That time private US media companies stepped in to silence the falsehoods and incitements of a major public figure ... in 1938
In speeches filled with hatred and falsehoods, a public figure attacks his enemies and calls for marches on Washington. Then, after one particularly virulent address, private media companies close down his channels of communication, prompting consternation from his supporters and calls for a code of conduct to filter out violent rhetoric.
Sound familiar? Well, this was 1938, and the individual in question was Father Charles E. Coughlin, a Nazi-sympathizing Catholic priest with unfettered access to America’s vast radio audiences. The firms silencing him were the broadcasters of the day.
As a media historian, I find more than a little similarity between the stand those stations took back then and the way Twitter, YouTube and Facebook have silenced false claims of election fraud and incitements to violence in the aftermath of the siege on the U.S. Capitol – noticeably by silencing the claims of Donald Trump and his supporters.
A radio ministry
Coughlin’s Detroit ministry had grown up with radio, and, as his sermons grew more political, he began calling President Franklin D. Roosevelt a liar, a betrayer and a double-crosser. His fierce rhetoric fueled rallies and letter-writing campaigns for a dozen right-wing causes, from banking policy to opposing Russian communism. At the height of his popularity, an estimated 30 million Americans listened to his Sunday sermons.
Then, in 1938, one Sunday sermon crossed the line. On Nov. 20, he spoke to listeners on the subject of the recent anti-Semitic Nazi rampage in Germany known as Kristallnacht – during which mobs of Nazis burned down 267 synagogues, destroyed 7,000 Jewish-owned businesses and arrested 30,000 Jews. Worldwide condemnation quickly followed. An editorial in the St. Louis Globe, for example, stated: “We stand in horror at this outbreak of savagery.”
Coughlin saw things differently. He blamed Jews for their own persecution and claimed in the sermon that the Nazis had actually been lenient. Only a few synagogues were burned, he lied, adding: “German citizen Jews were not molested officially in the conduct of their business.” And communists, not Jews, were the real targets of the Nazi mobs, according to Coughlin.
In the wake of these obvious lies, a New York radio station decided to break with Coughlin. “Your broadcast last Sunday was calculated to incite religious and racial strife in America,” said a letter from WMCA radio. “When this was called to your attention in advance of your broadcast, you agreed to delete those misrepresentations which undeniably had this effect. You did not do so.”
Other radio stations in major cities like Chicago and Philadelphia also canceled Coughlin’s broadcasts. Neville Miller, the president of the National Association of Broadcasters backed them up, saying that radio could not tolerate the abuse of freedom of speech.
Coughlin claimed that he’d been misrepresented, and that his intention had only been to stir sympathy for Christians persecuted by Communists. The Nazi press crowed at what they saw as American hypocrisy, saying Americans were “not allowed to hear the truth.” Meanwhile, Coughlin’s followers began showing up and protesting at radio stations where his broadcasts had been cut off.
FDR anticipated the controversy. “To permit radio to become a medium for selfish propaganda of any character would be shamefully and wrongfully to abuse a great agent of public service,” he said the day before the Kristallnacht sermon. “Radio broadcasting should be maintained on an equality of freedom which has been, and is, the keynote of the American press.” But Roosevelt did not want to take action.
Dorothy Thompson, a newspaper columnist who had been expelled from Germany by the Nazis a few years before, asked her readers: “Have you been listening to the broadcasts of Father Coughlin?” He was clearly a threat to democracy, she said, and the FCC itself should take him off the air.
Coughlin’s radio empire continued eroding that winter and into the spring. With his pickets still protesting at radio stations, the National Association of Broadcasters changed its code to promote “fair and impartial presentation of both sides of controversial issues.” The code was originally established in 1929 to address issues like fair advertising practices. The revisions in 1939 prevented radio stations from selling air time for presentations from single speakers like
Coughlin. Naturally, Coughlin claimed that his rights were being violated, even though he tried to justify his own violation of other people’s rights.
By the middle of the 20th century, this would become known as the paradox of tolerance. Philosophers like Karl Popper and John Rawls would insist that, at some point, a society’s tolerance should not be allowed to threaten its own survival.
For Americans who were unsure of how to deal with Coughlin, the paradox was solved by the advent of World War II. In January of 1940, the FBI caught 17 of his followers in a Nazi spy ring, and soon after, calls for more understanding of Nazis were flatly treasonous.
After the war, the idea that radio listeners should hear two sides of every controversy evolved from self-regulation by the broadcasting industry into the government’s “Fairness Doctrine” of 1949, which required broadcasters to allow responses to personal attacks and controversial opinions. It was enforced by the Federal Communications Commission and upheld in Red Lion Broadcasting v. FCC in 1969.
Then, with the deregulatory era of the 1980s, the Fairness Doctrine was abolished as the abundance of cable TV and radio was said to have “eroded” the rationale for regulation. And yet, as it turned out, the expected abundance morphed into one-sided talk radio and social media echo chambers. These worked, as did Father Coughlin, to undermine tolerance and democracy.
There’s not much that separates, on the one hand, the mad fanaticism that held Jews supposedly responsible for their own persecution in 1938 and, on the other, the fevered delusion of 2020: that Donald Trump’s victory was stolen or that the president is on a mission to expose a satanic pedophile ring consisting of liberal politicians and media elites.
In both cases, a relatively new medium was harnessed to inject hateful ideas into American society for political gain. And in both cases, private business had to step in when the consequences became evident.