Propaganda in the Guise of News: Fulton Lewis Jr. and the Origins of the Fairness Doctrine
by A.J. Bauer
This article is based upon original archival research conducted as part of A.J. Bauer’s in-process book manuscript Making the Liberal Media, which examines the long history of conservative press criticism in the United States and its unexpected roots in the progressive media reform efforts of the 1930s-1940s. The full article tracks conservative radio commentator Fulton Lewis, Jr.’s battle against the consumer cooperatives movement in 1947 as a key reference point for progressive media reformers who, in 1948, attempted to convince the Federal Communication Commission to uphold its ban on broadcast editorials. Ultimately, the FCC replaced its editorial ban with the Fairness Doctrine, a regulation that mandated ideological balance over the airwaves from 1949-1987. The article explores the Fairness Doctrine’s limitations as a “solution” to the “problem” of conservative broadcasters like Lewis, and suggests that the political stakes of radio regulatory debates of the late 1940s played a crucial role in mobilizing conservative media activists around a “liberal media” foil in the decades that followed. The full article will be published next month in the Radical History Review, Issue 141.
When Fulton Lewis Jr. died in the summer of 1966, the conservative broadcaster was most remembered as a champion of ignominious causes. In his 33-year career as a daily news commentator over the Mutual Broadcasting System radio network, Lewis had used his microphone to promote and defend such paragons of right-wing politics as Charles Lindbergh, Joseph McCarthy, and Barry Goldwater. He had picked fights with supporters of the New Deal, the Fair Deal, consumer cooperatives, and the Congress of Industrial Organizations, giving voice to the interests of business groups like the National Association of Manufacturers and National Association for Tax Equality. In doing so, Lewis also played a mostly forgotten role as an unwitting catalyst for progressive media reform efforts in the 1940s, not least among them the fairness doctrine.
Issued by the US Federal Communications Commission in 1949, the fairness doctrine overturned the commission’s ban on broadcast editorials by radio station owners, replacing it with a requirement that broadcast licensees dedicate airtime to the discussion of issues of public concern and that they do so in a way that granted the public a “reasonable opportunity to hear different opposing positions.” … It granted the broadcast industry the right to air editorials within limits demanded by a coalition of civil liberties and progressive groups, many of whom feared that radio station owners would advance the anti-labor, anti–New Deal politics that aligned with their class interests. While anxiety concerning right-wing radio bias were mostly presented in appeals to the general “public interest” or as defenses of the First Amendment rights of listeners, reaction personified was often in the figure of Fulton Lewis Jr.
This article draws on primary archival research to examine why and how media reformers targeted Lewis as a problem in need of federal regulation. This research yields new insights into the unintended political consequences of the US media reform movement of the 1940s. Attempting to solve the problem of Fulton Lewis—that of the conservatively biased radio commentator with a mass audience—progressive media reformers pushed for regulations designed to sublimate radio into an idealized liberal public sphere characterized by fair, balanced, and rational-critical debate of controversial political issues. This regulatory regime equated conservative speech with self-interest and emotionalism, effectively placing Lewis and his millions of daily listeners outside the bounds of legitimate political discourse. … This article also explores the political, cultural, and regulatory terrain that later gave root to a distinct modern conservative disposition toward the press, one which envisioned conservatives in a counter-hegemonic struggle against a “liberal media” system biased against their worldview. …
A Problem Embodied
The framing of Lewis as a problem in need of federal regulatory solution proceeded on two fronts: one public, the other bureaucratic. On the public front, the effort to turn public opinion against Lewis and other reactionary radio commentators was spearheaded by the Voice of Freedom Committee. ... Launchd in the midst of Lewis’ battle with the consumer cooperatives movement in spring 1947, with a stated mission of “maintain[ing] radio as a democratic instrument of the people,” VOF consisted of loosely organized groups of “monitors” who would listen to the programs of radio commentators and write letters to both the networks and FCC. VOF monitors were urged to listen to one “good” commentator, such as the liberals Algernon Black or Don Hollenbeck, and one “bad” commentator, such as conservatives like Lewis, Gabriel Heatter, or H. V. Kaltenborn, each day and to write one letter each week to “commend or protest.” …
VOF shared a tendency, common among progressive media critics of the era, to treat political disagreement as the result, instead of the cause, of propaganda—attributable more to the “harmful air” spewed by reactionary broadcasters than to earnest differences of opinion. “Don’t fool yourself that people do not believe what the reactionary commentators feed them,” an anonymous writer warned in the VOF’s first newsletter. “To many Americans—too many Americans—the words of a Winchell, Lewis, [and] Heatter are the gospel truth. They sound authentic, so how can there be any possible doubt? You can let the program makers know there is doubt.” Even your well-meaning, presumably liberal neighbors, the newsletter’s tone implied, might be coaxed into reaction not by the salience of Lewis’s ideas but by the sincerity of his voice. …
While VOF was unabashed in its liberalism within the pages of its own newsletter, it struck a decidedly more neutral tone while testifying before the FCC in 1948 (the bureaucratic front of the crusade against commentators like Lewis). In his testimony, VOF counsel Stanley Faulkner elided his group’s ideological basis, describing it as simply “representing citizens who are interested in preserving freedom of expression over the air for and by the people.” Rather than framing his group in explicit opposition to voices of “reaction,” Faulkner described the group’s opposition to editorials as being rooted in a concern that their “emotion” might “create passion or extend prejudice.” Indeed, when asked point-blank, “Aren’t you really urging that the reason why the broadcasters should not be permitted to express an opinion is because they have a particular kind of opinion?” Faulkner answered no and reaffirmed his group’s opposition to any broadcaster’s attempts to “invade our homes with his opinion.”
Faulkner’s assertion that VOF was merely interested in a general freedom of expression and universally opposed to the invasion of political opinion into the home was undermined by the group’s explicit advocacy of “good” liberal commentators and vociferous opposition to “bad” reactionary commentators. His ability to testify to his group’s ideological neutrality underscored the extent to which the interests of social liberalism had been superimposed as the boundaries of the public sphere itself (at least for the purposes of federal regulation). VOF equated right-wing speech with subjectivity, histrionics, and irrationality, maintaining a liberal tradition that dated back to the origins of radio as a medium and modern conceptions of public opinion during the interwar years. According to this ideology, the interests of the people were aligned with a liberal social welfare agenda as epitomized by the New Deal. Any speech that roused popular support against that agenda was thought to be at best, irrationally influenced by emotionalism or at worst, paid for explicitly by nefarious interests (be they corporate or communist). The specter of propaganda of either variety masked a deeper liberal fear of conflict, a fear that political disagreement would undermine the legitimacy of liberal governance.