Radio Talkers Not So Powerful
Posted: November 30, 2012
Father Coughlin (Photo by Associated Press)
Coughlin went from airing sermons on a Detroit station in 1926, to a CBS network slot in 1930, to his own syndicated network in 1931, to virtual oblivion before the end of the decade. His rise and fall illustrate the limits of media power, even today – and they can help us feel better about ourselves.
From the start, Coughlin’s political pronouncements dwarfed his sermons. His battle cry — “social justice through social action” – tapped into an existing anger among citizens facing The Great Depression, and he targeted already unpopular politicians and financiers. President Hoover was “the banker’s friend, the protective angel of Wall Street,” while Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Hoover’s presumptive challenger in 1932, was “guided by Almighty God.”
Coughlin reached an audience of 44 million and his personal appearances sold out venues in America’s largest cities. His on-air calls-to-action could generate more than a million handwritten and typewritten letters flooding Washington from outraged citizens.
Roosevelt cultivated the priest’s support, inviting him to address the Democratic convention. Little wonder, then, that Coughlin claimed credit for FDR’s landslide victory in 1932 — 57.4 percent of the popular vote and 42 of the then-48 states. He assumed his ideas would become policy. FDR did not share that fantasy, and began to distance himself from the priest, whose controversial broadcasts, within a year, would include comments considered anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi. Still, fear of a backlash from Coughlin’s listeners kept the president from engaging in direct confrontation, even after the miffed Coughlin called the president “a liar” and accused him of “personal stupidity.”
Many American bishops had been uncomfortable with Coughlin’s broadcasts from the beginning, but they feared that his largely Catholic audience would follow him, even if he left the church. Early on, Rep. John O’Connor, D-NY, a Catholic, said Coughlin “is an egomaniac. Every decent Catholic is ashamed of him.” O’Connor was pretty much alone.
Critics didn’t surface until Coughlin began sinking. He threatened to defeat Roosevelt for re-election in 1936 by running William Lemke, a congressman from North Dakota, as a candidate of his newly formed Union Party. Coughlin promised 9 million votes; Lemke received 892,000 votes and zero electoral votes.
Coughlin felt betrayed by his listeners who ignored his call, and two weeks after the election, he gave a farewell address, saying, “it is better for me to be forgotten.”
The forgetting had already begun. He had violated a cynical political and talk-show principle: The trick is to follow popular opinion so closely that people think you’re leading it. Coughlin tried to mold it and direct it. He failed. Coughlin mounted a comeback in 1939, but critics now had the courage to confront the vulnerable broadcaster. Stations and sponsors dropped him as listeners abandoned him. His final broadcast was in May, 1940.
Socrates believed that, for a democracy to survive, citizens must listen to opposing views. But too many of us listen to commentators who share our beliefs. We seek affirmation by “experts.” Yet few of us ever let them lead us farther than we want to go.
Keith Olberman thought his audience would follow him from MSNBC to Al Gore’s new network, Current TV, where he would anoint the Democratic nominee; it never happened. Rush Limbaugh opposed John McCain in the GOP primaries in 2008 and Mitt Romney in the run-up to the 2012 nomination. He eventually followed his listeners to those candidates, not the other way around.
Despite what their egos tell them and cause them to tell us, the army of talk show hosts are not dictators of public opinion. Nor are we the mindless sheep they would like us to be.
Mr. Guiniven worked in corporate and political public relations for three decades.