Epistemology, Media Ecosystems, and the Radio Right

I presented a paper at the American Historical Association’s annual conference last January. My paper, titled “Polish Ham, Talk Radio, and the Rise of the New Right,” illustrated the power of conservative radio with the story of a little known yet wildly successful 1962 boycott of Eastern European imports by conservative housewives. Afterwards, David Farber, a professor of history at the University of Kansas, asked me a particularly important question. Before I get to the question, I should note that it was an honor to have him in attendance; my dissertation, of which this paper was a part, can be traced back to a graduate seminar I took with him while he was at Temple University. His encouragement and advice came at a key moment in my academic career.

My memory is not exact, but what Farber asked was, “What is the epistemology of Right-wing radio? How did conservative listeners know what they were being told was true?” It was an excellent question. After all, it’s not just that conservative radio listeners believed what they were being told, but that they believed so strongly that it inspired action. Hundreds of thousands of ordinary folks translated radio into activism, the kind of sign-waving, door-knocking, literature-passing, coffee klatch-holding, card party-organizing activism that only true believers participate in. You have to be really sure of something to engage so fully, to commit so much of your resources and time.  A vibrant grassroots movement like the New Right of the early 1960s must have required a powerfully convincing epistemology to attract and maintain activists. I stumbled through an answer at the time, but I think I can answer more fully now that I’ve had time to reflect.

The very nature of radio broadcasting as a thing consumed in the privacy of the home or car encouraged listeners to feel a sense of personal connection to the broadcaster. Hearing a voice express emotion is a more intimate experience than reading words printed on a page. Politicians have long taken advantage of this broadcast media effect, like President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous “Fireside Chats” during the Great Depression. Americans at the time often reported feeling like Roosevelt was talking to them personally, that he truly cared about their individual struggles. Conservative broadcasters in the 1960s benefited from the same effect. Their listeners–who skewed middle-aged, middle-class, and female by a two to one margin–wrote to McIntire and poured out their concerns for their wayward children, ill spouses, and the decline of their nation. A grandmother in Illinois wrote of her concern for her grandchildren who attended a public school since their father had lost his faith in high school (though combat during WW2 partially restored it). A mother in Pennsylvania included a post-script to her letter in order to brag of her tenth-grader’s prize-winning oratory describing the Navajo Indians. A mother in Wisconsin worried about her daughter drinking alcohol, dating a Catholic boy, and refusing to help with household chores; her husband only attended church part-time and didn’t share her concerns. Another woman watched the 1960 election returns until 4am, confessing that she cried herself to sleep after realizing that the Catholic candidate John F. Kennedy had won.

That sense of intimacy fueled a willingness to trust conservative broadcasters when they spoke on political and social issues. A correspondent from Kansas felt that McIntire’s program armed her with the “facts at hand” and made her feel “a place along with many others who are listening.” That last statement is vitally significant. Radio bound listeners not only to the broadcaster but to each other. The Kansan went on to say that she felt “no longer alone and helpless.” And when the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations shut down conservative broadcasting in the late-1960s, these listeners did not just lose a show. No, they suddenly felt disconnected from a movement of like-minded conservatives. As one listener from the southeast corner of Washington State wrote after the local radio station dropped McIntire’s show, “I feel as tho [sic] my life-line has been cut.” This was not merely hyperbole. Every single weekday for the past five, ten, or fifteen years these listeners had turned on their radios and heard Carl McIntire, Billy James Hargis, and other conservative broadcasters tell them that they were part of a national movement to reclaim America for God and the Constitution.

The sharper among my readers have likely already noticed a disconnect between my argument and my chronology. After all, mass radio broadcasting had existed since the 1920s and there had been conservative voices on the air from the beginning. So it’s only logical to wonder why conservative radio broadcasting would have sparked the creation of the New Right in the late-1950s and early 1960s rather than at any other moment in the preceding four decades. Why at that moment did millions of Americans turn on their radios and suddenly find conservative ideas so much more convincing than before?

What changed between the 1920s and 1960s was the sheer number of conservative programs as well as the number and reach of stations willing to air those programs. There had always been conservative broadcasters, like Father Charles Coughlin, but they were confined to a handful of isolated time slots on stations mostly controlled by the major radio networks. You might hear Coughlin criticize the New Deal on air, but he would be followed by a pro-New Deal program or even one of the President’s own fireside chats. Conservative broadcasters in the early 20th century did not, in other words, have their own media ecosystem. Their listeners were exposed to the broader political spectrum. Also, their reliance on the major networks left them vulnerable to cancellation should they be too strident in their political attacks or if they strayed too far from consensus liberalism.

But that all changed in the 1950s as the major networks shifted their attention to television. The number of radio station licenses continued to climb steadily, but an increasing number went to small, independent station owners unaffiliated with the big networks. These stations were continually strapped for cash and willing to accept programming from previously unthinkable radicals including conservatives.  As a result, conservative broadcasters started popping up all over the country. They cobbled together an informal network of stations that aired predominately conservative programming even if the owners were not themselves conservatives.

For the first time in broadcast history, the vast majority of Americans could listen to conservative radio programs from dawn till dusk every day of the week. During the morning drive, you might listen to an hour of Dan Smoot attacking the Kennedy Administration’s Cuba policy on Life Line. Then you could listen to Christian Crusade as Billy James Hargis ferreted out Communist-sympathizers at the highest levels of the federal government. Next came Howard Kershner’s fifteen minute weekly sermonizing on “the Christian religion and education in the field of economics.” Perhaps your station, particularly if you lived in the South, aired The Citizens’ Council, the radio home for white massive resistance. During lunch, you might listen to McIntire’s Twentieth Century Reformation Hour as he applauded the Polish Ham Boycott. And so on throughout the rest of the day, one conservative program after another keeping up the same basic drumbeat: Communists were everywhere, the Kennedy Administration was weak, and only conservative action could save America. It was a torrent of conservative ideas and calls to action, the first wave of talk radio.

When I call this a media ecosystem I’m referring to the manner in which these programs, despite a lack of any coordination, authenticated each other in the minds of their listeners. How did a listener know that what they were hearing was true? Well, an idea would be repeated in slight variations across dozens of programs. Perhaps one broadcaster might be wrong, but an entire channel’s worth of programs? Surely not. These weren’t the ideas of any lone radical; the same basic opinion on any given current event might be uttered by a range of seeming experts, from preachers (McIntire, Hargis, Fulton Lewis), an economist (Milton Friedman), a lawyer (Clarence Manion), a rear admiral (Chester Ward), and so on and so forth. All ecosystems require critical mass. Chop down too much of the Brazilian rainforest and the jungle may go into a death spiral on its own. The same is true for the conservative media ecosystem in the 1960s. As an unintended consequence of technological innovation, conservative broadcasting could attain the critical mass necessary to persuade millions of listeners that conservatism was no longer a fringe ideology. It was self-authenticating in a way that was previously impossible.

This idea of a media ecosystem–although I’m not sure we used the term–came up briefly during our AHA panel Q&A. Nicole Hemmer noted that all media ecosystems have this self-authenticating epistemology. It is quite simple to construct a left-of-center media ecosystem that provides a similar self-authenticating function today. I might subscribe to the New York Times, check Slate and Vox on a daily basis, fill my social media feeds with like-minded liberals, and end up *knowing* that the news I receive is accurate because I’m hearing similar ideas across a range of sources. Sure, this can easily lead to group think–Someone like Trump could never win the presidency! No NBA team has ever come back from a 3-1 deficit in the finals!–but on some level we are forced to do so because we are inherently limited human beings who have neither the time nor skill to be experts in every subject.  That doesn’t mean, of course, that all ecosystems are created equal, but it does mean that we all rely on ecosystems to provide our minds with an epistemological shortcut. Conservatives in the 1960s were no exception.

Trump Wins, Sad! Panel Accepted by the American Historical Association, Glad!

Creative Commons, Credit: Donkey Hotey

Creative Commons, Credit: Donkey Hotey, https://www.flickr.com/photos/donkeyhotey/20573036330/

Last Tuesday featured an odd juxtaposition in my little corner of the academic world. I’m a modern American political historian, among other things, so I pay close attention to topics that I might write about later in my career. Possible future monograph titles ranked from least to most depressing:

Trumpmania: How America Lost Its Mind in 2016 But Regained It In 2020 
The Passage of Power: The Years of Donald Trump 

The Rise and Fall of Trumpism 

But within hours of hearing about Trump’s win in the Indiana Republican primary and the subsequent suspension of Ted Cruz’s and John Kasich’s campaigns, I also received word from the program committee of the American Historical Association. They accepted a panel I had organized along with Michael McVicar, Nicole Hemmer, Heather Hendershot, and Kevin Kruse.

Our panel title is “Supplying Conservatism: Media Infrastructure and the Rise of the New Right.” There was something oddly poetic about having our panel on the rise of the New Right fifty years ago accepted even as we watched the movement implode in real time.  Maybe. (I’m a historian; give me at least 20 years to figure it out.) If the Republic falls before then, a member of the panel has suggested that we escape to the Colorado Rockies and join the resistance a la Red Dawn.

Anyways, if you are planning on spending January 5-8, 2017 in balmy Denver, let me know and we can get coffee.

“Supplying Conservatism: Media Infrastructure and the Rise of the New Right”

In the two decades since Alan Brinkley called conservatism the “orphan” of political history, scholars have responded by looking for the primary issue(s) which ignited Right-wing activism in the mid-twentieth century. Yet while hot button issues are necessary to rouse support, they are by themselves an insufficient cause. There are always means, media, or institutions around which movements coalesce. To put that in other terms, historians often explain the rise of the New Right by looking at shifts in the demand for conservative ideas. Yet changes in the supply of those ideas were equally important to the rise of modern conservatism. This panel focuses on the media infrastructure of the New Right. Radio, television, paperback publishing, and private intelligence agencies forged scattered conservatives into a national movement.

As Paul Matzko shows in “Polish Ham, Talk Radio, and the Rise of the New Right,” conservative radio broadcasting in the early 1960s stimulated grassroots activism. In one instance, broadcaster Carl McIntire condemned the John F. Kennedy administration for allowing imports from Communist Eastern Europe; a large group of his listeners, mostly housewives, organized boycotts of stores selling Polish hams and other goods. As amusing as the incident sounds in retrospect, it was no laughing matter for the Kennedy administration as detailed in internal White House memoranda.

Anti-ham housewives were an irritant during the 1962 midterm elections, but during the 1964 election season Lyndon Johnson’s presidential campaign encountered a flood of cheaply-produced, best-selling conservative paperback books. Nicole Hemmer, in “’Hatchets with Soft-Covered Sheaths,’” details the surprising success of these campaign paperbacks, which despite being authored by little known grassroots activists managed to sell upwards of 16 million copies via an informal network of Right-wing publishers and marketing outlets.

Michael McVicar, in “Surveillance—Dossier—Exposé,” reveals a darker side to the campaign to put a conservative in the White House. Using do-it-yourself manuals, Right-wing activists created private intelligence agencies that compiled dossiers on Left-wing politicians and activists. Their goal was to expose embarrassing connections between the Left and Communist front organizations. The anti-Communist paranoia of the 1950s had been democratized, commodified, and placed in the hands of grassroots activists.

Despite a self-imposed distance from grassroots activism, even conservative intellectuals like William F. Buckley needed a way to circulate their ideas. In “Firing Line,” Heather Hendershot describes how Buckley used his television program to create a more cerebral strand of the New Right. Grassroots activists are adept at disruption, but Buckley gave the movement an intellectual foundation on which to build a more sustainable movement.

By the 1960s, New Right activists could access conservative ideas in new ways, whether on the car radio on the way to work, as a family gathered around the television set at night, reading a campaign paperback in bed, or writing in to a private intelligence agency for information on a local political candidate. The expansion of the media infrastructure of the New Right enabled new forms of conservative, grassroots activism which would dramatically reshape national and party politics.

Session Participants

Kevin Kruse (Chair), Princeton University
Paul Matzko, Pennsylvania State University
Nicole Hemmer, The Miller Center at the University of Virginia
Michael McVicar, Florida State University
Heather Hendershot, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Happy Birthday to You and Good Riddance to US Copyright Law

Today a federal district court judge ruled that “Happy Birthday to You” is not under copyright and belongs in the public domain. The ostensible copyright holder, a subsidiary of Warner Music, has been collecting over $2 million a year from filmmakers, artists, and others using the song. The story has been portrayed as a David vs. Goliath struggle between a major record label and four small artists, but while the case makes a nice, little human interest story for pop culture-watch journalists, it highlights a broader problem with our copyright system.

Copyright protection in the United States was written into the US Constitution which sought to “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” It’s worth noting that the purpose of the copyright system was to encourage innovation; rewarding the creator was a means to an end, not the end itself.

At first, copyright protection lasted for 14 years from the date it was granted with the option of an additional 14 year renewal so long as the creator was still alive and kicking. That comes out to a state-protected monopoly on that text or artwork lasting a maximum of 28 years. Congress believed that bolstering the potential for profit would encourage creators to experiment, while limiting the total length of copyright protection would prevent creators from resting on their laurels and allow others eventually to use their ideas once they’d reverted to the public domain.

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But as the handy chart above demonstrates, since 1790 the length of copyright protection has ballooned, with the most recent change extending it to the full life of a creator plus fifty years. The motive isn’t surprising. There’s a great deal of money to be made by those who inherit copyrights. A bestselling book or song could make not only its creator very rich, but, assuming they live to a relatively ripe old age, the next two generations of their family. Corporations have been particularly strong proponents of extended copyright terms, especially the Walt Disney Corporation, which deploys fleets of lobbyists every time the copyright to Mickey Mouse comes close to expiration.

Mickey-Mouse-Curve-1

Copyright has turned into a kind of corporate welfare. While the standard for individual creators is life + seventy years, for works of “corporate authorship” it’s a flat 120 years. Given the high cost of enforcing copyright claims against infringement–the armies of lawyers and trial costs–the system disproportionately enriches large corporations while providing little benefit to smaller authors.

The major downside of a vastly extended copyright term is that it skews the balance between profit and innovation all out of whack. This isn’t to say that copyright should be done away with entirely, but it does suggest that copyright protections are so strong that they have begun to hinder rather than advance innovation. We are too far to the right on Alex Tabarrok’s curve (and copyright protections are longer/stronger than patent protections).

InnovationStrengthCurve32

Take, for example, the perverse, unintended consequences of extended copyright provisions on book publishing. Books published prior to 1923 are all in the public domain today, but those from after 1923 were under extended copyrights. Even those books for which copyright may have lapsed still remain under a cloud of potential legal claims. This is why Google Books–that great boon to historians–is chock full of works from pre-1923, but few works from after that date are fully accessible.

As others have pointed out, the twentieth century is a “lost century” for American publishing. Few books from the mid-twentieth century are in print and widely available. While the elite of successful authors have become rich as a result, the works of smaller authors languish in obscurity. For the better part of a century, egregious copyright extensions have shrunk the American canon by discouraging niche literary interests.

Amazon pub domain

Think about it this way. The current system boosts sales and republications for a small number of bestselling books by discouraging the same for a much larger number of books published in smaller batches. It’s a transfer of profits and readers from the many to the few. I suspect that readers in the 19th century read a much more varied selection of books, but by the mid-20th century a larger mass audience consumed the same basic literary diet.

The historian in me can’t help wondering how that played into the creation of the post-WW2 era of consensus. Media historians have explored the role played by network control of the airwaves, but I’m not sure I’ve seen similar work done on how the shrinking horizons of book publication worked in a similar fashion by encouraging mass consumption of literature. How might that have affected mid-20th century American culture?

And on the flip side, if the implosion of network control led to the explosion of innovation that we associate with cable television today–with channels and shows dedicated to every possible taste, ideology, religion, and ethnicity–could the same be true if the copyright system were pruned back? I can’t help but suppose that without the copyright-induced barrier to niche publication, genre fiction might have looked less (ostensibly) white and male. If so, that would make the current imbroglio in the world of science fiction a legacy of unintended legal consequences rather than a referendum on who gets to identify as a “nerd.”

Jon Stewart, Historians Will Miss You

I will miss Jon Stewart when he leaves The Daily Show after sixteen years of poking fun at the American political system. Each episode features an interview with an actor, author, or politician. While there’s only so much an interviewee can say in five or six minutes of banter with Stewart, an appearance on the show gives a significant boost to book sales.

A handful of professional historians have appeared on the show to promote their books, but most of the historical work that caught Stewart’s eye was written by journalists for trade presses. That says more about the sad state of the discipline than it does the show. The incentives in the academy push historians to craft technical works on narrow subjects for tiny audiences. We’ve ceded popular history–and even compelling narrative storytelling–to journalists and other non-specialists. That said, The Daily Show encouraged young, liberal Gen X-ers and Millennials to read more history. That’s a win in my book. Thanks, Jon Stewart.