america's early mass media demagogues -- 12/10/18

Today's selection -- from Hitler's American Friends by Bradley W. Hart. Radio, which was America's first live component of American mass media, provided a platform for Detroit priest Father Coughlin, who became one of the very first mass media demagogues on the American political scene. At almost thirty million people, his regular audience may have been the largest such audience of all time:

"On the Sunday afternoon of November 20, 1938, millions of Americans tuned their radio sets to one of the country's most popular weekend programs. The sounds of a church organ and a choir followed. Soon a familiar and sonorous voice came to the airwaves. It was that of Detroit priest Father Charles E. Coughlin, one of the country's most popular and controversial media figures. For years Coughlin had courted controversy with increasingly political statements and criticism of the Roosevelt administration. Today's address would be his most provocative public ut­terance yet.

"Coughlin quickly launched into a startling defense of Nazi Germany's policies toward the country's Jewish population, which had culminated in the recent violence of the Kristallnacht pogrom that left nearly a hundred people dead and shopwindows smashed across the Reich. Claiming to oppose persecution against all religions, Coughlin insisted that Nazism was merely a natural re­sponse to the threat posed by communism. Picking up a Nazi publication, Coughlin listed twenty-four Jews he claimed had been integrally involved in the Russian Revolution. 'I speak these words, holding no brief for Germany or for Nazism,' he said. 'Simply as a student of history, endeavoring to analyze the reasons for the growth of the idea in the minds of the Nazi party that Com­munism and Judaism are too closely woven for the national health of Ger­many, do I make these references.' Nazi violence against Jews was therefore the result of 'the fact that the Jews through their native ability have risen to such high places in radio, press and finance.' The Jews might be a minority in Germany, Coughlin continued, 'but a closely woven minority in their racial tendencies; a powerful minority in their influence; an aggressive minority which has carried their sons to the pinnacle of success in journalism, radio and finance.' He went on to blame Jewish bankers for financing the Russian Revolution, nam­ing the financial firm Kuhn, Loeb & Co. as a specific offender. He concluded by supporting President Roosevelt's recent decision to withdraw the American ambassador from Berlin to protest recent anti-Semitic violence, but added, 'If we are sincere we'll call all ambassadors and ministers from communist coun­tries.'

Father Charles Coughlin, leader of the antisemitic Christian
Front, delivers a radio broadcast. Detroit, United States, March 11, 1935.

"By now, Coughlin was used to the controversy his fiery radio speeches gen­erated. He often managed to use such storms to raise money. Yet the obvious affinity between his remarks in November 1938 and Nazi ideology generated the largest conflagration yet. New York station WMCA, which had surrepti­tiously managed to obtain an advance copy of the speech, programmed an im­mediate follow-up broadcast by the director of the Non-Sectarian Anti-Nazi League. A cascade of angry calls and telegrams poured into Detroit station WJR. The chancellor of the Roman Catholic diocese of Detroit was quoted in the press the next day saying 'Coughlin spoke for himself, not for the church.' Detroit Jewish leaders were outraged, with one denouncing Coughlin's address as 'one of the most vicious talks that I have listened to in a long time.' There was soon a backlash against the backlash, however. When WMCA announced that it would no longer carry Coughlin's program due to the 'religious and racial hatred and dissension' he was stirring, two thousand Coughlin supporters descended on the station to demand his reinstatement. For months afterward, protestors carrying pro-Coughlin and occasionally anti-Semitic slogans showed up at the station doors on Sunday afternoons to keep up the pressure.

"Coughlin was in many ways a pioneer in American mass communication history. For years he had used increasing fame to build one of the first multi­faceted media empires. Through the emerging technology of radio, he quickly built a following of supporters who not only tuned into his program on a regular basis but were willing to support their belief in the 'Radio Priest' with real-world action. Coughlin expanded into publishing a newspaper, Social Justice, with a circulation of more than two hundred thousand in 1940, though he claimed it to be closer to one million. In many ways, Coughlin established the model for the indignant, belligerent, no-holds-barred talk show hosts that hit the airwaves in every American city in the late twentieth century. ... Yet Coughlin himself was far more successful than any of his future emulators. A December 1938 Gallup poll found that a full 22 percent of Americans reported listening to Cough­lin's radio program in the previous month. A majority of those said they had listened to him two times or more in that period. This figure translates into an estimated monthly audience of nearly twenty-nine million listeners, with nearly fifteen million listening more than once a month. These are astonishing numbers, especially given that Coughlin's broadcasts that year were only car­ried by forty-six independent stations, with no network backing, on the East Coast. No stations west of Kansas or in the South carried his program. Histo­rians have estimated that his audience was the largest in the world and far sur­passed that of every major radio star of the era, and was possibly the largest of all time. By comparison, the most successful talk show host of later years, Rush Limbaugh, commanded a peak audience of more than twenty million in the 1990s. Limbaugh loudly proclaimed himself to have 'talent on loan from God,' but his religious predecessor would have had a better claim to a divinely delivered audience.

"What made Coughlln's voice uniquely resonant for millions of Americans was fundamentally his religious message. He was, after all, an ordained and practicing priest who had instant credibility with Catholic listeners. Much of his popularity lay with Irish and German immigrants on the East Coast who had been badly hurt by the Depression. He referred to himself  as 'your spokes­man' and presented himself as standing up for the common man against vested interests ranging from international banks to the Roosevelt administration. Coughlin's radio talks were 'flowery, emotional, and misleading,' historian Da­vid H. Bennett has written. 'He knew all the tricks of the propagandist, from name calling to glittering generality.' Propagandist or not, by 1938 Coughlin had convinced millions of Americans that he understood their problems as no one else could and was giving them a voice. ...

"Throughout the 1930s, a series of demagogic leaders rose to national prominence with religiously based, anti-Roosevelt messages of economic equality and, later, nonintervention in the European war. Dynamic Kansas minister Gerald B. Winrod ingratiated him­self to midwestern Protestants and then took his message nationwide with a series of lectures and radio broadcasts. By the late 1930s he joined Coughlin in defending Nazi Germany and denouncing the Jews. Winrod no doubt hoped to position himself as a Protestant Coughlin, but fell short in his ambitions. Crowd­ing the stage further was Gerald L. K. Smith, a veteran political organizer who worked closely with Louisiana demagogue Huey Long and then took his show on the road after Long was assassinated in 1935. Smith's message had been honed and battle tested in the Louisiana swamps. Like Long, he was a popu­list firebrand who railed against economic and political elites while simulta­neously denouncing communism and throwing in a mixture of anti-Semitism and old-time religion. He was such a fiery and charismatic speaker that he would overshadow even Coughlin during public appearances.

"What these men shared was not only rhetorical style but similar messages.

"All three promised radical economic change. They identified similar, if not iden­tical, causes of the Great Depression: economic elites, politicians, and Jews (ironically, both Coughlin and Smith were heavily influenced by Henry Ford, arguably the most important economic elite in the country but himself a well-known anti-Semite). Each became a staunch opponent of Roosevelt and, similarly, all three fell into becoming a friend of the Third Reich. By 1941, each man had voiced admiration for the New Germany and expressed support for Hitler's anti-Semitic worldview."



Bradley W. Hart


Hitler's American Friends


Thomas Dunne Books


Copyright 2018 by Bradley W. Hart


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