MLA Citation: Hendershot, Heather.
Notwithstanding several major studies of mainstream broadcasting of the 1950s-60s, we still know very little about Cold War right-wing TV and radio. My paper examines two of the most important extremist broadcasters of that era, H.L. Hunt and Dan Smoot, analyzing the economics of their programming and how that programming changed over time. In charting Hunt and Smoot’s development, we can clearly discern the threat that right-wing extremism posed to the already shaky foundations of 1950s “consensus culture.”
In the 50s, Texas oilman Hunt created Facts Forum and Answers for Americans, which were shown on over 200 TV and radio stations. Facts featured Dan Smoot giving two (ostensibly) opposite perspectives on contemporary issues. Answers was a panel program with three liberals and three conservatives. Hunt underwrote the shows for $1,000,000 a year, his weekly salary. Funding also came from companies such as Sears Roebuck and Schick.
The programs aired as free “public service,” and the “educational,” not-for-profit Facts Forum Foundation was untaxed. Hunt pretended to balance political debate, but the liberal perspective typically came across as foolish. By the early 60s, Hunt’s thin veneer of fairness had worn through, and he began the unabashedly one-sided radio/TV show Life Line, promoting isolationism and fiscal conservatism. Debunked as a right-winger in sheep’s clothing, Hunt lost his tax-exempt status but wrote off Life Line as an “advertising expense.”
Meanwhile, Smoot left Facts to begin The Dan Smoot Report. Backed by a wealthy dog food manufacturer, Smoot no longer gave the “totalitarian liberal” perspective; now he spoke only for “Constitutional conservatives,” opposing Civil Rights, Communism, Foreign Aid, and the United Nations. By this time, free public service airtime was not consistently available; Smoot’s “states’ rights” racism was only considered a “public service” in the Deep South.
Hunt and Smoot appeared to have shifted from a conservative to a flatly right-wing position, but they were extremists all along. In 1953, for example, Hunt’s Answers panel debated the question, “Are American Civil Rights in Danger?” The discussion had nothing to do with the African-American movement for social justice. Rather, the panelists pondered the censorship of conservative college students by liberal professors. There was no illusion that liberals and conservatives could set differences aside in the name of higher ideals or that a discursive vital center was desirable or achievable. There was only the flimsy illusion of democratic debate.
Ten years later, Smoot would flatly state on his Report that Martin Luther King’s battle for Civil Rights was a Communist conspiracy. The discourse may have sounded more extreme than the pseudo-balanced debate of Answers in the 50s, but the underlying right-wing impulse and self-serving definitions of “Civil Rights” were the same. As the social and political upheaval of the 1960s came to a head, privately funded, non-network, ultra-conservative broadcasting grew stronger than ever. Indeed, over 6,000,000 people tuned in to hear Smoot’s bigoted broadcasts each week. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s Hunt and Smoot exposed the right-wing fault lines of a consensus culture that never quite existed.
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