By: Zain Anthar
The following essay received an honorable mention at the Buckley Program’s spring semester high school essay contest. The topic was “What can we learn from William F. Buckley, Jr. today?”.
In today’s media landscape, political discussions have swayed towards partisanship at the expense of meaningful, probing dialogue. Politicians opt to conduct interviews with their congenial news outlets in order to avoid the “toughies” – questions that penetrate through any attempt at feigning comprehension of an issue.
On the other hand, William F. Buckley Jr.’s Firing Line show provided American viewers with thoughtful dialogue for over thirty-three years. According to Jeff Greenfield, who frequently presided as an examiner, “The show was devoted to a leisurely examination of issues and ideas at an extremely high level.” In essence, the primary lesson to be learned from Buckley’s life in politics was how the educating of the American public will promote progress in the long run, and prevent demagoguery from “inflaming” the country.
Buckley’s desire to keep the public informed first began with his founding of the National Review magazine in 1955. At a time when America was already experiencing a conservative revival, many questioned the need for more rightist literature. But in the Mission Statement of the National Review that has remained in place since November of 1955, Buckley takes a strong stance to differentiate the magazine: “Run just about everything.” American media on both the left and the right was strictly adhering to conformist publication; highly schooled “experts” in the field shunned anything too radical. Buckley realized that Americans were not well educated on the depth of issues, nor were they exposed to any extreme viewpoints thanks to the “well-tempered media.” He even saw through the “well-fed Right” – conservatives who already had control of media outlets and were obstructing more controversial ideas from hitting the mainstream. Through Buckley’s passion for publishing a spectrum of conservative ideologies in his magazine, we can learn just how much he valued American exposure to content. This is especially relevant today because of how often articles are favored for publication if they adhere to an agenda. Buckley would have published everything that makes up today’s modern-day conservatism – including the most extreme viewpoints – regardless of whether or not he agreed with them.
Buckley’s emphasis on public education went even further when he debuted his show “Firing Line” in 1966. At a time when television was controlled by “The Big Three” networks, Buckley pursued an opportunity with the smaller WOR-TV station in New York. Eventually, the show caught on, and it became the longest-running public affairs show with one host. But what’s remarkable is a constant refocusing on the American people during the shows. Buckley would interview everyone from the most conservative to the most liberal activists of his time. His mission was to first establish each individual’s political ideology within the initial block of the hour-long segment, and then ask probing “hypotheticals” to place someone’s politics in action. For example, he conducted an interview with a leader of the Black Panthers movement. Even if Buckley disagreed with his motives or any violent actions that the group pursued, the show was not used to belittle guests in the slightest. Instead, “Firing Line” was used to expose Americans to a broad range of activists, and then allow for Buckley’s logically constructed, conservative take on the issue.
America today can certainly learn from Buckley’s emphasis on broad-spectrum media for the public, as well as using logical reasoning in argumentation to promote meaningful discussion. What we can learn from Buckley in the National Review and “Firing Line” is that he would be completely averse to demagoguery, since that would strip Americans of the intellectualism that they do inherently have. In fact, Buckley called out Donald Trump’s demagoguery over sixteen years ago, when there were talks of a presidential bid then. Buckley despised politicians who ran on a “Nice-Things” platform: those who claim a panacea for all of America’s problems will arrive after a “nice” upheaval of institutions like healthcare and welfare. As we can learn from Buckley, American citizens should be well-educated, and not be washed away in a tide of populism.
Zain Anthar is a senior at Avon High School.