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The Media’s Invention of “Social Conservatives”

Firebombing of a Freedom Riders bus, Anniston, Alabama, 1961.

Back when Martin Luther King Jr. and thousands of his friends were campaigning for racial equality – and getting murdered for their efforts – the media invented a term for their opponents. They couldn’t call them “racists,” that would hurt sales in the South; they couldn’t call them “bigots” either. So what category to use?

The term “conservative” already existed, so they went with that. George Wallace, Lester Maddox, the Ku Klux Klan – all “conservative,” according to the media. It made a superficial sense and few people objected, unless they were liberals getting their brains bashed in, or classical conservatives who believed in sound money and balanced budgets.

It wasn’t, however, accurate. Most of Wallace’s Democrats were true believers in the New Deal and the idea that government should help “the little man.” By which, of course, they meant the little White man, ’cause they hated them Nigras, sho’nuf.

The terminology of racism was a worrisome issue to the media in those days, especially the three television networks and the two newspaper wire services. As journalists they were always concerned about “balanced” coverage and telling “both sides of the story”; that’s their job. But another consideration overrode that, namely money. Southern TV stations would threaten to cancel their network contracts if the Evening News gave too much “sympathy” to Dr. King, the bus boycotters, the Freedom Riders, the sit-inners, the school desegregators and voter registrars. Southern newspaper editors and publishers weren’t just members of AP, they were owners – and they often let ’em have it if White Southerners weren’t represented to their liking.

United Press International, AP’s major competitor, was owned by E.W. Scripps Newspapers; AP has always been a membership co-op. (I used to own an AP member newspaper.) Southern newpspaper editors and publishers were on a first-name basis with AP officials and the term “racist” was as unprintable as a goddamn motherfucker.

Commerce has always affected the content of reporting. An editor’s job isn’t just to make sure the facts are right, but to water down anything that might piss someone off; their favorite euphemism is “inflammatory.” That’s how a New Deal politician like Wallace became “conservative.”

The same thing happens today with anti-Gay, anti-abortion, anti-female bigots; they’re “social conservatives.” Or anti-social if you ask me.

We saw this first-hand during the 1992 Republican National Convention, when failed presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, now a commentator on MSNBC, said in his prime-time speech,

“Friends, this election is about more than who gets what. It is about who we are. It is about what we believe and what we stand for as Americans. There is a religious war going on in this country. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as the Cold War itself. For this war is for the soul of America.”

I stared in shock at my TV screen when Buchanan spoke these words. A religious war?

A few minutes later I stared in shock again, as all four network anchors edited “religious war” to “cultural war.” They simply erased what the man said and used his more acceptable term from the next sentence. And they never used “religious war” again.

It’s worth asking why not. They had every right to quote him; he said it on national TV at the nominating convention of a sitting President.

Reporters have become so averse to inflammatory rhetoric that no matter what you say, they’ll dumb it down for you. They make you swallow an acceptability pill – so they can keep selling ads.

This year Rick Santorum says that same-sex marriage will be the downfall of America. (Gee whiz, we’re powerful.) He’s plenty wild-eyed, but there are worse extremists out there. Bigots and their cousins the “tea partiers” have convinced the entire Republican party that civilization depends on heterosexual superiority.

The media call them “social conservatives.” But I don’t; I call them bigots.

They really hate it when we call them that. It’s a good reason to keep doing it.

After all, we’re not trying to kill them; I don’t know a single LGBT person who wants to harm a hair on a heterosexual’s head. What we want is (get ready for it now) equality.

It’s not the media’s job to do our advocacy for us; but neither is it their job to soft-pedal the claims, tactics and crimes of our opponents – which the media invariably do. Why? They’re scared of losing money pissing people off.

They’re more interested in the money than the truth.

In MLK’s day they rationalized this by claiming that they put racists on the air and “gave them enough rope so they could hang themselves.” (An extremely unfortunate phrase, given that it was Black people who swung from trees, not Whites.) They almost never gave an interview to Dr. King himself; there was always some Georgia cracker next to him, lying through his teeth. Why did they give their airwaves and their print to liars?

The same reason they do it today; for money.

But there does come a time when the truth is the truth, there aren’t two sides to every story, and it’s just plain insulting that LGBT leaders can never appear on TV without some jughead bigot piping up next to them. Don’t ask Elie Weisel to debate an anti-Semite about whether the Holocaust happened, it’s an objective fact. He was there at Auschwitz, second row of bunks, second from the left.

Someday, with less suffering I hope, we’ll get to the same level of respect. But it won’t be the result of corporate journalists telling the truth about us; they don’t and won’t until they’re forced to. They’d rather keep their euphemisms alive by interviewing social conservatives bigots.++

Lester Maddox autographs an axe handle in 1964, like those he used to keep Black people out of his restaurant despite a Federal court order. Georgians elected him governor two years later. (Bettmann/Corbis)