Richmond City Nights: Part II of the 2012 Policy History Conference

In Part II of ToM’s coverage, policy scholars address the efforts of Great Society cultural programs and the power of conservative media and infrastructure in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.

If you missed part one, click here.

Cultural Policy Making in the Great Society

Christopher Loomis, An Appetite for Excellence: The Public Broadcasting Act of 1967

In this paper, UVA doctoral student Christopher Loomis brings welcome attention to one of the least understood legacies of the Great Society: public broadcasting.  Since the 1960s conservatives have deplored the liberal projects of that decade as the exemplar of big government failure, while many on the Left have focused on how the War on Poverty fell far short of its liberal aspirations.  Missing in this discussion have been the aspects of the Great Society that have, indeed, done great good for society, such as Head Start, the NEA, and immigration reform.  Curiously, historians and policymakers have also overlooked one of the most popular and enduring aspects of 1960s reform, even as Elmo and Big Bird are beloved around the world and the audience for NPR’s Morning Edition rivals that of morning shows on commercial TV.  Fortunately, Loomis’s dissertation may serve to remedy this shortcoming in our literature on liberalism.  His paper charted the transformation of scattered, local “educational TV” into a still-decentralized national network of “public TV,” subsidized by the federal government but administered by a private third party (the Corporation for Public Broadcasting).

Childs was the exception to early public broadcasting programming, much of which veered into the boring

That publicly-funded, noncommercial media would take this form in the US was, of course, far from inevitable, and Loomis shows how the Johnson administration looked to the Carnegie Foundation and major heavy-hitters from academia to design a national model for public broadcasting.  At a critical juncture, former Harvard president James Conant desired to scrap local stations like Boston’s WGBH and switch to a nationally centralized system akin to the BBC.  The small educational broadcasters, of course, wanted federal money, but they did not want their management and content to be controlled from above.  Previously, local stations had to depend on support from schools and colleges as well as aid from groups like the Ford Foundation; the former meant that stations had to sell significant amounts of time to the educational institutions, resulting in many hours being taken up with dull academic lectures, while the latter was ultimately a temporary and undependable stream of revenue.  The resulting compromise of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 infused federal cash into a decentralized system of local stations, leaving big decisions about the nature and purpose of public TV to the judgment of local communities themselves.  One of the most remarkable findings of Loomis’s research is that radio was only an afterthought in the push for public broadcasting, with “and radio” literally penciled in to the draft of the legislation everywhere “television” was mentioned.  In any case, the funding allocated for the Act was miniscule, as the endless pledge drives of the last forty years make clear—and the content of both public TV and radio has often been criticized from the left, right, and center over the years.  In our view, though, public broadcasting represents a quintessential model of American liberalism at work: a recognition that the private market can fail to provide what the public needs, and public, nonprofit options can peacefully coexist along private, profit-driven ones.

Lauren Tilton, Seeing Local: Community Documentary Film and the War on Poverty

Yale doctoral student Lauren Tilton’s paper approaches the Great Society from yet another angle, burrowing into a little-known dimension of 1960s policy.  In doing so, she reveals the protean character of the period’s liberalism, which managed to encompass both conservative and radical impulses in its dizzying number of programs and initiatives.  Her paper looks at the unique history of Appalshop, a War on Poverty-funded project that sought to train poor and working people in Appalachia the techniques of photography and filmmaking.  Bill Richardson left Yale for Whitesburg, KY in 1969, determined to help local people work against the stereotyped images of impoverished mountaineers that were a staple of visual and political culture in the age of the War on Poverty (essentially, the rural white mirror of black urban dysfunction).  Richardson helped start the Appalachian Film Workshop, which eventually evolved into Appalshop, an organization that continues its mission of teaching, training, and distributing locally-produced media to this day.  Richardson and his allies faced headwinds in the changing political climate of the late 1960s, as the War on Poverty’s orientation toward rehabilitating the poor and imbuing them with marketable skills ran up against the project leaders’ emphasis on self-representation and empowerment through media production—seeing their own images on the screen offered a “psychological affirmation that they exist,” which was especially important in a culture that either totally ignored the rural poor or only depicted them as backward hillbillies.  Unfortunately for Appalshop, this orientation placed it odds with the underlying “culture of poverty” principles that provided the rational for much of the Great Society.  In any case, the job-training aspect of the program made little sense in a region where very few film or TV job opportunities existed, and tensions grew more strained as the Nixon administration placed greater emphasis on this goal.  In time, Appalshop split off and incorporated as an independent organization, and one can learn about the group’s many projects and programs at its website.

Tilted Talk: How Ideological Media Affects Politics and Policy

Nicole Hemmer, The Fairness Doctrine and Conservative Broadcasting

Without question, conservative talk radio occupies a central position among the numerous political forces of 21st century right wing politics.  For some listeners, broadcasters like Rush Limbaugh speak truth to power, eschewing political correctness in the name of cold hard fact.  To others, Limbaugh represents a noxious breed of reductionist and mean spirited political discourse that only serves to broaden divides.  When Limbaugh bashes the mainstream media, the latter recoils in horror.  Yet, as Nicole Hemmer points out, Limbaugh and other conservative talk show hosts have drawn upon the long history of the fairness doctrine as a means to frame the kind of media bias they so often denounce.  No matter what one thinks of Limbaugh, his criticisms of the fairness doctrine hold some historical truth.

Established in 1949, the FCC’s fairness doctrine required radio stations to address controversial issues of public importance in an equitable and fair manner.  What did this requirement entail? Put simply, stations needed to devote airtime to matters of public interest and to do so in a way that accorded contrasting views.  Though in theory the doctrine ensured a diversity of opinions on crucial topics of the day, it caused as much confusion as clarity.  Despite existing for four decades, the FCC never truly defined the law.  While the agency did attempt to clarify rules through the issuance of various notices over the years, these efforts ultimately failed.  For example a 1968 study, noted that nearly 20 years after its establishment, the doctrine continued to confuse station managers.

What was all the confusion about?   First, the fairness doctrine never really defined what counted as a “controversial issue.” Second, enforcement of the doctrine remained ad hoc.  With no clear definition of issues and vague threats about enforcement, radio broadcasters tread carefully, leading to a broad chilling affect on broadcasters.

Even when the FCC attempted to provide some level of clarity, it often made the situation worse.  A July 26, 1963 notice illustrates the ways in which the fairness doctrine came to be seen by conservatives as uniquely unfair.  In the 1963 notice, rather than establish specific controversial issues, the FCC outlined a few broad categories.  In its third category, the FCC singled out issues of race, notably segregation.  Aimed at Southern broadcasters, the FCC hoped to ensure that discussions of segregation/discrimination included views from the African American community.  In the 1963 moment, the FCC also pointed out that its main concern regarding such discussions would be substance rather than form. For many conservatives, the interplay between Americanism, state’s rights, and anti-communism made the FCC pronouncement an anathema.  These broadcasters challenged FCC assumptions about objective journalism.  For Dan Smoot, Clarence Manion, and others on the right, the mainstream media suffered from an entrenched bias that made left much of the conservative movement outside the boundaries of acceptable political discourse.   Religious conservative broadcasters wondered aloud that if they discussed deeply held beliefs regarding their Christian faith, did they have to accord atheists equal time? Since many of these broadcasters saw communism in the civil rights movement (and to most communism remained a bastion of atheism), to give such political actors equal time offended their religious and political principles.

Others like Clarence Manion employed tropes similar to the “market place of ideas.”  Manion argued that the FCC was not the most appropriate regulator/censor: the public was. If listeners so disagreed with a particular program or viewpoint, they could simply turn the channel.  Manion believed federal control of radio to be little more than tyranny.  His efforts convinced lawmakers like Strom Thurmond to rail against FCC regulation.  Even when the FCC released a fairness primer as a means to outline rules, it remained vague and unclear.  Even worse, the FCC never constructed a series of punishments but instead relied on one draconian tool: cancellation of a station’s license.   Numerous stations dropped right wing broadcasts for fear of such punishment; the law appeared unfairly tilted to conservative observers.  In this way, the fairness doctrine provided conservative critics with an appetizer platter full of grievances including governmental tyranny, media bias, and inequitable federal intervention. Right wing commentators could lob criticisms at the FCC while constructing an oppositional identity that enabled them to couch themselves in the noble effort to fight communism, government tyranny while promoting long standing American ideals.

Though discontinued under the Reagan administration, undoubtedly, the doctrine’s aims remained positive. Not many would begrudge requirements that encouraged media to discuss issues of public importance in fair and measured ways.  However, the poor execution of this vision through murky guidelines, and a half hazard complaint system, drew boundaries around debate that silenced opinions on the left and right.  The difference for liberals and conservatives emerged in how they viewed these regulations. Those on the left decried the rise of managed news but saw it less as a partisan effort by the government and more as the result of corporate/establishment interests while critics on the right saw an implicit liberal bias.  Thus, the fairness doctrine enabled Rush Limbaugh and others in the 21st century to marshal its memory in ways that stoked conservative fears and grievances.

Brian Rosenwald, Unintended Colossus: The Rise of Conservative Talk Radio

The reality that Watergate hatchet man G. Gordon Liddy occupies a significant position among right wing politicians and pundits suggests the power that conservative talk radio commentators have accumulated over the past twenty years.  Brian Rosenwald argues the rise of conservative talk radio continues to be an understudied development and one that had more to do with corporate profits than politics.  Regardless of its origin, conservative talk’s rise affected national and local politics and the subsequent policies that arose from them.

The proliferation of all talk radio over the past 30 years serves as illustration of conservatism’s influence.  In the 23 years between 1960 and 1983, all talk radio stations increased from 2 to 59 but by 1999 1200 such stations existed.  The key figure in this explosion? None other than the Versailles loving Rush Limbaugh.

To a public tired of political correctness, Limbaugh delivered audio manna. He expressed a small town world view that celebrated wealth creation and disparaged liberalism as an attack on the values of the audience and himself. Limbaugh employed shock jock tactics like the sound of suction aspiration (a vacuum like method of abortion) whenever liberals called in or animal screams when introducing animal rights news.   The Democrats disdain for Limbaugh’s audience served as another example of rhetoric that connected with conservative listeners.   For Limbaugh, dominant media culture mocked his listeners with its violations of God, monogamy, and country. Middle and lower income white men prove some of his most ardent supporters as many blamed civil rights groups and other rights movements for societal problems.   Of course, this is not to say that Limbaugh does not draw his share of upper class white men and some segment of conservative females.

When Limbaugh exploded in the 1990s, he redefined the medium and led station managers to reevaluate the best way to market their products. At the time, AM radio appeared to be under siege.  FM provided superior sound quality for music so fewer and fewer patrons tuned in to AM frequencies.  This meant adverts declined precipitously.  AM’s share of ad revenues reached 90% in 1970 but only 45% fifteen years later.  In Limbaugh, station managers saw an efficient business model.   Limbaugh quickly convinced station managers that conservative listeners promised greater audiences and more ad revenue.   The proliferation of cellular technology and the anonymity of the medium made Limbaugh’s methods particularly successful.  When the 1996 telecommunications act made consolidation of radio possible, this only increased Limbaugh’s influence.  Syndication would now be even more prevalent as stations grew narrower in their programming focus. Since conservative talk radio already produced profits, why not invest in a proven model?  Before Limbaugh conventional radio wisdom argued that the best radio talk focuses on local issues, clearly Limbaugh eviscerated this belief.

What about the affect of talk radio on policies? As Rosenwald demonstrates,  Limbaugh and others ratchet up grassroots activists.  Critically, due in part to Limbaugh’s ability to get inside information, he in particular can mobilize the conservative base as a bill still sits in committee.  This has made negotiations more difficult as conservative radio animated their audiences often undermining any sort of compromise between parties.  Republican politicians reign in their efforts out of fear of experiencing the wrath of conservative radio.   Debating issues became more difficult as aroused supporters, on both sides (as conservative radio probably animated the Left in opposition), made negotiations impossible..  During failed immigration reform, the efforts of conservative talk radio hamstrung politicians.  The success of right wing talk radio enabled the rise of Fox News as the de facto mouthpiece for the GOP and a key actor in the framing of national issue oriented debates.

Does Rush deserve all the credit/blame?

Though Limbaugh occupies an influential position within the GOP network, several Republican leaders appear to lament his presence.  Limbaugh’s continued impact despite the seeming radical decline of radio remains a marvel, but Rosenwald also provides us with another way to consider the power of the airwaves.  When millions of Mexican immigrants marched to express their dismay at anti-immigration discourse in 2007, Latin American radio deejays in places like New York, LA, and Chicago, mobilized participants in ways that few realized could happen. Conservative talk radio’s success demonstrates the continued viability of the airwaves, the 2007 immigration marches shows us maybe Limbaugh’s not the only one. Maybe video didn’t kill the radio star, but simply shifted the spotlight.

Paranoia, Populism, and the Tea Party

Robert B. Horwitz, Richard Hofstadter’s ‘Paranoid Style’ and the Tea Party

“This is the Nineties, Bubba, and there is no such thing as Paranoia. It’s all true.”
– Hunter S Thompson

Richard Hofstadter’s famous work “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” appeared on the scene in the early 1960s.  Harper’s published the abridged popular version in its November 1964 issue.  Previous to Hofstadter most historians clung to an argument that framed the movements and policies associated with Populism, Progressivism, and the New Deal as one continuous linear progression. Instead, Hofstadter suggested that Populists and Progressives differed. In Populists, Hofstadter found old line protestants anxious about their declining group status.   This failed to be the only place the legendary historian found to be overwhelmed by paranoia:

In the history of the United States one finds it, for example, in the anti-Masonic movement, the nativist and anti-Catholic movement, in certain spokesmen of abolitionism who regarded the United States as being in the grip of a slaveholders’ conspiracy, in many alarmists about the Mormons, in some Greenback and Populist writers who constructed a great conspiracy of international bankers, in the exposure of a munitions makers’ conspiracy of World War I, in the popular left-wing press, in the contemporary American right wing, and on both sides of the race controversy today, among White Citizens’ Councils and Black Muslims.

Having just exited the Red Scare of the 1950s, Hofstadter looked back pointing out the ways in which McCarthyism and the Goldwater campaign contributed to rising anxieties as rational thought dissipated to be replaced by “angry bewilderment over the loss of group rank and psychological fear of authoritarian government.”

Though a highly influential text, numerous critics pointed out serious flaws in Hofstadter’s argument from reductionist logic to Hofstadter’s tendency to turn difference of opinion into pathology.  In an abridged version of a chapter from his forthcoming book tentatively entitled America’s Right: Anti-Establishment Conservatism From Goldwater to the Tea Party, Robert B. Horwitz acknowledges these weaknesses and others, pointing out that part of the problem laid in Hofstadter’s specificity; Hofstadter provided no middle level of analysis to connect movement to social structure.  His social psychology was sloppy in moments.  Horwitz argues that if one drops this dependence on social psychology and replaces it with middle level political institutions, Hofstadter’s thesis takes on new resonance.

First one needs to ask, just who is the Tea Party?  This remained a difficult question to answer for everyone on the panel.  Overlapping networks of associations and beliefs complicate simple identification, but Horwitz establishes a baseline composite.  If one imagines the Tea Party as a collection of local yokels, they would be sadly mistaken.  Rather the most Tea Party members are better educated and wealthier than the average citizen. Often male and Protestant – sometimes Evangelical – many see themselves as the oppressed middle class besieged by undeserving minorities favored by government programs. Though angry over the class and bias issues of the bailout, many members of the Tea Party gave a pass to Wall Street and others arguing that these actors had been induced to behave badly by government policies.

So how does the Tea Party factor into Horwitz’s argument? Critically, Horowitz asks not only why the Tea Party but how?  Nothing dictated that the most vociferous response to recent economic crisis would be conservative. After all bank bailouts, joblessness, and ever increasing debt, central issues that anger Tea Party members surely equally affect the left.  Here Horwitz points to a couple central factors. First, The structural bias toward capitalist institutions remains prevalent to the extent that the Tea Party discerned the bias of the state in this regard. They characterized it as elitism when really the bailouts were more a function of this structural bias.  Without bailouts, the American economy would collapse.   Second, political culture centered on a belief in individualism that views government intervention as an attack on personal autonomy. Finally, the New Deal placed a great focus on class, but the New Left moved away from class issues focusing more on identity politics.  This left many working class democrats questioning the imperatives of liberalism.  With the economic shocks of the 1970s, liberalism’s effectiveness underwent severe criticism.

Horwitz suggests that the rise of conservative middle political institutions dating back to the 1950s but expanding in the decades that followed, prove the key to understanding.  Institutions like the American Enterprise Institute, Fox News, conservative talk radio, and others created a specific kind of political subjectivity.  Middle level institutions gave a kind of meat to the bone that was the rising New Right and its constituency. No such equivalent liberal middle level institutions operated with the kind of force of their right wing counterparts.  The belated nature of the Occupy movement underscored this discrepancy.

Late to the “party?”

Hofstadter argued that spokesmen for the Paranoid Style sees an attack on the nation, his/her way of life, or culture not individually but collectively.  In this context, political passions seem unselfish, heightening patriotic resistance, leading to more pitched rhetoric and actions. Having entire institutions devoted to this sort of worldview can only function to ramp up the message.  Perhaps, science fiction writer Arthur D. Hlavaty puts Horwitz’s argument in perspective:  “Paranoia is the delusion that your enemies are organized.” The Tea Party sits at the controls of a political infrastructure that amplifies the idea of an organized liberal conspiracy, even when it seems clearly to be at odds with reality.