as a result lost millions of viewers.”
Again, heavy-handed political messages are not ESPN’s lone problem; if the network had never dipped its toe into the realm of politics, broadcast rights would still be expensive and many consumers would still be cutting the cord. But annoying and alienating the demographic of conservative-leaning sports fans exacerbated their woes.
Meanwhile, another branch of the Disney entertainment empire, Marvel Comics, is enduring an incongruous problem. Films about Marvel’s superheroes dominate at the box office several times a year, but sales of the comic books have been increasingly disappointing since 2015, a slump that coincides with the publisher’s increasingly obvious effort to make its core characters diverse: Thor became a woman, African-American characters took over the mantles of Spider-Man and Captain America, and an African-American woman started wearing Iron Man’s armor. (It’s worth noting that Marvel always had racially diverse heroes, particularly in its team titles: Storm, Black Panther, War Machine, Falcon, Rictor, Sunfire, Jubilee, Cloak, Thunderbird, Snowbird, Shaman, Cheyanne . . . )
In March, Marvel vice president of sales David Gabriel offered an assessment of his company’s products that infuriated progressives. “What we heard was that people didn’t want any more diversity,” Gabriel said. “They didn’t want female characters out there. That’s what we heard, whether we believe that or not. I don’t know that that’s really true, but that’s what we saw in sales. We saw the sales of any character that was diverse, any character that was new, our female characters, anything that was not a core Marvel character, people were turning their nose up against.”
Some industry analysts argue that this an oversimplification, as sales of non-“diverse” titles dropped as well. And all comic-book publishers face a big fundamental challenge: In a world of endless electronic media options, how do you get consumers to plunk down nearly four dollars for what is usually 22 pages of story and ten pages of ads?
But it’s extremely difficult to make thrilling agitprop, and some fans argued the effort to include an explicitly political or ideological message interfered with Marvel’s bread and butter of exciting and dramatic stories.
“The point of many of these books is not to tell interesting stories about new characters struggling to be superheroes, but to check off the ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusivity’ and ‘representation’ boxes on the progressive checklist,” one fan lamented. “As such, the characters are bland, flawless sock-puppets for their authors to rant about their progressive agendas. Whatever story that might exist gets lost in the need to virtue signal to the progressive readers who ironically do not buy the books.”
They moved into preexisting, relatively apolitical institutions and steered the ship in a new direction, aligned with their political and social goals.
Notice that the progressive-minded revolutionaries in these three cases did not seek to found their own university in Missouri, their own cable sports network, or their own line of comic books. That would require a great deal of patience and effort and risk of failure. They moved into preexisting, relatively apolitical institutions and steered the ship in a new direction, aligned with their political and social goals.
And then they hit the rocks.
In this era of intense political and ideological divisions, it is right and fair to ask what the true purpose of any of these institutions is. Do we want a university to prepare young people for the work force, to broaden their knowledge and impart some wisdom, or to ensure they are properly “awakened” to the need to enact the progressive agenda? How much does the viewing audience want the shouting voices around the table on a sports network to resemble those on a cable-news network? And while every storyteller wants to make some statement about people and the world, can you make a political message fun, exciting, intriguing, or surprising in a world of superheroes? Isn’t one of the core rules of drama that good heroes should have flaws to overcome, and villains can be charming or seductive, an approach that doesn’t lend itself easily to simple “this political philosophy is right” stories?
And shouldn’t progressives ask themselves why they’re so determined to use university campuses, cable sports networks, and comic books as the venues for their arguments?
— Jim Geraghty is the senior political correspondent of National Review.