"My project this summer is to get you to vote for George Bush."
My father's declaration, made one June day in 2004 as we were driving into town, did not surprise me. I was back in Indiana for my annual visit, and my dad and I had spent every day since my arrival wrangling over American politics: the war in Iraq, the marriage equality referenda, the impending election. Raised conservative, I had slowly slid to the left as my dad drifted further right. But that divergence ended up drawing us closer together. Political debate became the secret language of our relationship, the way we conveyed love, respect, disagreement, and admiration. So there was nothing extraordinary about an afternoon spent debating politics. Yet I remember every contour of that particular conversation—the conviction in my dad's voice, the soft hum of traffic, the breeze stirring the Ohio Valley's stagnant summer air—because of what he did next.
He turned on the radio.
Our conversation was replaced with the sound of the Rush Limbaugh Show, and then the Sean Hannity Show. Wherever we went that summer, the radio offered up a steady stream of conservative talk. I found it both grating and captivating, a heady mix of personality and passion and politics. During ad breaks we feasted on each segment's arguments and insights, dissecting the surprisingly wide variety of philosophies and logics (and illogics) at play. In addition to engaging from my own adversarial perspective, I observed my dad's response as a sympathetic listener. He absorbed some arguments, rejected others, and refashioned still others to fit with his life experiences. This dynamic interplay confounded the common stereotype of talk-radio listeners as sponges soaking up the host's message. It was compelling stuff. And while it didn't change my vote, it did change my life—and led to the book you're reading now.
Some months later, while skimming through back issues of the Nation magazine, I spotted an article called "Hate Clubs of the Air." It began, "Right-wing fanatics, casting doubt on the loyalty of every president of the United States since Herbert Hoover, are pounding the American people, this Presidential election year, with an unprecedented flood of radio and television propaganda." The article's existence refuted everything I thought I knew about conservative media. The long-accepted narrative said that the modern conservative movement started with intellectuals in the 1950s, took root in organizations in the 1960s and 1970s, and won political influence in the 1980s. Only then did a powerful and influential conservative media apparatus emerge, first in talk radio and then in cable news. Yet here was a liberal journalist disparaging right-wing radio and television in 1964. I had to find out more.
With this discovery, I made my way into the archives. There I uncovered a network of activism far broader and far more influential than I had expected. Beginning in the late 1940s and 1950s, activists working in media emerged as leaders of the conservative movement. Not only did they start an array of media enterprises—publishing houses, radio programs, magazines, book clubs, television shows—they built the movement. They coordinated rallies, founded organizations, ran political campaigns, and mobilized voters. From the archives they emerged as a distinct group that I call "media activists," men and women (but mostly men) whose primary sites of activism were the media institutions they founded. While they disagreed profoundly on tactics and strategy, they shared a belief that political change stemmed not just from ideas but from the proper expression and diffusion of those ideas through ideological media sources. Unlike fellow conservatives who worked for mainstream periodicals and broadcasters, these media activists believed independence was vital to their work—that they needed to develop their own publishing houses, their own radio programs, their own magazines if they were going to truly change American politics.
This idea of conservative media activism no doubt resonates with anyone who has followed U.S. politics in the past few decades. Americans are accustomed to thinking of right-wing media as integral to contemporary conservatism. In 2009 Rush Limbaugh topped polls as the de facto leader of the Republican Party. Tea Party rallies in 2009 and 2010 featured Fox News personalities and popular radio hosts. But these well-known figures comprise the second generation of media activists. Messengers of the Right tells the story of the little-known first generation. It explains how conservative media became the institutional and organizational nexus of the movement, transforming audiences into activists and activists into a reliable voting base. It follows broadcaster Clarence Manion, book publisher Henry Regnery, and magazine publisher William Rusher as they evolved from frustrated outsiders in search of a platform into leaders of one of the most significant and successful political movements of the twentieth century.
Manion's and Regnery's stories start in the 1930s. Both held positions within the New Deal—political conversions abound in Messengers of the Right—but ultimately broke with the Roosevelt administration over foreign policy. In the meeting rooms of the America First Committee, these men spoke out against intervention and began building relationships that would launch their media careers. Regnery joined Human Events, founded by a number of former America Firsters in 1944 as the war began winding down. In 1947 he left to start his own publishing company. Manion remained in mainstream politics until 1954 when he was fired from the Eisenhower administration over his support of the Bricker Amendment (a national-sovereignty proposal). Both began using new media platforms to make arguments against the New Deal, the war, and containment, their independence rooted in the belief that there was a concerted effort by the mainstream media to block out conservative ideas. They criticized bipartisanship as well as what they saw as an ingrained liberal bias in media and the academy. Rusher remained part of Republican politics until the mid-1950s, when Eisenhower's censure of Joseph McCarthy convinced him that not even Republicans would take a tough enough stance against communism. Soon these media activists found themselves called to organize grassroots conservatives and to enter electoral politics. Originally intent on building mouthpieces, they ended up building a movement.
Conservative media activism has not been absent from the many histories of modern conservatism. George Nash's classic The Conservative Intellectual Movement, written in 1976, is rife with right-wing writers and journalists and editors. Rick Perlstein's 2001 book Before the Storm, a history of the conservative movement to 1964, begins with a chapter on the Manionites, named after right-wing radio host Clarence Manion. There are at least three biographies of William F. Buckley Jr., the wunderkind founder of National Review. Media-centered activists appear again and again in histories of conservative economic thought, grassroots organizing, and political campaigning. Yet no one has yet studied them as a coherent network of activists or looked at what it meant for the movement that media activists were its architects.
The consequences of their leadership were profound. First and foremost: media activists crafted and popularized the idea of liberal media bias. This concept—that established media were not neutral but slanted toward liberalism—not only shaped the movement but remade American journalism. We have grown so used to this claim that it is hard to comprehend just how radical an idea it was in the 1940s and 1950s. After all, this was an era when institutional neutrality was considered the special genius of the American system. In a world roiling with the terrors of fascism, totalitarianism, and communism, American politicians and intellectuals celebrated the technocratic state and its attendant institutions as spaces free from the passions and pitfalls of ideology. To wit: two years after the publication of Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell's 1960 book The End of Ideology, President John F. Kennedy declared that the major domestic challenges of the era "do not relate to the basic clashes of philosophy and ideology, but to the ways and means of reaching common goals." His belief in a national consensus pursued through dispassionate management rather than ideological clashes was a broadly shared faith.
Shared, that is, by those who saw themselves as part of what historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in 1949 called "the vital center." Schlesinger (who wrote Kennedy's 1962 speech) chastised those on both the left and the right who did not hew to this agreed-upon middle, which viewed New Deal domestic policies and liberal anticommunism as the only viable Cold War position. This consensus was, paradoxically, understood as both liberal and nonideological. Such an understanding could only be sustained from within the vital center. Viewed from the progressive left or the conservative right, the neutrality of the vital center was a farce. Activists on the left and the right found themselves tarred as extremists and ideologues, politically illegitimate in a post-ideology age. Both sought to expose the ideological agendas of these purportedly neutral institutions, attacking the press's claims of objectivity, the universities' claims of neutrality, and the government's claims of technocracy. But it was conservatives who had the greatest impact, convincing not just the right but a plurality of Americans that mainstream institutions were biased in favor of liberalism.
For conservative media activists, the concept of "liberal bias" was both a lived reality and a rhetorical argument. It was central to their understanding of institutions as inherently ideological. They embedded their ideas about media in the organizations they founded and the political campaigns they led. They taught a generation of conservatives to reject nonconservative media and to seek out right-wing news sources. In the process, they made this habit of conservative media consumption part of what it now means to be a conservative in America.
This reliance on ideological media also reshaped the conservative relationship to ideas. The story I tell about conservative media activism from the 1940s through the 1970s is not just one of media spreading political ideas but media opening a battle over how best to assess what is true and what is not. Conservatives took up this battle against the dominant journalistic mode of midcentury America: objectivity. Some have argued that "objectivity" describes a set of professional practices rather than a coherent worldview, but this understates the power of objectivity as a concept. Objectivity was more than a set of professional values—it was a claim about the best way to understand the world. In midcentury, American journalists who were invested in the ideal of objectivity claimed the trueness of their stories could best be evaluated by how well they adhered to standards of disinterestedness, accuracy, factuality, fairness, and, less overtly but no less importantly, their deference to official information and institutional authority.
Conservative media activists advanced an alternative way of knowing the world, one that attacked the legitimacy of objectivity and substituted for it ideological integrity. That attack was embodied in their notion of "liberal media bias," which disputed not just the content presented by mainstream journalists but the very claims they made about their objective practices. This was a battle over fundamentals, a struggle over how best to assess the trustworthiness of information. Media activists weren't suggesting there existed a world of objective media that they rejected and a world of ideological media that they promoted. They were arguing there was no such thing as nonideological media, that objectivity was a mask mainstream media used to hide their own ideological projects.
In making this claim, conservative media activists in midcentury America provided their audiences—readers, listeners, and viewers—with a different way of weighing evidence: a different network of authorities, a different conception of fact and accuracy, and a different way of evaluating truth-claims. That evaluation relied not on the source's impartiality but on the assumed biases of the writers, editors, and publishers involved in the media enterprise. The assumption that all media outlets were biased and were engaged in the same type of ideological warfare allowed conservatives to develop a robust approach to absorbing contrary evidence. When an outlet like the New York Times criticized a liberal policy, conservative media activists presented it not as evidence of the paper's even-handedness but as evidence of the policy's failure. Even the liberal New York Times had to admit. . . . Thus evidence that seemed to undermine the charge of liberal bias could be reinterpreted to support the conservative claim.
Media bias was not the only artifact of the conservative claim that institutions were inherently ideological. Through their critique of an entrenched liberal establishment, the first generation of conservative media activists developed an oppositional identity that enabled conservatives to identify as outsiders. They cultivated what we can usefully think of as an "elite populism," which allowed media activists to speak as representatives of an oppressed minority (and by the mid-1960s, an oppressed majority), despite their access to traditional sources of economic, social, and political power. Theirs was not simply a story of grassroots activists agitating for change or a story of well-placed elites manipulating the masses. Rather, the work of media activists sat at the intersection of these two factions.
Elite populism was a distinguishing feature of conservative media activism from the start. Though the "elite" part was seldom in question, the "populist" part took a while to fully develop. When their activism was simply a matter of formulating arguments and creating a sense of conservative identity among far-flung readers and listeners, it didn't particularly matter if they represented a minority. Populism flavored their work but functioned largely as a linkage to the past. This first generation of media activists saw themselves operating in a populist tradition that extended back to the American founding. They compared their work to that of Thomas Paine, raising the cry of revolution while laying the groundwork for a fundamentally new type of government, and to that of William Lloyd Garrison, demanding an end to slavery at a time when abolitionism was considered at best eccentric and at worst seditious. Drawn to iconoclasts, media activists constructed a lineage that was as radical as it was conservative. If the establishment was liberal, then they would dedicate themselves to demolishing it.
But with Barry Goldwater's landslide loss to Lyndon Johnson in the presidential campaign of 1964 it became painfully clear these activists would have to forge a conservative majority. Populism offered a way forward because it allowed them to build a bridge between conservative elites and ordinary Americans based on their shared experience of exclusion. And there was a factual basis for these claims. Conservative media activists faced real barriers in the 1950s and 1960s because their politics were considered too radical. They lost political positions, became targets of investigation, and were often mocked, misrepresented, or ignored by mainstream figures—"laughed away as extreme right-wingers," as Buckley put it in a 1955 television appearance.
For people used to being gatekeepers, this exclusion was doubly frustrating. Seeking to influence both voters and politicians, pressured by both audiences and donors, media activists pointed to their education and connections as evidence of the injustice of their exclusion. They wondered, How can we, university deans and well-heeled lawyers and Ivy League grads and party insiders and CEOs, have been shunted aside because of our political beliefs? Yet unlike most groups excluded from power, these conservative activists had extensive resources to challenge their exclusion. This blend of populism and power helps explain the tremendous success of a movement that began on the fringes of American politics, as well as the right's ability to maintain an outsider identity in the face of that success.
Finally, the influence of media activists ensured that, as modern conservatism grappled with the tensions between ideological purity and political pragmatism, the scale would always be weighted toward purity. That purity would always win out may sound like an odd claim, given Buckley's famously pragmatic declaration that he would support "the most right, viable candidate who could win." But Buckley also ran a quixotic campaign for mayor of New York City in 1965 as the most right, least viable candidate. The two can be reconciled by the timing of the Buckley dictum, which he used to explain National Review's support of Richard Nixon during the magazine's flirtation with pragmatism in 1968. By the time Air Force One touched down in Beijing four years later, opening China and alienating conservatives, the flirtation with pragmatism-first politics was over, and the scales tipped back toward purity.
As the Buckley dictum suggests, conservative media activists acted as mediators between the base's flights of fancy and the realities of two-party politics. In the process they policed the boundaries of conservatism while helping steer the Republican Party to the right. But they understood their role as distinct from party politics. In this regard, William Rusher was fond of reminding his colleagues at National Review that "there is a real and necessary difference between the role of tablet-keepers like ourselves and that of a political leader . . . who must persuade substantial majorities to go along with him." For most media activists—including Rusher himself—the pragmatism of party politics was a force against which to struggle rather than a reality to accept.
With the second generation of media activists this preference for purity became more pronounced, especially as Republican politicians began to attune themselves to right-wing media as proxies for the party's base. Though Richard Nixon began the process of courting conservative media activists in the late 1960s, by the 1990s Republican politicians had become markedly more sensitive to the judgments of media personalities. Conservatives, who in midcentury had been only one of many factions within the Republican Party, were now the party's base. Conservative media activists thus gained substantial influence over Republican politicians, influence that led many officeholders to choose ideological integrity over political pragmatism.
We often take for granted the close relationship between conservative media and conservative political success. But as the experiences of Rusher, Regnery, Manion, and other midcentury media activists suggest, that's a mistake on two fronts. First, as Messengers of the Right shows, there was a long postwar tradition of conservative media activism in a time when partisan politics repeatedly disappointed the right: from Eisenhower to Goldwater to Nixon, media activists tried—and failed—again and again in their attempts to transform politics. And second, by the 1970s the first generation of conservative media was in decline: out of power, out of money, and out of influence. Thus on the eve of conservatism's most important electoral victory—the election of Ronald Reagan—conservative media activism was largely defunct. The second generation would not arise until Reagan left office.
When the second generation did arise, its success did not always benefit the GOP. This dynamic led conservative commentator David Frum to declare in 2012 the Republican Party had a "followership problem" radiating from its media. While asserting both the right and left had created "alternative knowledge systems" driven by ideological media, he argued that "the Republican and conservative knowledge system does seem more coordinated than the liberal system—and even further removed from reality." Yet Frum located the genesis of that problem in the twenty-first century. Understanding why the conservative knowledge system is more developed and cohesive—and why Frum could plausibly argue that the Republican system is the same as the conservative one—requires us to grapple with a process started not by Rush Limbaugh or Fox News but by activists in the 1940s and 1950s.
It's to their story that we now turn.