An excerpt from Heather Hendershot‘s new book, What’s Fair on the Air: Cold War Right-Wing Broadcasting and the Public Interest (Chicago, 2011).
Hendershot, a professor at Queens College and CUNY Graduate Center, will be reading from What’s Fair TONIGHT, Friday, September 23 at 5 pm at the NYU Bookstore. Our founding editor, Jeff Sharlet, will be there to talk with Hendershot about her book. Click here for more details.
Two recurring arguments of this book have been that the broadcast ultras were the embarrassing nuts who had to be left behind for a more legitimate and effective conservative movement to emerge in the 1970s and ’80s, and that contemporary conservatives, while sharing some of the anxieties and presumptions voiced by the cold war extremist broadcasters, are generally much better at couching right-wing ideas in more moderate-sounding rhetoric. The first claim would be hard to deny, but the latter contention may seem a bit more open to debate, especially in the wake of the election of President Obama in 2008 and the ensuing rise of “Tea Party” conservatives in 2009. The Tea Party, a most immoderate (and certainly not unified) group, initially grabbed headlines by marching with picket signs portraying President Obama as Hitler (or the Joker, or a Muslim), calling for a new American “revolation,” and decrying abortion as an American “Hollowcost.” Angry, white, and mostly male and over forty-five years old, this group—egregious spelling errors aside—has somewhat higher education and income levels than the average American. Tea Party supporters are adamantly opposed to government bailouts specifically, and federal spending in general, although by hollering things like “keep your government hands off my Medicare check!” they sometimes reveal a shallow understanding of what federal spending actually encompasses. There are, of course, also people involved in this grassroots uprising who know how to organize, strategize, and fundraise. This new movement is no laughing matter: it is potentially a powerful force to be reckoned with.
As far as media goes, the Tea Party presented an interesting challenge for Fox News in 2009 and 2010. Commentators like Sean Hannity had nothing but good things to say about these common folks dressed up in Thomas Paine outfits, and the more outrageous picket signs magically failed to appear in Fox’s coverage. The right-wing news network embraced the movement, while trying not to draw attention to its more lunatic elements. It would appear that even Fox—which gladly boosts ratings by picturing Glenn Beck metaphorizing Obama’s damage to America by pouring fake gasoline all over some poor college student intern, then lighting a match—draws the line somewhere, deliberately avoiding showing Tea Party folks who look too unhinged. In light of the fact that one poll found that 63 percent of Tea Partiers “watch Fox News for most of their news” (compared to 46 percent of US Republicans, 8 percent of Democrats, 18 percent of independents, and 23 percent of all adults), it is hardly surprising that Fox News would labor so hard to keep its Tea Party coverage almost exuberantly positive. Setting aside the question of whether or not these “revolationaries” will accomplish their objectives, as a media phenomenon, they seem to confirm that extremism is alive and well in America, moderate-sounding rhetoric be damned.
But such extremism, as I have argued, is a double-edged sword. It gets people riled up, it gets them media coverage, it gets them voting. But at some point that momentum needs to be redirected into political action committees and lobbying, and the hard extremist edges need to be softened. At least that’s what needs to happen if the Republican Party is going to tap into the Tea Party momentum. To quote Rick Perlstein again, “the crazy tree blooms in every moment of liberal ascendancy, and . . . elites exploit the crazy for their own narrow interests.” How will the elites—in this case, the Republican Party—exploit this particular blossoming of craziness? Or will it be Tea Party supporters who end up exploiting the Republicans? In 2010 Tea Partiers made one move in the right direction, image-wise, to mainstream themselves. The New York Times reported that “at the inaugural National Tea Party Convention [in 2010], gone were the  placards that protesters carried . . . with Mr. Obama’s face wearing a Hitler mustache or superimposed on the Joker . . . Organizers said that anyone ‘looking too crazy’ would have been tossed out.” As the founder of the Tea Party Nation social-networking site noted, “The movement is maturing.”
Yet, interestingly, such maturity did not entail inching toward the “legitimate” GOP. In fact, the Republican Party was not embraced with open arms in 2009–10, and Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele was noticeably excluded from Tea Party events. Instead, even as almost half of the Tea Party supporters surveyed claimed that Sarah Palin was unqualified for the presidency, she remained the group’s totemic hero, with Glenn Beck almost as highly esteemed. But Palin was not in charge, and the party continued to lack hierarchy and centralized leadership. It remained a “sprawling rebellion,” its agitators ranging from survivalists and militia members, to anti-immigration and anti-gun-control groups, to garden-variety populists more concerned about reducing government spending than about hoarding food and water. In 2010, the group seemed united only by “a narrative of impending tyranny. Jonathan Raban succinctly conveys the collage of viewpoints he observed at the 2010 Tea Party Convention: “At Opryland, devout, abstemious Christians were breaking bread with followers of Ayn Rand’s gospel of unbridled and atheistic self-interest. The convention, designed to unite the Tea Party Movement, was helping to expose fundamental differences of belief and mindset between people who, before Nashville, had appeared as interchangeable members of a single angry crowd.” At the September 2009 Tea Party march on Washington DC, Raban had spotted t-shirts declaring “Obama Spends—Jesus Saves,” but also shirts declaring “I am John Galt” and “Atlas Shrugged.” Even with their fierce individualism and wide range of idées fixes, the cold war right-wing broadcasters were not quite this heterogeneous! And, although they were never quite able to unify as a political force, the most successful ones certainly understood how to centralize power (on their own turf, at least) and to get things done, even if that entailed nothing more than fundraising to keep their own propaganda organizations functioning.
H. L. Hunt, Dan Smoot, Billy James Hargis, and Carl McIntire had to be shunted aside, along with folks like the John Birch Society’s Robert Welch, for conservatives to move forward in the 1970s. Is Sarah Palin our own Robert Welch, an extremist who gets followers motivated, but without a long-term future within the American political machine? The short answer is no: Welch was much smarter, wealthier, and better organized than Palin, if decidedly less photogenic and entertaining. A more helpful answer is: it is impossible to predict the outcome of the Palin or the Tea Party phenomenon, but the question itself is likely misguided. It’s just too simplistic to make the comparison, given the fifty years between Welch and Palin, the John Birch Society and the Tea Party, and the kinds of changes, in terms of both politics and the media landscape, that America has undergone since the cold war years. Although we can perhaps apply lessons from the Birchers to our understanding of the Birthers, we shouldn’t assume a direct lineage or that, as the old cliché holds, history will repeat itself.
Still, the claim that the extremist forces that persist in America are often those that find more moderate means of public expression does, I think, remain valid. Once Far Right ideas take root and their advocates turn into organizations and think tanks, the extremist ideas that persist tend either to become reframed or to go underground. This is more pragmatism than conspiracy, and it doesn’t always go smoothly. Fox News may have strategically averted its cameras from revealing some of the more eccentric Tea Partiers, but that didn’t keep those same eccentrics from proclaiming their ideas on YouTube. The muting of radical-sounding ideas can be a messy and flawed process, especially when not all of the players agree that it’s a good idea to “mature.”
Take Focus on the Family. As noted earlier, twenty years ago Focus began to shift its tactics, replacing words like “biblical” with “faith-based” and describing America as a pluralistic country, though defining pluralism in a rather narrow manner: America is home to many different, wonderfully diverse kinds of people, all of whom would be better off if they embraced the specific values that Focus holds dear. In 2005, Jim Daly replaced aging founder James Dobson as leader, and he pushed to further modernize and temper the organization’s image. There’s clearly a growing generation gap between the graying (and balding) New Christian Right, as symbolized by Dobson, and those new, younger conservative Christian players who are trying to steer away from the anti-everything image that the New Christian Right has long conveyed.
Meanwhile, though, before Daly’s ascendancy Dobson had established an offshoot organization, Focus on the Family Action, which could be overtly political without endangering Focus on the Family’s 501(c)(3) status. In October 2008, Family Action released an alarmist “letter from the future,” dated 2012, predicting what the US would be like after two years of an Obama presidency. In a nutshell, there would be: a liberal Supreme Court, zero tolerance for prolife doctors, no more Boy Scouts of America, a general homosexual takeover, and, of course, a reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine in order to destroy all Christian radio. Yet in real life, in 2010, Daly praised Obama as a positive example for African American fathers, celebrated the president’s attention to the issue of human trafficking, and “expressed a willingness to work with Democrats.” Daly was even willing to direct Focus energies toward issues like social services—not attacking the governmental provision of social services in a reactive manner but, instead, being proactive and getting involved in a nongovernmental program that encourages adoption of kids who’ve been in foster care. Focus’s “I Care about Orphans” initiative is “an educational resource for adoptive families.” It’s doubtful that Focus intends to help out same-sex couples, but it’s simply not an issue that comes up on the strikingly apolitical and optimistic I Care about Orphans website. While one can be certain that Focus has not gone liberal, the difference between the collapse of civilization predicted by Focus Action in 2008 and the constructive attitude that Focus on the Family tried to project in 2010 is striking. This is clearly an organization that wants to be perceived as “conservative” and positive, not “extremist” and negative.
It doesn’t sound like Dobson’s style. Indeed, he left Focus on the Family in February 2010. Focus was already on shaky financial ground, and it remains to be seen if it can stay afloat without Dobson on the radio raising funds and selling advice books. There were rumors that Dobson left because his son Ryan is divorced and so would not be able to take over the organization. Much more likely, though, is that young Dobson was not slated to fill his father’s shoes because he’s out of touch with the more mainstream conservative style that Daly and others see as Focus’s future. Ryan Dobson is perhaps best known as author of the inspirational tome Be Intolerant: Because Some Things Are Just Stupid. That’s a title that would have made Billy James Hargis chuckle with glee. It’s certainly not an attempt to appear moderate. It appears that some politically engaged evangelicals, like those Chris Hedges encountered at the 2005 meeting of the National Religious Broadcasters association, militantly “call for Christian ‘dominion’ over the nation and, eventually, over the earth itself,” even as others, while still identifying as conservative, are also increasingly concerned about global poverty, environmental issues, and human trafficking, and are not framing their efforts to alleviate suffering as a bid for Christian global domination. In sum, there is no clear, across-the-board drive toward moderation of image among the many entities that make up the Christian Right.
Even Fox News, which features so many over-the-top commentators, sometimes has a sense of the value of trying to appear rational, centered, non-extremist. In fact, there is concern among a number of Fox News employees that the ever-excessive Glenn Beck is making them look bad. His “antics are embarrassing” to some Fox journalists, and “his inflammatory rhetoric makes it difficult for the network to present itself as a legitimate news outlet.” Notwithstanding Beck, it is the liberals who are extremists, the more tempered voices at Fox proclaim. Consider the network’s short-lived attempt to undercut The Daily Show (Comedy Central, 1996– present). In 2007, Joel Surnow, outspoken Hollywood conservative and creator of the protorture and highly rated series 24 (FOX, 2001–10), devised a new comedy series for Fox News, the 1/2 Hour News Hour, designed explicitly as a counter to the Daily Show. Since the Daily Show is willing to mock anyone who behaves foolishly, from former President Bush to Secretary of State Clinton, only an ideologue could attack the show as leftist propaganda. It certainly has liberal leanings and was consistently critical of the war in Iraq (“Mess O’ Potamia”), yet the program is eager to show that power-hungry Democrats are just as likely to metaphorically (or literally) drop their pants at inopportune moments as power-hungry Republicans are. But to Surnow, the Daily Show is just typical agitprop courtesy of the “liberal-dominated media.”
The premiere episode of the 1/2 Hour News Hour opened with a short skit starring “President Rush Limbaugh,” with “Vice President Anne Coulter” at his side. (Only seventeen episodes aired, with Limbaugh, a good friend of Surnow, appearing in eight of them.) Next, the show’s news anchors ran through their shtick, making fun of global warming, politically correct children’s books, and electric cars. The laughtrack was very loud, which did little to compensate for the fact that this was a painfully unfunny program. Several moments of the show do stand out, though, as germane to our examination of cold war right-wing broadcasting.
First, the anchors reported that House representative and former presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich had recently called for the reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine, which they explained was a measure to eliminate conservative broadcasting. Punch line: since he made his statements on Air America, nobody heard him. Once again, we see the Fairness Doctrine described as the keystone of the Democrats’ plan to destroy all conservative media, though it is unclear why the liberals need the doctrine if they already control all the print media and all the TV news (outside of Fox), as the right-wing pundits claim. Given how little overall impact the doctrine actually had when it existed—in effect, Carl McIntire was the only one to be trounced by it, and, given his derelict behavior and general incompetence, he probably could have lost his license for any number of other violations—it is rather amazing how the left and the right persist in their attempts to use it as a political blackjack. As Chad Raphael aptly summarizes, “perhaps no broadcast regulation has been as hotly debated— yet had so little impact on the industry—as the Fairness Doctrine.” Of course, it did negatively impact grassroots right-wing broadcasting, but this was not “the industry.” In the cold war years, the doctrine frightened the little guys (and there were many of them), while having little genuine impact on the big players in the American media business.
In any case, the suspension of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 was only one small piece of the deregulation of the communications industry that began under Reagan and culminated with Clinton’s Telecommunications Act of 1996, and re-regulation seems more than a little unlikely given the power of the communications lobby in Washington DC. The doctrine was truly the product of a limited-channel environment. In a world dominated by only three national networks, and a smaller upstart fourth radio network, the ultras could only survive by banding together on small independent radio stations. Today we have digital cable, satellite radio, and the Internet; telecommunications venues have never been more numerous, even as fewer and fewer companies own the venues. The doctrine would only apply to broadcast TV and radio, which is now hardly more than the tip of the iceberg. So, clearly, the doctrine is a symbolic issue more than a practical one. It’s simply not coming back—and even if it did, it would not change the world much. Like Howard Stern in 2006, Limbaugh could always hop to satellite if things got too hot for him on network radio. Given the doctrine’s current symbolic status, it is best described as a lowstakes poker chip occasionally tossed back and forth by Democrats and Republicans. It showed up on the 1/2 Hour News Hour mostly to establish the show’s credentials as conservative . . . and paranoid.
On the other hand, the quip about Air America was not bad. It is undeniable that many liberals are infuriated by right-wing talk radio but that they have had difficulty coming up with a financially successful left-wing alternative. Right-wing broadcasting has done best under the leadership of cultish personalities, and the Left has been mostly unable—or perhaps unwilling—to create its own media demagogues, though Michael Moore has served as talking head, and Rachel Maddow and Keith Olberman have succeeded with liberal MSNBC viewers. Maddow and Olberman hardly balance out the huge number of successful right-wing radio and TV commentators, though the Colbert Report strikes a blow for “truthiness” in brilliantly satirizing O’Reilly et al.
Conservatives frequently complain about the oppressive liberal media, but the 1/2 Hour News Hour’s Air America punch line is a tacit acknowledgment that they (or at least Surnow) know that they have won, even if they have not quite mastered the art of news parody. Air America was short-lived and went bankrupt, and the “public interest” is today described strictly in marketplace terms. Whatever engages the public sells ads, and therefore serves the public interest. Rich people still don’t get more votes than poor people, but there is much about today’s deregulated media landscape that would please free-market advocate H. L. Hunt. Assumptions about the public interest, the triumph of the marketplace, and the absurdity of liberal calls for regulation all undergird the 1/2 Hour News Hour’s flippant joke about Dennis Kucinich—a figure, incidentally, who is also freely mocked by the Daily Show.
The premiere of the 1/2 Hour News Hour also included a gag publicservice message in which an ACLU spokesman explains, as “America the Beautiful” plays softly in the background, that
There was a time in America when white supremacists and other hate groups had to operate in the shadows, afraid to walk the streets in the daylight, afraid to show their faces. But in 1977 the neo-Nazis sued for their right to march through Skokie, Illinois, a town where thousands of Holocaust survivors lived. People like me helped those neo-Nazis take their case all the way to the United States Supreme Court, and guess what? We won. We won. So today, vicious hate groups can march anytime they want to, anywhere they please, in these United States of America. Who did that? I did that. I’m the ACLU. [Applause, announcer intones:] The American Civil Liberties Union: twisting the Constitution since 1920.
We’ve already seen how suppressing the racist roots of the New Christian Right has helped today’s politically engaged conservative evangelicals to spin an ersatz moderate image for themselves. As this attack on the ACLU illustrates, there’s also been a concerted effort among today’s secular and religious conservatives to define liberals and progressives as intolerant and bigoted. In arguing for civil liberties, then, the ACLU only helps Nazis. Further, by arguing against government-sponsored religious activities, defending affirmative action, and supporting civil rights for gays and lesbians, American progressives have become the enemies of freedom. It is progressives who are racists, according to the contemporary Right. Indeed, since Martin Luther King was a Christian, revisionists like the older Dobson have explained, the civil rights movement is not the opposite of today’s white-dominated Christian Right but actually the progenitor of the New Christian Right. The illogical leaps and historical elisions in play here are obviously vexing, but it is a story that has stuck. Christian right-wing broadcasters like Hargis and McIntire, who violently opposed civil rights, are the Achilles’ heel of such historical revisionism.
The right’s “funding father,” Richard Viguerie, is another historical revisionist. As we saw in the previous chapter, Viguerie has claimed that cold war extremism did not really exist. Yes, he admits, there were a miniscule number of unwise people who advocated violence, but not because they were conservatives. The very idea that the ultras were ultras—the idea that there was an extremist superpatriot movement at all—was a smear campaign concocted by the liberal-dominated media. The ultras themselves said the same thing in the 1960s, insisting there was nothing “extreme” in their thinking. There is no doubt good reason to be wary of the way that liberals like Richard Hofstader, Seymour Lipsit, and Daniel Bell understood the right-wingers of those years. The liberal intelligentsia insisted that the superpatriots were paranoid, psychotic, unbalanced, and filled with “status anxiety,” and such pathologization limited the value of their analyses. At the same time, the liberals were correct to single out the superpatriot movement as an important development, and one to be wary of.
The cold war liberal intellectuals did, to some extent, create and not simply describe a coherent group identity when they discussed the ultras en masse. At the same time, there were elements uniting the ultras—or at least the ultra broadcasters—and we make a serious historical error if we take seriously Viguerie’s claim that the very existence of the cold war right-wing extremists was just a liberal smear campaign. It would be just as narrow-sighted to say that the Christian Right does not exist today, even though many people active in the movement claim this to be the case. The Christian Right is not a homogeneous group, it doesn’t issue membership cards, and it is made up of a wide range of people, many of whom, at the grassroots level, would not even recognize what they are doing as “politics.” For true believers, blocking access to an abortion clinic or denying women their birth control prescriptions isn’t “politics.” It’s simply that which is right. The leaders at the top, however, know that they are engaged in political leadership. I do believe that the secular and Christian broadcasters described in the preceding pages knew that they were engaged in a movement, if a decentralized and somewhat chaotic one. They wanted to change the world for the better. But, for the most part, they thought that such change could come through words alone, and their words were ultimately too excessive, too weird to get the job done.
Heather Hendershot is author of Shaking the World for Jesus: Media and Conservative Evangelical Culture and Saturday Morning Censors: Television Regulation before the V-Chip. She teaches at Queens College and the CUNY Graduate Center.
This excerpt from the conclusion to her latest book, What’s Fair on the Air: Cold War Right-Wing Broadcasting and the Public Interest does not include footnotes.