Back in the day, before television, one of this country’s greatest demagogues was Father Charles Coughlin, broadcasting from a studio in the tower at the Shrine of the Little Flower in Royal Oak, Michigan. At first he espoused a Social Justice platform and supported President Roosevelt’s New Deal. However, as the years went by, Coughlin turned against FDR and became increasingly extreme, railing against Jews and supporting the policies of both Hitler and Mussolini.
At his height, Coughlin’s audience dwarfed the Fox “News” Channel’s measly average of 1.7 million viewers. These days Fox “News” is the 600 pound gorilla in the room because its ratings dwarf any other cable news source. However, the Fox “News” ratings don’t hold a candle to the big three broadcast networks that average more than 7 million viewers each.
As all insecure men insist, “It’s not the size that counts.”
It’s the influence that matters. Networks broadcast a half hour newscast per day. Fox “News” is on the air 24/7. Consequently, Fox “News” has the same kind of outsized influence as Father Coughlin had. And, as this issue of Fox News Follies goes to press, Roger Ailes is working hard to elect demagogue Donald Trump President of the United States.
Midway through a 3,000 mile road trip, Friday Fox Follies has been staying about a mile from the Shrine of the Little Flower, passing it almost daily while researching other stories. It reminds me that when I began writing Fox “News” criticism 7 years ago, it was to write about Glenn Beck, whom I often compared to Coughlin:
Because of its majestic feel, I always loved when we drove up Woodward. At 12 Mile Road, on the northeast corner, stands a church that attracted my attention even as a Jewish child. It’s just so beautiful despite, or because of, the iconography. The National Shrine of the Little Flower really is a gorgeous building and seeing it as a child started me off on an appreciation of architecture that continues to this day.
On the opposite corner sprawls Roseland Park Cemetery. I mention this graveyard for one reason: whenever we passed this corner some of my older relatives would spit a “patooey” as we crossed 12 Mile. Because some of the older Jews in my family still held Old World values and superstitions, I had always assumed it was some curse to protect against the dead.
It was only years later, when I began to understand both architecture and politics, did I come to learn that this monument to Jesus Christ at the Shrine of the Little Flower was also a monument and a shrine to, and built by, Father Charles Coughlin, one of the most rabid anti-Semites to ever have his own radio show. At his height he is said to have had 40 million listeners. (Famously, Loofah Lad O’Reilly was once scientifically compared to Charlie the Man of God and it was determined that Mr. Falafel is a bigger demagogue.)
My relatives weren’t spitting as a protection from dead people. There [sic] were spitting and cursing the memory of the bad mojo, the cosmic karma, that Father Coughlin represented. A full thirty years after the fact, long after his evil had been silenced, my relatives were still cursing his name and his church.
From the very beginning of the Fox “News” Channel, Roger Ailes has traded on the fears and apprehensions of low-information viewers by hiring demagogues to pander to their worst instincts. Bill O’Reilly calls himself a Cultural Warrior, but he uses demagoguery to get his ugly point across. Sean Hannity? He’s the Fox Race Baiting Demagogue. Megyn Kelly? The no-longer preggy Leggy Meggy is Fox’s White Privilege Demagogue. Fox & Friends is Happy Talk Demagoguery, safe for the entire family. But, make no mistake, Fox “News” qualifies:
- a person, especially an orator or political leader, who gains power and popularity by arousing the emotions, passions, and prejudices of the people.
2. (in ancient times) a leader of the people.
verb (used with object), demagogued, demagoguing.
- to treat or manipulate (a political issue) in the manner of a demagogue; obscure or distort with emotionalism, prejudice, etc.
verb (used without object), demagogued, demagoguing.
- to speak or act like a demagogue.
Then along comes Donald J. Trump, the demagogue’s demagogue. Fox “News” never met a plutocrat it didn’t like.
Having a bit of time to kill, Friday Fox Follies decided to take some close-up pics of the Shrine of the Little Flower to illustrate this article. It is a gorgeous building — inside and out — but the sentiments that built it were ugly. Not unlike the Fox “News” Channel.
Talking to Docent Don (irony alert!) I learned he was vaguely aware of Coughlin’s infamy. Certainly he knew of the Anti-Semitism, but had little solid information about it. However, he told me that the church had been reevaluating its ugly history and more information could be found on the website of the National Shrine of the Little Flower.
That wasn’t entirely true. Under the rubric Historical Overview is a single paragraph on Father Coughlin that merely reproduces the first two paragraphs of the demagogue’s Wikipedia entry. To its credit, however, it does provide links to The University of Detroit Mercy’s web site, where one can get the real tenor and flavour of Father Coughlin. Under the rubric Primary Materials (down the page), his writing and hateful radio broadcasts are archived. As Rev. Gerard L. Stockhausen, former President of the University of Detroit Mercy, writes in the introduction, trying his best to polish this turd:
Why would a university library go through the bother of digitizing materials that represent hatred and bigotry? Why would a Catholic university in the Jesuit and Mercy tradition make such materials available on its website?
The fundamental stance of Catholic/Mercy/Jesuit education is that everything comes from the hands of a loving creator. Whether we study the physical world, human beings, human relationships, or human accomplishments, we are ultimately studying the loving mystery at the heart of it all. Even when we study those things that can only be labeled evil, things that result from human addictions and idolatries, we are ultimately studying the promise and hope of redemption offered by that loving mystery. And because we know that all of us humans respond only imperfectly to the gift of love, that we all share those addictions and idolatries, we continually pay attention to where in our lives and the world around us those addictions and idolatries are present so that we can identify them, warn about them, and struggle against them. And we continually pay attention to where the freedom and life-giving pattern of love is present so that we can identify it, celebrate it, and attract others to it. This paying close attention to what is going on is the work of education. It is the work of a university. It is why UDM provides access to these archive materials. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Which brings us full circle to Fox “News” and the House that Hate Built. In this election cycle Fox “News” has been doing everything in its power to defend the demagoguery of Donald J. Trump, who has plugged into the exact same sentiments as the hoard of racists and xenophobes who call Fox Nation their home. Never were a voter, a candidate and media more made for each other.
However, there are two big differences between then and now. Back then the government used various postal regulations, and World War Two sedition laws, to shut down Coughlin’s influence. After that, the whole thing was swept into the memory hole for more than a half century before it was reevaluated. Only Jews with long memory kept the tradition of spitting alive.
Today, because of this pesky thing called the First Amendment, Fox “News” is free to spout its propaganda, which it knows its audience will never question. However, the Fox “News” reevaluation is happening in real time, as it happens. It’s up to all of us to be our own Fox “News” truth machine.
Generations from now — because truth always supplants lies in the final analysis — the future Fox “News” archives will demonstrate how an entire generation of low-information mouth-breathers was tricked by the empty slogan “Fair and Balanced.” Friday Fox Follies is proud of whatever small corner it will have in the archives.