Looking back, it's hard to believe that Father Charles Coughlin's hate speeches were broadcast into millions of homes during the 1930s. Coughlin's anti-Semitic rants incited prejudice and violence. Now, in the Internet age, it seems positively antiquated that one person could have such a powerful soapbox to engage in fear-mongering and hate speech.
In fact, it seems insane.
We would never stand for that today, right? So why do our media continue to resemble the hate radio of decades past? How did it happen that just a few media pundits can disseminate such vitriol and misinformation into millions of homes, and -- worse -- cast it as real news?
Father Coughlin must be dancing in his grave. His model for using the media to manipulate the American people through fear and division lives on in the form of Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly and other extremists that propagandize millions of Americans daily. And unlike Coughlin, these guys have powerful corporations to back them up.
In the last month, Beck launched a smear campaign against one of Obama's top environmental advisers and forced his resignation. Van Jones is one of the great, principled leaders of our time, and he was unceremoniously hung out to dry while the White House quietly acquiesced to the agents of fear.
Emboldened, the extremists have moved on to other targets, calling Obama's speech to kids -- in which the president implored them to work hard and stay in school -- a "socialist" plot that must be stopped. Their baseless hysteria caused entire school districts to cancel plans to air the president's speech. Beck said on his website last weekend, "....judging by the other radicals in this administration, I expect that questioning to continue for the foreseeable future."
That Fox News Channel lets Beck use its media megaphone to stir up hatred and fear of others is repulsive, divisive and beyond all common sense or decency. By giving Beck a nightly platform for witch hunts and smear campaigns, Rupert Murdoch's media empire undermines our democracy.
But Fox News is not alone. Unfortunately, this kind of rant is endemic to a media system that cares about ratings far more than about the truth.
Most Americans want their kids to work hard and stay in school; most Americans want affordable health care. But if you watch Fox or listen to right-wing radio, you would think the opposite is true, and that the only proponents of these common goals are radical communists operating out of the White House basement.
Most people who watch Fox falsely believe that under Obama's health care plan, people will have no choice of what health benefits they'll receive; that illegal immigrants will get free health insurance; that death panels will decide who lives and who dies; and that the government will determine doctors' wages.
The dangers of unchecked misinformation from the media extremists are not to be underestimated. They are a cornerstone in the march against progressive policies and politicians that comprise a functional modern state. Beck and his cohorts are the key to scaring ordinary Americans into supporting misguided policies that enrich the largest corporations, empty their own pockets and impoverish our nation.
In Rolling Stone last week, Matt Taibbi wrote with his usual brilliance:
The cost of [our broken health care system] to society, in illness and death and lost productivity and a soaring federal deficit and plain old anxiety and anger, is incalculable -- and that's the good news. The bad news is our failed health care system won't get fixed, because it exists entirely within the confines of yet another failed system: the political entity known as the United States of America.
What more is needed to spark the media reform movement that offers an antidote to media failure -- and that this nation so desperately needs? What more is needed to force our politicians to address the corrupting, insidious influence of special interest lobbyists, PR machines and think tanks?
The answer to Glenn Beck is not to deprive him of his First Amendment right to free speech. This is not about censorship, it's about sanity. Our leaders have a responsibility to condemn fear-mongering in all its forms, defend those who are unfairly attacked, and support a more diverse media system that provides alternative voices to the likes of Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and other extremists. The lesson from the shameful Coughlin era and the McCarthyism of the 1950s is that we must confront the politics of personal attack with decency, reason and a commitment to more political speech, not less.
In June 1954, Senator Joseph Welch asked Joe McCarthy, "Have you no sense of decency, sir?" It was the question that marked the turning point that ended McCarthy's destructive witch hunt against a long list of innocent, patriotic people.
It's the same question that President Obama -- and every other elected official -- should be asking Beck, Murdoch and the other dangerous extremists that flood our television screens and radios. Until they do, they will continue to propagandize the American people to fight against the politicians and policies that would help them the most.