Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Fulton Lewis Jr.

A 1987 editorial in the Washington Post newspaper referred to Fulton Lewis Jr. as " of the most unprincipled journalists ever to practice the trade." He died in 1966 so there was no rebuttal from Lewis. The accusation got me interested. Of course it was even more interesting that he was a radio journalist...

Lewis had political connections from birth. He was born in Washington 1903, to affluent parents. He attended the University of Virginia and dropped out, then tried George Washington University School of Law and dropped out again. William F. Buckley he was not. But Lewis found his calling. He got a job as a reporter for the Washington Herald in 1924 and within three years he was an editor. He had his own political column, "The Washington Sideshow" which was syndicated and helped him grow his Rolodex beyond his family connections.  Already he was developing a style lacking objectivity. He was becoming a commentator, instead of a reporter. Lewis left the Herald to join Universal News Service, under the mighty and politically conservative Hearst family.

One source claims he broadcast a hunting and fishing news segment on WCAP-AM in 1925 but lets call that an apocryphal outlier. Lewis began filling news slots at 1230 WOL-AM then in 1936 he was offered a full-time position. [WOL has also occupied 1210, 1230 and presently 1450 AM) He was syndicated on the Mutual Broadcasting System shortly thereafter. His program ran from 7:00 PM to 7:15 PM Monday through Friday. He was an investigative journalist but not one that followed the news. He manufactured news to suit his opinions. Hearst had no problem with that and neither did the American Broadcasting Company. it turned out to be good for ratings. At his commercial peak, Lewis was heard on more than 500 radio stations and boasted a weekly audience of sixteen million listeners. He wasn't all politics. He enjoyed his fame enough to get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. More here.

The book Political Commentators in the United States in the 20th Century by Dan D. Nimmo is more even handed but accurately describes him as a harbinger of our contemporary style of political commentary. Certainly Lewis was a partisan conservative commentator. He supported limited government, keeping the U.S. out of WWII, opposed both FDR and Harry Truman. He was accused of being an anti-semite as well. unsurprisingly he was sued for libel a few times. He was rabidly anti-communist, loathed unions, opposed farm co-ops, and supported Senator Joe McCarthy even after he imploded in a haze of liquor and hypocrisy which actually did hurt his ratings. He followed that up in 1955 by attacking the the U.S. funding of allied broadcasting project, Radio Free Europe.

Inexplicably he felt that this anti-communist propaganda outlet was being used to spread communism. When pressed, he parsed the semantics of being anti-Russia and not adequately anti-communist. It makes no sense now. Maybe you had to be there. RFE affiliated officials wrote him polite letters asking him to cool it. He politely wrote back but kept pouring it on. Sometime after his 40th individual attack broadcast there was a congressional inquiry and a little CIA involvement. The fight fizzled but he had already jumped the shark. he made a stab at TV and that didn't work out. He lost at least 200 radio stations from his network over the next couple years. Mike Wallace interviewed him in 1958 and you can see the video on the CSPAN site here.

But his core audience never left him. When Life magazine wrote an article criticizing him in 1950 they received hundreds of letters defending Lewis, and even a few cancellations for daring to criticizing him. After his death in 1966 Mutual Broadcasting asked his son, Fulton Lewis III  to take over the nightly program which he did until it was cancelled in1979. Today Lewis III continues the family tradition of being a deeply political radio man with deep government connections. More here.