On the Right: NET and Modern Conservatism
Conservatism and the Media
H. L. Hunt, the subject of a 1967 NET Journal profile, was a person of interest to NET for a number of reasons. At the time one of the wealthiest men in the US, Hunt made his fortune in oil in Texas, expanded Hunt Oil Company across the nation, and developed additional businesses, including HLH Products, a food processing subsidiary of Hunt Oil. HLH Products sponsored the Lifeline radio program, carried by over 400 stations, which both promoted Hunt’s conservative ideas and attacked individuals whose perspectives differed. According to William Latelle, president of Wesleyan University and interviewed in the NET Journal episode, Lifeline conflated liberalism with communism and suggested that those who advocated for, or were beneficiaries of, social programs were co-conspirators in a socialist plot to undermine the nation. As NET Journal makes clear, Lifeline was but one of many outlets Hunt deployed to disseminate his political views, which included films, newspaper columns, pamphlets, and four books.
As Heather Hendershot has illustrated, Hunt was one of many conservatives who turned to the airwaves in the 1950s and 1960s to address urgent issues facing Americans during the Cold War. Hunt, for example, also financially supported the telecasts of Dan Smoot, a former member of the FBI and ardent states’ rights advocate who saw any encroachment on them – via the civil rights movement or federal social welfare programs – as a grave threat to liberty. Rev. Billy James Hargis’ sermons were broadcast on radio and television stations, in which he positioned the civil rights movement as a communist conspiracy, as he would the movement for sexual education in the 1960s and 1970s.50 The first episode of NET’s six-part The Radical Americans, “Voices from the Right,” discussed a number of these figures and covered other creative uses of the media, such as Dr. William Campbell Douglas’ “Let Freedom Ring,” an anti-communist telephone network that recorded weekly messages on answering machines, and the Conservative Society of America’s use of newspapers, radio programs, and informational pamphlets to illuminate what they saw as communist infiltration in myriad spheres of American life.
If, as David Farber and Jeff Roche have asserted, conservatism operated “under the national media’s radar” in the 1960s, with conservatives the “subject of derision or ridicule” when addressed by the mainstream press51, dedicated conservative media emerged in the 1950s and 1960s to popularize conservative ideas. They also sought to address the lacuna of conservative perspectives in the mainstream press, and cohere and motivate conservatives into a political force that could combat the myriad threats – creeping socialism, dissolution of public and private norms, timid foreign policy – that seemed poised to irrevocably undermine the nation.
The rise of conservative media – magazines, publishing houses, newsletters, radio and television broadcasts – also constituted a response to a perception of political bias in the mainstream media. Since the end of the nineteenth century, as Sam Lebovic has illustrated, anxieties about the political biases of the mainstream media had spread. Yet in the decades prior to World War II, it was progressives and liberals who feared that the press tilted to the right; that newspapers and broadcasters were supported by advertisers, its critics asserted, rendered them pro-business and hostile to liberal/left and working-class perspectives. The increasing consolidation of the media, furthermore, elicited concerns that news outlets were becoming homogeneous and unwelcoming to diverse perspectives.52
In the decades after World War II, conservatives inverted this critique, viewing the mainstream media as ignoring or deriding their views. As Nicole Hemmer has demonstrated, conservatives interpreted the media’s claims of “neutrality” and “objectivity” as ruses that masked the inherent liberalism of the press, a liberalism that structured how current events were reported on and interpreted and that affected the determination of what was considered newsworthy. Conservative media was imagined to redress what they saw as the imbalance in the mainstream media’s presentation of current affairs by creating alternate outlets that saw the world through a conservative lens.53
The 1964 election, as Hemmer has argued, marked a critical moment for conservative media. Senator Barry Goldwater’s campaign elicited excitement from conservatives across the country, who looked for material to promote the senator and the policies for which he stood. They would find it in paperback books – such as Phyllis Schlafly’s A Choice, Not an Echo and J. Evetts Haley’s A Texan Looks at Lyndon: A Study in Illegitimate Power – that reached conservative readers via conservative organizations, thereby bypassing the publishers, reviewers, and bookstore owners who ostensibly controlled the national book market.54
And Goldwater’s loss proved transformative to conservative media. If it initially had formed as a means for conservatives to communicate to one another, then the inability of Goldwater to secure the presidency signaled the need to expand the popularity of conservatism beyond those who already embraced its message. In addition, conservatives attributed Goldwater’s defeat to a mainstream media that they believed presented him as an extremist warmonger – as beyond the pale of responsible leadership – and accordingly concluded that the public was never properly exposed to his message.
In response, they both sought to distance the conservative movement from extremist groups and worked to popularize the framing of the mainstream media as infected with an unacknowledged liberal bias. While this presumption had been part of conservative discourse for over a decade prior to the Goldwater defeat, conservatives accelerated their attack on the media. Their position was perhaps best popularized by Vice President Spiro Agnew in the late 1960s and codified, according to conservatives, with irrefutable proof in Edith Efron’s 1971 The News Twisters, a study of news coverage of the 1968 election that concluded it was “clear that network coverage tends to be strongly biased in favor of the Democratic-liberal-left axis of opinion, and strongly biased against the Republican-conservative-right axis of opinion.”55
If William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review distanced conservatism from extremist groups like the John Birch Society (see the Defining Conservatism section), his television series Firing Line, which premiered in 1966 and aired on public television from 1971 through 1999, sought to make conservatism legitimate and respectable. As Hendershot demonstrates, on Firing Line, Buckley modeled a different version of conservatism than that which had defined the movement for so many Americans in the immediate postwar period. Buckley’s erudition, his respect for worthy intellectual adversaries, his willingness to provide a platform for figures whose views differed markedly than his own – and who infrequently received analogous amounts of airtime on commercial stations -- offered viewers a conservatism that was charming and witty, and that fit very comfortably within the pale of legitimate discourse.56
To be sure, the episodes in this exhibit drew similar lines between legitimate and illegitimate expressions of conservatism. But what is perhaps most fascinating about these episodes is, contrary to much of the conservative media that developed in the 1950s and 1960s, they targeted not the like-minded, the potential member, or the future activist, but the NET audience. They illuminate not only the varied ways that NET tried to make sense of conservatism, but how conservatives presented themselves to a variegated audience at a moment when their movement’s impact was uncertain.
Sources and Suggested Reading:
Benjamin R. Epstein and Arnold Forster, The Radical Right: Report on the John Birch Society and Its Allies (NY: Random House, 1967).
Heather Hendershot, Open to Debate: How William F. Buckley Put Liberal America on the Firing Line (New York: HarperCollins, 2016).
Heather Hendershot, What’s Fair on the Air?: Cold War Right-Wing Broadcasting and the Public Interest (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).
Nicole Hemmer, “The Dealers and the Darling: Conservative Media and the Candidacy of Barry Goldwater,” in Barry Goldwater and the Remaking of the American Political Landscape, edited by Elizabeth Tandy Shermer (Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2013), 114-43.
Nicole Hemmer, “From ‘Faith in Facts’ to ‘Fair and Balanced’: Conservative Media, Liberal Bias, and the Origins of Balance,” in Bruce J. Schulman and Julian E. Zelizer, Media Nation: The Political History of News in Modern America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017), 126-43.
Nicole Hemmer, Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).
James Brian McPherson, The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2008).
Matthew Pressman, “Objectivity and Its Discontents: The Struggle for the Soul of American Journalism in the 1960s and 1970s,” in Bruce J. Schulman and Julian E. Zelizer, Media Nation: The Political History of News in Modern America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017), 96-113.
Sam Lebovic, "When the 'Mainstream Media' Was Conservative: Media Criticism in the Age of Reform," in Bruce J. Schulman and Julian E. Zelizer, Media Nation: The Political History of News in Modern America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017), 63-76.