In 1974, the Rev. Billy James Hargis presided over the marriage of two of his seminary students in Tulsa, Okla. The newlyweds went off on their honeymoon. That’s when the bride told the groom she’d partaken in sins of the flesh before they were bound together. The worst of it was that her partner in sin was the very preacher who’d married them.
Her new husband confessed to his new wife that she wasn’t alone. He, too, was not a virgin. He, as it turned out, also had slept with the Rev. Hargis.
I used to snicker over that story with friends -- each time embellishing it to make it more delicious. Sort of like (but not quite as naughty as) The Aristocrats. Except, in the case of Billy James Hargis, the joke really wasn’t funny. It was true.
Hargis was more than the lead character in a stranger-than-fiction anecdote about the hypocrisy of a moralistic preacher. He was a pioneer of broadcast media demagoguery, who claimed to have written a speech for Sen. Joseph McCarthy and who regularly accused decent people of treason. Because of the false charges he had a penchant for flinging about, Hargis also played a role in a landmark Supreme Court case that ensured, for a relatively brief time, that the broadcast news media be held at least to some standard of fairness.
What does all this have to do with the role of the today’s media in environmental issues? A lot.
The emerging environmental challenges we face today -- climate change is only one of them -- will require broader agreement than we’ve currently managed to attain over the nature of those challenges. As a society, we will have to make sacrifices together. For us to agree that the challenges even exist, we need some common understanding of what constitutes real information.
But our conduits for timely, credible information are crumbling. Instead, the flow of information is being rerouted through various sewer lines, where truth is mixed with a pungent recipe of lies and innuendo.
Demagogues have won wealth and power by amplifying their messages over America’s airwaves since Father Charles Coughlin blamed Jewish bankers and communists for the Great Depression. But never before has broadcast hate speech reached as many people as they have today.
One thing that is remarkably consistent about such demagogues is their penchant for self-destruction. Over-developed egos tend to cultivate the hubris that leads outlandish risk taking, such as those that McCarthy took when he failed to pay his income taxes or that Coughlin took when he basically played chicken with the Catholic Church hierarchy over his own authority.
And then there’s the rise and fall of Billy James Hargis. The Texarkana, Texas, native claimed he’d dedicate his life to God at age 10, when his mother recovered from a terrible illness. By 17, he’d been ordained in the Disciples of Christ denomination.
His real talent, however, was preaching politics over the radio. Like Glenn Beck today, he had a flair for self-pity and the melodramatic. Once, he floated 100,000 balloons with biblical messages across the Iron Curtain. At his height, according to a Washington Post obituary, Hargis was “a wailing, wheezing, impassioned presence on more than 500 radio stations and 250 television stations.”
In a 1964 broadcast, Hargis lambasted Fred J. Cooke, the author of a book that was critical of Barry Goldwater, that year’s very conservative Republican candidate for president. Among other things, he claimed Cooke was a communist sympathizer who had lied about Goldwater.
Cooke heard the broadcast and requested an opportunity to respond. At the time, the Federal Communications Commission required radio and TV stations to provide an equal opportunity for opposing sides to present their views on controversial issues. The argument for the Fairness Doctrine went like this: There were limited frequencies on the radio dial and a limited number of licenses to give out that allowed stations to broadcast on those frequencies; so if the broadcasters who were the beneficiaries of those licenses chose to broadcast only one side of a controversial issue, they were required to share the privilege with those who had opposing viewpoints.
But the radio station that broadcast Hargis refused to give Cooke an opportunity to respond. The company argued that the Fairness Doctrine violated its First Amendment rights. Five years later the case made it to the Supreme Court. With an 8-0 vote the justices ruled in favor of Cooke, upholding the Fairness Doctrine as constitutional.
By that time, Hargis had gone on to other adventures. He still had his weekly radio show. And he founded the college in Tulsa, where in another five years, the sex scandal erupted. His empire only fell apart when his personal foibles became public, and even then he had his supporters.
Meanwhile, getting rid of the Fairness Doctrine had become a cause celebre of conservative radio broadcasters. And in 1987, President Reagan’s FCC appointees, who brought a new “free market” philosophy to regulation, threw the Fairness Doctrine out.
“News stations” no longer were compelled to be fair or balanced. One year later, an upstart conservative radio talk show host hit the big time. Rush Limbaugh was moved from Sacramento, Calif., to New York City, where ABC began nationally broadcasting his show.
The rest, as they say, is history. Limbaugh spawned his imitators. Rupert Murdoch hired a notorious political ad maker named Roger Ailes to start a news network. And we have devolved to the point that Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly and Beck may be the three most listened to people in America.
Beck, in particular, strikes me as the inheritor of the broadcast preacher mantle. He frequently ties his political rants in with a kind of millennialist religious sanctimony, then skips over to calling himself an “entertainer” -- a sort of bait-and-switch game that makes it difficult to know on which terms his arguments should be countered. It’s appropriate that Beck’s worldview apparently has been shaped by a discredited radical Mormon author who was cited as a right-wing activist alongside Hargis in the early 1960s.
Appalled by the propaganda on cable TV and talk radio, some liberals have called for reviving the Fairness Doctrine. That’s unlikely to happen. For one thing, the argument for it is weakened by the unlimited choice of media outlets online and via satellite. For another, the now-powerful partisan media is too threatened by the concept of “fairness.” And there are other, even more important things to fight about.
The rules will not change quickly. We are instead in a period of trench media warfare, between journalists who uphold principles like fairness, accuracy and the idea that truth can serve to move our society forward, and charlatans who are addicted to the practice of lying and dividing to bring themselves more power and money.
In an article last week about Beck, I wrote that I’m optimistic about the outcome. Partly, that’s because truth usually does prevail in the long run. But it’s partly because Hargis’ spectacular self-destruction serves as beacon for today's demagogues.