On the Right: NET and Modern Conservatism
"On the Right: NET and Modern Conservatism" was curated in 2019 by Dr. Allison Perlman, Associate Professor of Film & Media Studies and History at University of California, Irvine, as part of the National Educational Television (NET) Collection Catalog Project funded by the Council on Library and Information Resources.
Conservative journalist Noel Parmentel Jr. was not optimistic about the future of American conservatism. In a 1963 National Educational Television (NET) telecast, The American Conservative, Parmentel lamented the noble fight but predicted the dim prospects for success of the American right. "Pulling for the right wing in the end," he stated, "is like pulling for the New York Mets." He continued, "It's the Alamo, it's the German Army at Stalingrad, it's Horatio at the bridge." This view would have resonated with a number of American conservatives in the early 1960s. They perceived conservatism as a necessary refutation of what they saw as the postwar liberal consensus and believed mainstream American institutions -- especially the major political parties, the mainstream media, and higher education -- as so hostile to conservative views that the fight for influence within them would be Herculean.
Conservatives in the decades after World War II were part of a heterogeneous movement, bound together in part by this shared sense of grievance and outsider status. Opposed to the expansion of federal power inaugurated during the New Deal, hostile to a modern secularism that they felt rejected traditional sites of authority, suspicious of a Cold War foreign policy they thought to be insufficiently aggressive in its fight against the spread of global communism, fearful of the expansion of collectivism domestically, and outraged by a perceived increasing permissiveness that seemingly tolerated civil disobedience and disrespect for the nation’s laws, conservatives adamantly believed that the country was headed in multiple wrong directions.1
The nomination of conservative senator Barry Goldwater in 1964 as the Republican candidate for president seemingly proved Parmentel wrong. Goldwater’s nomination signaled an early victory for conservatives seeking to move the party, and the nation, to the right; yet Goldwater’s staggering electoral defeat indicated that conservatives still had work to do to make their ideas and ideology attractive to a larger public. Over the course of the 1960s, but especially in the second half of the decade, NET would dedicate a number of telecasts to this burgeoning movement and accordingly would provide a remarkable window into the history of conservatism, especially in the period in which conservatives were in the process of building the institutions and influence that later would enable them to become a major political force from the end of the 1970s onward.
The shows in this exhibit are diverse aesthetically and ideologically, as they explored conservatism from myriad vantage points. The singular show in this exhibit from the 1950s, an episode of a Syracuse University program Books and Ideas, offered a discussion of Cornell University professor Clinton Rossiter’s book Conservatism in America. In 1970, NET dedicated five programs to exploring the conservative viewpoint on issues such as US foreign policy, law and order, and morality. These broadcasts put leading conservative intellectuals, journalists, and politicians in dialogue with one another and with moderator Sidney Hyman, who often sought to clarify how conservatism differed from what many commentators have identified as a liberal consensus that they felt had dominated American political culture following the end of World War II.
Two episodes of Regional Report, a bimonthly series launched by NET in 1964, profiled conservative views. Regional Report episodes were composed of distinct segments produced by local NET affiliates on a common topic. This format demonstrated how exigent national issues were experienced differently in local communities, introduced the national NET audience to local journalists and persons of interests and, through the diversity of approaches taken by the local stations in the segments for which they were responsible, illuminated myriad approaches to public affairs reporting. The Regional Report on the far right John Birch Society (JBS), for example, included interviews with leaders of the organization, investigations into the impact of the JBS in communities where its members had risen to prominence in important institutions, and a segment in which members of a JBS chapter in Massachusetts performed for NET cameras a JBS meeting that they had prepared and rehearsed in advance.
NET’s programs also offered profiles on significant conservative figures. William F. Buckley Jr. – founder of National Review, New York city mayoral candidate, later host of the long-running Firing Line, author of a number of books, and arguably the nation’s most prominent conservative intellectual in the 1960s – was the subject of a 1969 episode of NET Journal, NET’s flagship public affairs program in the late 1960s. Buckley also appeared prominently in two earlier NET programs – a film of his 1964 debate with author and intellectual James Baldwin at the Cambridge Union, telecast on NET in 1965, and as guest on What’s Happening, Mr. Silver?, an experimental show out of WGBH that ran for two seasons in Boston.
Each of the episodes provided viewers a different view of Buckley, though there is a consistency of his ideas that recur across the programs. In his debate with Baldwin – which he lost, according both to the students in attendance at the time and to many historians who have since studied the debate2 – Buckley defended the United States, its history, and its guiding principles as the best guarantor of racial justice against Baldwin’s claims of the material, psychic, and spiritual consequences of racism on both black and white Americans. The Mr. Silver episode put the series’ eponymous host and Buckley in a room filled with photographs and paintings hanging from the ceiling, with the two men roaming around the space and pausing to discuss each image, a conversation that elicited Buckley’s views on topics ranging from the merits of the Beatles and the film Bonnie and Clyde, his views on psychedelic drugs, and his opinion of Richard Nixon. The NET Journal episode blended a range of techniques, such as footage of Buckley speaking at public events, a voiceover of Buckley reading his published pieces, and a segment in which Buckley discussed diversity and education with National Urban League leader Whitney Young.
NET Journal also dedicated an episode to H. L. Hunt, one of the richest men in the United States, who dedicated time and money to advancing conservative ideas. The profile blended interviews with Hunt along with segments outlining his business interests and use of media to advance conservatism and footage of Hunt both at work and at home. It also included, as it had not with its profile of Buckley, interviews with some of Hunt’s critics who raised alarms about Hunt’s use of his vast wealth, in the minds of the interviewees, to promulgate false and dangerous ideas.
California governor, and later president, Ronald Reagan was featured in a 1967 episode of Public Broadcast Laboratory (PBL). PBL was distributed by NET but was not of NET. The series, funded by the Ford Foundation, was created by former CBS producer Fred Friendly and helmed by former CBS News producer Av Westin. The Reagan PBL episode was in essence a direct cinema documentary3 of Reagan’s time as a CHUBB Fellow at Yale. While the episode provided a number of scenes in which Reagan debated with students a range of issues, perhaps what is most notable about the program is the increased skepticism expressed by students and faculty alike – both directly to Reagan and in moments away from him – about his grasp of key issues and his intellectual acumen. Reagan was gracious throughout, and it is an open question as to whether the episode asked viewers to identify with him or with the many people in the episode who seemed to doubt his intelligence.
This exhibit also contains all six episodes of The Radical Americans, which explored, as NET communicated to its affiliates, “What the left and right wing radicals have to offer as solutions, the means they use to proselytize their views, and the real motivations and historical impact of their power are probed in the series.”4 Two of the six episodes were dedicated to right-wing organizations, and a third contrasted left-wing and right-wing colleges. By design, the series suggested an equivalence across these forms of radicalism, which in their most extreme manifestations were presented as threatening to American life.
In sum, what emerges across the episodes in this exhibit is a diversity in both approaches to documenting the conservative movement and in assessments of its impact on US politics. Some shows positioned conservatism as a worldview rooted in an identifiable set of principles about the proper role of government in domestic and international affairs; others profiled significant and charismatic conservative leaders as a means to give face and form to the movement; still others situated conservatism within a broader 1960s political culture in which members of the left and right attacked the perceived postwar liberal consensus and the institutions that constituted its power base; and some considered the realignment of American politics in the face of the increasing political power of the conservative wing of the Republican Party symbolized by Goldwater’s candidacy in 1964.
In addition, the NET programs provide a complex view into how public media tried to make sense of the conservative movement in this period when, as per Parmentel, its future was unclear. Taken together, there is no singular view of conservatism on offer in the broadcasts in this exhibit. While, in The American Conservative, Clinton Rossiter traced the history of US conservatism to the nation’s founding, other telecasts positioned contemporary manifestations of the right as threats to democracy and liberty. Though the conversations that took place across the Conservative Viewpoint series uncovered the intellectual foundations of conservatism, other broadcasts cast suspicions on the intellectual acumen of conservative political figures rising to national prominence. If some NET shows legitimated conservatism as a serious intellectual and political movement, others signaled that particular iterations of the right were harbingers of disaster for American democracy.