With the arrival of the Trump administration, and its unorthodox approach to the mainstream news and entertainment media, some interesting shifts are taking place. The New York Times has announced the addition of a “faith and values correspondent,” who will not be based in New York City. The Times is looking for someone who can “tap into the beliefs and moral questions that guide Americans and affect how they live their lives, whom they vote for and how they reflect on the state of the country.”
One can wonder whether the Times will use the new position to counterbalance its usual slant, or to confirm it. I am hopeful they will find someone in the mold of Ross Douthat, because I still have respect for the Old Gray Lady and the role she plays.
One can wonder, likewise, whether the entertainment industry will seek ways to placate (and profit from) viewers in that great swath of the country referred to as the heartland, or “flyover country,” encompassing the Bible, Corn, and Rust Belts. After all, there has been backlash when the Hollywood elite have attacked the new president and his followers, as Meryl Streep did at the Golden Globe Awards dinner, while receiving the Cecil B. DeMille Award—ironically, named for a Hollywood legend who was a staunch conservative.
If this change is afoot, it will have been a long time coming. Little commented upon in recent years was the massive cultural shift that accompanied what’s been called the “Rural Purge” of several decades ago, when television producers systematically killed popular television shows with a rural theme or a special appeal to rural audiences.
Examples of this purge abound, mostly between 1969 and 1975: Petticoat Junction, Green Acres, Mayberry R.F.D., Lassie, Family Affair, Hogan’s Heroes, and My Three Sons; variety shows like Hee-Haw or those hosted by Red Skelton, Jackie Gleason, Jim Nabors, Andy Williams, and Glen Campbell; and westerns, such as The Big Valley, Virginian, Bonanza, and Gunsmoke. As the voice and character actor Pat Buttram said of 1970, the height of the purge: “It was the year CBS canceled everything with a tree.”
These shows were replaced by series with urban settings or themes, such as All in the Family and the Mary Tyler Moore Show, with their numerous spinoffs. Here’s a thought experiment: To see how our culture changed in a few short years, compare The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-66) with The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77). Do it for the shows in general, and the specific characters played by Moore herself. Less than a decade apart in time, happy housewife Laura Petrie and single-thirtysomething Mary Richards are worlds apart. Coincidentally, both shows involve urban settings where the television industry looks in the mirror.
In time for November’s election, many essays and books were written about America’s growing red-and-blue divide. Coming to mind especially are the rural memoirs Flyover Nation by Dana Loesch and Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance.
In Flyover Nation, Loesch recognizes how mass entertainment has become secularized. She cites only one recent sitcom—Parks and Recreation, which takes place in a small town in Indiana—as showing the region in a somewhat positive light, via the character Ron Swanson, played by Nick Offerman: “I can’t imagine coastal Hollywood writers purposely making a Flyover town so eccentrically lovable and the conservative character on the show the first you’d pick for your fantasy dodgeball team.”
Loesch observes that Christians appear to have segregated themselves from mass culture in order to focus on Christian film, Christian music, and Christian books—the wrong approach, when they need to be active in the mainstream.
Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, one of the year’s most talked-about public affairs books, reflects on the cynicism of those in “hillbilly” country, and the effect it has on their world view. “With little trust in the press, there’s no check on the internet conspiracy theories that rule the digital world,” Vance writes. “Everything the media tells us is a lie. Many in the white working class believe the worst about their society. This isn’t some libertarian mistrust of government policy, which is healthy in any democracy. This is deep skepticism of the very institutions or our society. And it’s becoming more and more mainstream.”
Just as pushback against the television industry’s rural purge led to The Waltons, which lasted through nine seasons (1972-81) and six movie sequels, the time has come for history to recognize once again these forgotten quarters. Whether or not President Trump is the right person to bring about a cultural shift that will lead to more respect for America’s heartland remains to be seen; God does work in mysterious ways, and often through the most unexpected people. There may be hope after all these years for our worn-out hillbillies and others in flyover country.
K. E. Colombini is a former journalist who works in corporate communications.