Missing subtlety in the culture wars

culture warsSometimes being witty gets in the way of being thorough and nuanced. Dana Milbank, The Washington Post's ubiquitous page 2 columnist, wrote a lament Tuesday on what he described as the faded culture wars in the wake of Sen. David Vitter's scandal and other supposedly connected events. In describing a "Campus Sex and Dating Conference" on Capitol Hill, Milbank says the event did not represent "your mother's conservative movement" and concludes that if "this is a cultural warrior, a truce may be imminent."

How this event, which included an appearance by Dr. Drew Pinsky (formerly of MTV's Loveline), relates to Vitter and his problems is only on the surface. What it really shows is that Milbank isn't interested in covering this issue beyond showing up at an event, getting some juicy quotes and making a few logically tenuous connections:

Perhaps it was inevitable at a time when the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination supports legal abortion and gay rights and has on numerous occasions dressed up as a woman. Whatever the reason, social conservatives appear unusually permissive these days.

Vitter, a Louisiana Republican, admitted last week that his number was in the phone records of the "D.C. Madam," who has been accused by the Justice Department of running a prostitution ring, and apologized for his "very serious sin." After a week in hiding -- and only muted criticism from conservatives -- Vitter emerged yesterday in a Louisiana hotel with a statement more defiant than contrite.

In response, National Review's Michael O'Brien wrote a strong takedown of Milbank's piece (doing our job for us) and provided some helpful context that is something of a news story if reporters care to dig into it. O'Brien described Milbank's piece as an "inaccurate portrait of not only the event, but also of the state of the culture wars in general."

Here's why:

For several years now, IWF has brought Pinsky to Capitol Hill for an annual "Sex and Dating Conference." The event is marketed specifically towards the summer influx of Beltway interns, and what better way to draw the college-aged than "sex" and "Dr. Drew," the MTV alumnus whom many of today's interns grew up watching. Sure beats seeing Robert Byrd in the hallway again. But the loosening-conservatives-and-Dr.-Drew brew Dana Milbank thinks he saw wasn't what was being served Monday.

Make no mistake, the culture wars have changed -- in a profound way. Subtlety, for today's college-aged crowd, is the name of the game. Culturally conservative messages are becoming more prevalent in pop culture from sources that aren't even necessarily conservative.

What O'Brien may be minimizing is the admission from certain culture warriors that past approaches just did not work and that Dr. James Dobson just doesn't hold the same sway that he used to. That would also be an even stronger news story if it could be backed up with some solid statistics. If in fact the culture wars have just "changed venues," as O'Brien says, it might be time for reporters to evaluate who they call for quotes.

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