Creating Technology for Social Change

Heather Hendershot: Before Fox News: Right-Wing Broadcasting, Cold War America, and the Conservative Movement

Before Fox News: Right-Wing Broadcasting, Cold War America, and the Conservative Movement
Heather Hendershot, Queens College, CUNY

In the Cold War years, there was a tremendous surge in right-wing broadcasting in America. Hendershot explains how radio and TV extremists feigned a “balanced” presentation of their ideas in the 1950s; in the 60s, those same broadcasters switched to an overtly right-wing line. Ultraconservative broadcasting was eventually shut down by the IRS, citizen activists, and the FCC. The Fairness Doctrine was the most powerful tool used against the extremists, and, thus, right-wing broadcasting was reborn when Reagan suspended the doctrine in 1987, enabling the rise of Rush Limbaugh, and Fox News shortly thereafter. Hendershot’s work thus provides useful context for understanding not only the history of the conservative movement but also the contemporary landscape. Heather Hendershot’s research centers on regulation, censorship, FCC policy, and conservative media and political movements. She is the editor of Nickelodeon Nation: The History, Politics and Economics of America’s Only TV Channel for Kids and the author of Saturday Morning Censors: Television Regulation before the V-Chip, Shaking the World for Jesus: Media and Conservative Evangelical Culture, and What’s Fair on the Air? Cold War Right-Wing Broadcasting and the Public Interest. She is also editor of Cinema Journal, the official publication of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies.

William Uricchio introduces Heather Hendershot. She’s had a Guggenheim; was distinguished fellow at Princeton, Senior scholar at NYU, and author of several books including “Shaking the World For Jesus (2004), Nickelodeon Nation, and more. Her work seems mainly concerned with niche or special interest audiences. Welcome!

HH: Says she’s going to run through some of her work and her next book project, and walk us through how she thnks about democracy, citizenship, free speech, and the notion of the Public Interest. She describes three periods of right wing media. The middle period of right wing broadcasting has been mostly ignored. Her next slide is a cartoon from Carl McIntyre: the fcc as a mushrooming menace that’s ‘shading out the grassroots.’ Right wing broadcasters generated an ideological and discursive framework designed to take over the Republican party. This framework still exists, and continues to dominate discourse. The cold war religious and secular right worked together to support hard right shift of Republican party. Understanding these broadcasters can also help us understand the Christian Right. She shows a clip from the John Birch Society that can illustrate the link between the religious and secular Right. The clip articulates an anticommunist ideology – it’s Tim Lahay, who later cofounded the Moral Majority, coauthored the “left behind’ series. It’s a ‘primordial moment’ for the Christian Right; a deliberate attempt to appear moderate in relation to religion.

Next slide is H.L Hunt, who in 1951 was a wealthy oilman. He founded fax forum. He advocated a society in which the wealthy would have more votes than the poor. Smoot hosted the “fax forum” TV show, in which foreign policy debates took place, sometimes true debates but also contentious style. Smoot argued that most voters are sensible middle of the road voters who have no where to go between extreme left and right. He argued that both parties were led by internationalists who ‘scorned’ the values of the common man, and positioned social security as the road to Nazism (for example). “Answers for Americans” ( ) was another panel discussion show featuring the same liberals each week. William F. Buckley, Goerge Combs, and Hodges all regularly took part.Combs effused east coast liberal establishment, Hodges was cartoonish leftist character. A clip from “Answers for Americans” illustrates the style of discourse of the show.
Fax Forum and Answers for America were flawed as public affairs programs, but they had ratings. Hunt could not convince anyone that his program didn’t have political bias.

In 1956, it shut down. Soon after he launched a new show called ‘Lifeline,’ which pledged not to attack minority groups and only occasionally attack individuals. It focused on free market ideology and mocked public spending.
Hunt was not simply an eccentric. In the 1950s, he was the biggest funder of right wing media. But in the 1960s, Hunt was joined by other right leaning businessmen. HH describes the funding and advertising activities of several of these right wing businessment.
The next slide shows Robert Welch, of the John Birch Society. Many of these businessmen also supported the JBS. They sold records, books, briefly toyed with radio, and produced recruitment films.

By the 1960s, big money was flowing from the right into the freelance production and distribution of right wing media. In the 1950s, Hunt was a big fish in a small pond. But in the 1960s, there were many more actors, with a lot more money pouring into the space. Key themes were opposition to Communism, Civil Rights, and Foreign Aid.

Another slide shows a cartoon of the Civil Rights march as a trojan horse for Communist Revolution.

What follows is a close reading of the performativity of Smoot as right wing broadcast icon. HH unpacks the sequence of the show, which was shot in a single take, avoided the affordances of TV, only cut away for advertisers, and purposefully used a ‘non-aesthetic’ that avoided anything other than a curtain as backdrop

Smoot describes the march as ‘human scum,’ drunks, prostitutes, etc. He reads a report by a Republican Congressman describing ‘godless riffraff’ who engaged in interracial orgies inside churches, and describes MLK as a Communist front. HH argues that Smoot often broadcast in violation of the fairness doctrine. The notion of public service varied widely. Smoot’s success lay in his local, rather than national, distribution. The FCC was encouraging local broadcasting, and Hunt and Smoot’s shows came from Texas and were sources of pride for local and regional audiences. They were positioned as localism and state’s rights against the oppressive, national, liberal networks. NBC, ABC, CBS were seen as ‘imperious’ and operating over the will of local stations. Hunt and Smoot framed their program as falling under ‘localism’ provisions of FCC, and by virtue of being non-network, Smoot’s program symbolized states rights.

Considering Amos N Andy: it had a 15 year run that coincided with the Civil Rights movement, based on local rebroadcasts, even as the big 3 networks thought of it as a defunct show that no longer aired. Media historian often valorize the local over the national. For example, McChesney has narrated the fall of locally owned radio stations to Clearchannel and nationwide behemoths. The celebration of local over national is not an argument without merit. That grassroots right wing TV succeeded forces us to change the frame: local is not synonymous with progressive, necessarily.

Reagan’s 1987 suspension of the fairness doctrine paved the way for the rise of Bill O Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, and Glenn Beck.
Milton Freidman, Buckley’s ‘Firing Line,’ widely trumpeted as the first conservative TV show. Buckley’s show encouraged debate; he had an audience in studio, he used multiple camera angles.

It’s unlikely that Hannity has heard of Smoot, but he’s closer to Smoot than Buckley. HH then summarizes eulogies for Bill Buckley as founder of ‘respectable conservatism.’ Buckley’s key insight was that kooks like Smoot and Hunt had to be cut loose in order to grow the movement. However, the extremist broadcasters did have large audiences that could be called upon to vote. Smoot, for example, encouraged people to vote in state and local elections, although not national elections, where he saw no true conservative candidates; this strategy worked in the 1990s for the Christian Right. Buckley turned to support for Goldwater, and this campaign lay groundwork that would persist for years in turning out the right wing vote in national elections.

Builders of the new right needed organizational skills and cashflow, and thinktank and moral organizations. They also needed a new bugaboo other than Communism or Civil Rights. Culture became the new battleground. Paul Weyrich (?) laid out the culture war strategy. This was successful: abortion, gay rights, became the new targets. The right additionally needed slick media production in order to move away from its extremist appearance. Practical propaganda could be used to fundraise, organize, and mobilize constituents. During the 70s, 80s, and 90s, as the Republican Party moved to the Right, the older generation of right wing broadcasters saw enemies everywhere. They weren’t able to collaborate with the ‘New Right,’ focused on targets like abortion, gay rights, and public education.

Her new book will follow Buckley beyond the Cold War years; focus on Firing Line as a two sided enactment of the Fairness Doctrine by someone who believed it should be eliminated. It managed to soldier on to PBS by positioning itself as PBS’ ticket or claim that it wasn’t simply a liberal bastion. Firing Line is a media artefact and key moment in public affairs TV. Firing Line made Buckley the face of respectable conservatism, and also made him a media star. His own celebrity persona was partly formed through his campaign for mayor of NYC. Many audiences saw him debate James Baldwin, lost the formal debate, but resonated with conservative white audiences. The Mayoral campaign reveals Buckley’s attitude towards mass media: wary. He began bringing a stenographer to all public events. He was dismissive of photo op events, and disparaged party players as ‘goo goos’ or ‘good government boys.’ The campaign tought Buckley that the solution to media distortion was to create your own TV show: Firing Line was conceived as a 13 series show, but ran for over 500 episodes. It became a lively venue for discussion, and had a huge influence on young people who would form the New Right. Key players in the right also participated in the production process for Firing Line.

Historians of the New Right talk about the strategy of building social movements on the ground, motivating conservatives to open their wallets and go to the voting booth. This is all true, but Buckley played another role: intellectual activist. He focused on the intellectual groundwork for deregulation, writing book after book and show after show. There’s a story centered on policy wonks and free market economics. HH says both narratives are correct, and we should look at interconnections between the two (social movement and intellectual enterprise).

Buckley moved extreme conservatism towards the center. Racist right wing broadcasters had to be ditched for New Conservatism to thrive. And thrive it did!


Sasha Costanza-Chock: Interested in how new conservatives cut their teeth in production of these shows, I’m personally looking at participatory media production practices and how they form social movement identity. How do you think that these practices function on the right wing side of things

HH: You can see these practices on various online activism, on platforms such as youtube – some sound extreme right wing, but some aim to be moderate. Its hard to decipher where this content comes from. Youtube can seem very local at sometimes – there certainly is grassroots, right wing media production out there, but also sometimes difficult to see where that it is being used on the ground.

Ian Condry: It’s been hard to get excited about left wing attempts to counter the right wing broadcasters, like Air America’s failure.

HH: It’s interesting to see that the Right appropriated the media strategies from the Left. They took tactics from this earlier era, and did it effectively. On the ground, you now have things like OWS, thousands of videos coming out online, promoting a left perspective. In terms of Mass Media, Maddow comes out of working with Franken on Air America; it had a slow start and crashed but she was able to move in once Olberman was gone. He was an opinion man, not a newsman – I think that she’s better. Her numbers can’t compare to Hannity and Limbough on Radio. Beck is interesting. He was booted off the air, he couldn’t get advertisers anymore, he could only get gold ads. He had high numbers but no advertisers, and realized that he didn’t need Fox. He had too many side projects for them: Glenn Beck School, and so on – he was diluting their brand. His model was to sidestep a broadcaster completely. The left could learn from that. You start with a mass venue and then move to a niche venue; Maddow could do that. You need to have some way for people to find you, click through to you.

Q: I found this very refreshing as someone who grew up in a Midwestern city in the 1960s. Growing up in a liberal household in Minneapolis, we just paid no attention. Have you done interviews, have you talked to people about how they used these programs? I’m also curious why you want to focus just on firing line as a follow up, because it’s a special case. How can you think of firing line without looking at George Will, Reagan era print, National Review, Paul Krugman: “Newt Gingrich is a Stupid Man’s version of what a Smart Man sounds like.” I like the way you started by tracing this back to the 20s. Why Firing Line, why not a broader question to go forward from here?

HH: You’ve given me a lot to chew on there. With Firing Line I want to do a nuanced history. You can’t talk about Firing Line without National Review. Many books either talk about bottom up or top down origins of new conservative movement, so my question is how to trouble that narrative. So, the Tea Party, grassroots movement, but funded by the billionaire Koch brothers. Or Hunt, who was one of the richest men in America. So Firing Line is just one piece of the story. The Yale Archive has 7 tons of Buckley papers. The Hoover Institute has all the Firing Line documents. Who were the guests on the show, what do the viewer mails say about how people responded, I’ll get more sense of audience issues. The best source I found was Carl McIntyre, the cartoonist – he was under threat from the FCC and received lots of support from his listeners. You find an interesting mix of perspectives. I didn’t actually find any letters that were racist. It was very sincere, “you’re preaching the gospel, and there’s no one else preaching the gospel.” McIntyre was the only person representing that religious community in the area, so in the name of increasing diversity the FCC in a way decreased diversity. I think there’s a rich project to be done by looking through viewer mail. You can get the numbers, for example the dog food manufacturer supported Smoot, he said they had 6 million viewers but how did he know? There’s no data on this.

Jim Paradis: I liked this presentation and your use of material. I’m interested in the genesis of the Fairness Doctrine and its demise. Can localism, conservatism, in your opinion actually be regulated?

HH: The Fairness Doctrine came about in 1946. [?] Initial decision was that there could be no editorializing on radio. It was a scarcity rationale: we have a limited number of stations, so if you own one, keep it fair and neutral. Then, they said broadcasters were obligated to cover controversial issues of public importance, and they had to provide two points of view on everything. Broadcasters thought this was great, at first, since it allowed editorializing. In 1960, Congress passed another act that followed on Newt Minnow’s Vast Wasteland speech, requiring coverage of local needs, without mandating what local needs were. In 1969, a fundamentalist friend of Carl McIntyre’s attacked a Goldwater book without a balancing view. The Redline (?) decision went up to the Supreme Court, and said that if you had a controversial view you had to offer the counterview and had to do it for free. Deluging the broadcasters with requests for free speech time became a tool to attack speech, so Reagan in 1987 suspends the decision. Limbaugh goes national immediately after; today we have Fox News. That’s a condensed history of the Fairness Doctrine.
In terms of the second part of your question: it was based on a scarcity rationale, which no longer holds. It would only apply to the broadcast networks; it wouldn’t apply to satellite; it can’t work in the atmosphere of a multitude of voices.

William Uricchio: Your book excavates the power of local TV. My sense of what’s been done on the local post 1950s is a focus on stations. Is there good systematic surveys of local patterns across the board? How much evidence is there of a systematic attempt to come in under the radar? Was that strategic? How was this material circulated?

HH: Deirdre Boyle’s book ‘subject to debate,’ about public access around the country, is great. There are smaller studies here and there, work on black public affairs shows, spot studies. In terms of organization, the broadcasters of the 50s and 60s, especially the 50s when overt extremist discourse took off, well they all knew they were on the same page. They were excited by Goldwater, but they couldn’t collaborate. They couldn’t get organized. Billy James Hargiss was the most organized. He’s a precursor to Jerry Falwell. Advocating around abortion was difficult; the anti-Catholocism was so strong that they had a hard time coordinating a policy effort. Hargiss tried, but was such a scoundrel, skimming money everywhere; he released a pamphlet called “Thou Shalt Not Kill My Babies,” all the money went back into his organization. Then he got taken down by sex scandals. How did these things get circulated? The Smoot films had a mix of alternative strategies. Stations couldn’t find advertisers, so they might get secret funding from rih right wing businessmen, or find local stations. Many stations would say ‘we’d like to run your show, but you need to find your own advertisers.’ Hunt created his own canned goods company, and advertised on all the shows: no one wanted the canned goods; he was draining his own funds to back his own shows. He was constantly calling the FBI on other right wingers denouncing them as Communists. There was a guy Munnes (?) who sent out tapes, but people recorded over them. So he sent out LPs, and after you played it, you were supposed to take it to your local library.

Tom: I’m curious to know what the reaction of the early fringe broadcasters was to the Sputnik event. How far back does the ambiguous relationship with science go, among the conservative right?

HH: The Birch Society said that Eisenhower was a conscious agent of the Communist Conspiracy. That was when the JBS got branded as too far right. They started sending out films of themselves at banquets, in suits, with ladies with big hair, conveying an image of upscale businessmen, not KKK, not riff raff. That Sputnik moment fed the anxieties that JBS was trying to stoke: that we’re at a crisis moment, losing this war.

Q: I’m interested in the selected depiction of liberalism, or performance of liberalism, in some of these shows. It seems like there’s a tension: broadcasters are invoking liberal bogeymen, they use language of creeping commies, liberal menace with orgies, but when you see the liberals on camera they’re just effete chin stroking stereotypes set up to be outmatched by the conservative. What are the uses of each, and it’s confusing.

HH: You’re really looking for a shift from the 50s to 60s. Hunt says “I’m biased, have to keep my 501c3 status, pretend to be balanced.” Sometimes Smoot would have a real caricature of the Left. In the 1960s they veer far right, but also they’re afraid of personal attack rules and the redline decision about giving free time to someone. You didn’t have to have fair and balanced within each show: really the FCC required balance across the whole broadcast schedule. The local stations became concerned: where would they find a free left leaning program to balance their schedule? It became more and more difficult for the show to go on. Firing Line is interesting, because you finally had someone willing to have the liberals on again. Firing Line is really broad. When Chomsky is on, they’re just not talking to each other. It’s not a real conversation. When he has Mailer on, they’re both good with words, so it becomes interesting. Huey Newton just goes on a monologue and Buckley can’t get a word in edgewise. The range of liberal perspectives that could be expressed on that show was interesting. It also allows a move away from Communism as the organizing tenet of the Right.

Q: Speculative question: In terms of image and strategy, it’s interesting that the clips you’ve shown are explicitly not religious in structure. It clings to the strategy of news program, debate program.

HH: there are four case studies in the book, and these are the secular cases. At one point McIntyre had 500 stations; his shows were a mix of sermonizing, anticommunism, anticivil rights. He would have sermons, music, JBS. There was a lot of very religious material during this time period: Billy james Hargiss ran the Christian Crusade. The radio was more explicit: you could deny later what you said, there wasn’t an expectation that someone was recording every radio segment, whereas with TV you were sending tapes out.

Uricchio: In the era of transmedia, which has of course been around forever, it’s interesting to think of say JBS having radio, bumper stickers, occasional TV: how conscious is this? Were these coordinated campaigns, or just happenstance?
HH: JBS was very sophisticated. They had people in Congress who said they were proud members. The Birchers were the most conscious of their image issues. They had more money, they had upscale, wealthy patrons. Hargiss was deliberately trying to be anti-intellectual, embraced a populist ‘i just believe in freedom and democracy,’ downscale image, which helped him raise money.

WU: did they talk about their strategy?

HH: You never find a media plan. You have to read between the lines. Compared to Buckley’s campaign where there’s a whole system, place based campaigns, bumper stickers, etc. It’s me telling the story later, and hopefully telling it right.
Jim Paradis: A little more on localism. Most people seem to think ‘it’s out there among the people,’ and if they’re heard, liberalism will emerge. But you’ve shown that it’s not necessarily the case. Could you reflect a little bit on localism and media itself. We seem to be in a new age of localism, local markets, niche markets, reflect about that general trend.

HH: I think we’re at an interesting time because of a huge number of outlets. Anything that was local suddenly seems borderless. One of the projects on the CMS site shows a mobile project in Brazil, complaining about a pothole. What could be more local?

Sasha Costanza Chock: Really interesting to hear you bring up Brazil – Who are the people you see in other national contexts? This spring we are bringing in film makers making a documentary about the untouchables in India who are being attacked by Hindu fundamentalists, the BJP party and their right wing media machinery. How can we see this as transnational? Right wing media machineries in other national contexts as these firms start to make links across national markets

HH: Can look to the Trinity Broadcast Network (TBN). The religious broadcasters who used to seem so huge in America have gone very international, and TBN is the best example of that. They were the first to have a latino host on the show, broadcasting in Spanish. That is a step towards answering your question.

SCC: Are they playing a role in spread of religious fundamentalism in Africa?

HH: Not sure, and I don’t want to get it wrong.

Uricchio: Thank you!