Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Fr. Coughlin vs. Beck: A duet?

THE CURRENT ISSUE of Columbia Journalism Review (May its tribe increase!) turns the page back on the current Glenn Beck phenomenon to an earlier media star - a priest, no less. In his essay "A Distant Echo," CJR contributing editor Douglas McCollam reminds us of the remarkable grip that Charles E. Coughlin - Father Coughlin - had on millions of Americans with his Sunday radio broadcasts during the Great Depression, challenging not only FDR but all others who did not fit comfortably into his matrix of political activism.

Even by today's numbers, the so-called Radio Priest might well have been called the High Priest of Political Distemper who rose quickly from an obscure parish in Royal Oak, Mich., to the voice of of an avalanche of dissent in America. McCollam gives us some numbers to reflect Coughlin's awesome influence:
"Working from his home parish at the Shrine of the Little Flower in suburban Detroit, the 'Radio Priest' built an audience estimated as high as 40 million listeners for his Sunday broadcasts - at a time when America's population was less than half of what it is today. At the apex of his popularity, he received around 10,000 letters a day and employed a staff of more than a hundred clerks and four private secretaries just to answer his mail. His church eventually had to establish its own post office branch to cope with the deluge, along with its own motel and gas station to service thousands of tourists who visited his shrine every Sunday."
At his peak, Coughlin also spoke at public rallies that drew 20,000 to 30,000 in Chicago and New York. Just as today's preening celebrities offer up their special prescriptions for a nation on its knees , Coughlin authored a book that sold nearly a million copies, McClollam notes.

Dissecting Coughlin's charms. McCollam concedes it's not an easy task.
"Reading Coughlin's sermons at a remove of 80 years, it's difficult to see what all the fuss was about. His prose is stilted, repetitious, a bit leaden. But from the beginning Coughlin connected with his listeners in an electric way. Part of his appeal, of course, was pure novelty. He was among the first to offer regular religious services over the air....

"Coughlin was also the master of identifying with the concerns and anxieties of his audience. He was emotional, dramatic and evocative..." [Sound familiar?]
The priest's attack on Communism drew the fearful attention of his audiences. Possessed by success, Coughlin formed a group called the National Union for Social Justice in 1934 and two years later the Union's endorsed candidates won several primaries. He was now on his way to endorsing a congressman from North Dakota who was supported by several splinter groups. He attacked FDR as the "great betrayer" and a liar, adding: "When an upstart dictator in the United States succeeds in making this a one-party form of government, when the ballot is useless, I shall have the courage to stand up and advocate the use of bullets." In response, FDR, who enjoyed his own reservoir of political magic, condemned Coughlin's stupidity and demagoguery.

Not the least of Coughlin's sins was his anti-semitism (Coughlin denied it although there was plenty of evidence to the contrary in the newspaper he published.)

The onset of WWII intruded on the Coughlin phenomenon and he faded into becoming a simple parish priest again. But in exploiting new electronic media (radio, no less), Coughlin was the radical master of making it work for him. McCollam introduces a profound thought from the philosopher John Dewey that is clearly appropriate today for today's media in general and Fox News/Beck in particular.
"Writing in the 1920s at the dawn of electronic mass communication, Dewey foresaw that the new technology carried with it the power to divide and "atomize" society, with individual constituencies increasingly replacing the shared sense of community.
Dewey nailed it - then and now.

As for today, McCollam neatly suggests that Coughlin's greatest lesson for today "may actually be its limitations."
"His fiery broadcasts could generate huge ratings, fill cavernous stadiums and flood Washington with protestors and irate telegrams. At times, he was able to stop major pieces of New Deal legislation in their tracks. But when it came to swaying elections, his influence was practically nil. Perhaps that fact is the Fighting Priest's most enduring legacy."
We can hope.

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