On Buckley and the Modern Media Environment with MIT’s Heather Hendershot

Heather Hendershot, a Professor of Film and Media at MIT, visited the Buckley Program to discuss her recent book “Open to Debate: How William F. Buckley Put Liberal America on the Firing Line.” Prof. Hendershot is a Yale alumna, where she was in Berkeley College. The following transcript has been lightly edited from an interview just before she spoke with Buckley Fellows. 

By: Pranam Dey

Pranam: How did you decide write a book about Buckley?

Heather: I had been researching right-wing media and Evangelical media for my second book, on conservative Evangelical media. My third book was on Cold War right-wing broadcasting, and Buckley was sort of a bit player in that book because these broadcasters were a bit conspiratorial and some were quite nutty. Buckley wanted to push the nuts, people who thought the fluoridation of water was a conspiracy and so on, out of the conservative movement. Buckley wanted to forge a respectable, intellectual image for the conservative movement.

So I had started out studying very disreputable right-wing material, stuff that as a scholar and a human, was just disturbing. When I began to watch Buckley’s Firing Line, well, not only was it not harmful, it was making me smarter! It’s really engaging, really interesting, and he’s so open to speaking to the other side. You could watch that show and become a better conservative, or the opposite, if the liberal or left-winger made a better argument. Buckley was confident enough in his own position that he was willing to allow that it might happen. He wasn’t too proud to say that, actually, Muhammad Ali really changed his mind. Muhammad Ali, a week or two after appearing on his show, said, “I KO’d Buckley.” Buckley showed a clip from that episode on the very last episode of Firing Line in 1999, and he said that Ali was right. I was very interested in the show because of Buckley’s willingness to talk to the other side. But I was also interested because the guests are so fascinating. I felt you could really chart America’s move from left to the right, from the 60’s to the Reagan Revolution. I see that show as both a steering wheel and a compass for the post-war conservative movement.

Pranam: How do you think we moved from Buckley’s Firing Line to the right-wing media environment today?

Heather: A lot of it is about deregulation. Ronald Reagan deregulated many industries, including the communications industry, and opened things up for cable television. Buckley had actually been an advocate for cable, or what was then called “pay TV,” years before this existed. He thought we could have conservative or liberal or biased from any perspective television if it were paid and directed to people instead of just aimed a mass audience. Deregulation led to what we have now: quality programming of the kind we see on HBO, junk like the Real Housewives of wherever, and it led to what you might awkwardly call the niche-ification of news. Just as you wouldn’t create dramas for a general audience, now you would create news just for conservatives or just for liberals or whatever. And you end up with echo chambers, to different degrees. Deregulation led to huge improvements in television and the opposite. There aren’t many news shows that try to target a broad audience.

Pranam: I wonder if I can make a historical comparison here. If you look at the early years of the American Republic, you see newspapers that are very slanted, very partisan. Or indeed, something similar exists today with newspapers in England, for example. Are we moving toward something like that again, are we coming full-circle?

Heather: We actually have a relatively small window of the FCC regulating the airwaves with a notion of public service.

Pranam: What we had before the current climate seems normal, but in some broader historical sense, it’s not normal at all. Which isn’t to say that it’s necessarily good or bad.

Heather: Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right. The Fairness Doctrine, which says the broadcasters are obliged to present contrasting points of view, was suspended by Reagan. But that really came out of WWII and what had happened before with people like Father Coughlin and that fascists, like Hitler and Mussolini, were very adept at using radio. Radio had been seen as really scary, so they set up the Fairness Doctrine, and you’re right that it’s an exception to have this regulated period.

Pranam: Where do you think we go from here? Does the media environment get worse as the media is less and less trusted and attacks on it continue?

Heather: Before our current president, I thought things were pretty low. There was a lot of really uncivil discourse on television. And things have gotten so much worse. So in a way there’s nowhere to go but up, and there may be a kind of reaction formation where people think that we can do better. It’s hard to predict how this works out. People need to get out of their self-curated Twitter feeds and read other sources of news, but I don’t know how to make that happen. It’s a basic orientation toward civic duty that has to be inculcated.

Pranam Dey is a senior in Ezra Stiles College and the Editor-in-Chief of The Beacon.