Conservative Media – A Conversation with Nicole Hemmer

hemmerNicole Hemmer is Assistant Professor of Presidential Studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, a contributing editor at U.S. News & World Report, and co-host of the Past Present Podcast. Her book, Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics, tells the origin story of activist conservative media.

ECM: You identify Rush Limbaugh and Fox News as “second generation” conservative media institutions. Who were their predecessors? How far back do they go?

NH: All the way back to the mid-1940s! The first generation begins with the founding of Human Events, a little four-page newsletter published out of Chicago. Human Events grew out of the anti-intervention movement in World War II, both in terms of personnel and patrons. Its founders, Frank Hanighen and Felix Morley, were conservative pacifists who drew their start-up funds from some of the most prominent members of the America First Committee.

When Hanighen and Morley launched Human Events in 1944, their goal was to further a non-interventionist foreign policy to promote a lasting peace after the war ended.

That may not sound like it has much to do with the postwar conservative movement. But as Human Events developed, it focused increasingly on national sovereignty, limited government, and anti-communism.

Hanighen and Morley brought on a young Chicagoan named Henry Regnery to handle their promotional work. Regnery soon got the publishing bug, and left Human Events to start his own company, Regnery Publishing. Soon he was putting out some of the most important conservative books of the era, including William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale (1951) and Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind (1953).

It was in this moment, the early 1950s, that conservative media outlets began to multiply. In 1954, Clarence Manion, a former dean of Notre Dame Law and a refugee from the Eisenhower administration, started his weekly radio program, the Manion Forum. He was soon joined by fellow broadcaster Dan Smoot. And just one year after that, in 1955, Buckley brought together a talented group of conservative writers at his new magazine National Review. William Rusher, another major figure in the first generation, joined National Review as its publisher in 1957.

By the mid-1950s, then, there were a number of conservative periodicals, publishing houses, and radio shows. And they weren’t just isolated outlets scattered across the country. They were intimately connected through overlapping donors, personnel, and relationships.

Regnery was an early sponsor of the Manion Forum. Manion sat on the board of National Weekly, which oversaw National Review. Editors at Human Events and National Review appeared on the Manion Forum and wrote for Regnery. These conservative media activists didn’t agree on everything—in fact, they often fought over which politicians to support, what policies to promote, and where to draw the boundaries of conservatism. But at the end of the day, they all agreed that the best way to advance conservative politics was through conservative media.

ECM: Contemporary conservative media personalities tend to draw pretty heavily on a God-and-Country ethos. Were these earlier figures overtly religious?

NH: Yes, but in different ways depending on the person in question. The first generation of conservative media activists can be divided into two groups. The central figures, like Manion, Regnery, and Rusher, were driven primarily by politics. Their religious faith informed their politics, but religion was not their central cause. Another, somewhat tangential group like Billy James Hargis of Christian Crusade and Carl McIntire of The Twentieth Century Reformation Hour wanted to win souls first, votes second.

Though there was a lot of common ground between these two groups—they were committed anticommunists and anti-New Dealers—the organizational ties between them were quite thin. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Christian right was distinct from the conservative movement.

That’s not to say, however, that figures in the political right were not overtly religious. The history of Catholic anticommunism has been well documented by historians like Patrick Allitt. But the religious faith of someone like Clarence Manion went much further than that—it was integral to his theory of government.

Manion believed that the restraints of a religious moral code were necessary to keep government small. A people who lived by religious edicts would not need government regulation to create a well-functioning society. So long as society was godly, government could remain small.

In the 1960s, atheism became a new dividing line at National Review. In 1964 long-time contributing editor Max Eastman published a piece in the magazine asking if atheists could be conservatives. Buckley answered with a resounding “no,” and Eastman left the magazine shortly thereafter.

But honestly, these conservative media figures run the gamut when it comes to religion. Rusher rarely had much to say on the matter. Human Events grew out of a Quaker devotion to pacifism that soon dissipated. Brent Bozell, Buckley’s brother-in-law, broke with National Review because he felt the magazine was insufficiently Catholic. Though, to be fair, Bozell also broke with the Catholic Church during the Vatican II reforms because he felt the Church itself was insufficiently Catholic.

Read the whole thing at Religion Dispatches.

About Eric

Eric Miller teaches in the Department of Communication Studies at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.
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