How Jesse Helms Pioneered the Rise of Right-Wing Media and Realigned the Republican Party
Publication Year: 2014
Before Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck, there was Jesse Helms. From in front of a camera at WRAL-TV, Helms forged a new brand of southern conservatism long before he was a senator from North Carolina. As executive vice president of the station, Helms delivered commentaries on the evening news and directed the news and entertainment programming. He pioneered the attack on the liberal media, and his editorials were some of the first shots fired in the culture wars, criticizing the influence of "immoral entertainment." Through the emerging power of the household television Helms established a blueprint and laid the foundation for the modern conservative movement.
Bryan Thrift mines over 2,700 WRAL-TV "Viewpoint" editorials broadcast between 1960 and 1972 to offer not only a portrait of a skilled rhetorician and wordsmith but also a lens on the way the various, and at times competing, elements of modern American conservatism cohered into an ideology couched in the language of anti-elitism and "traditional values." Decades prior to the invention of the blog, Helms corresponded with his viewers to select, refine, and sharpen his political message until he had reworked southern traditionalism into a national conservative movement. The realignment of southern Democrats into the Republican Party was not easy or inevitable, and by examining Helms's oft-forgotten journalism career, Thrift shows how delicately and deliberately this transition had to be cultivated.
Published by: University Press of Florida
Series: Sunbelt Studies
Title Page, Copyright Page
List of Figures
Many people helped to make this book possible. Nina Silber, Diana Wylie, Sarah Phillips, and Robert Dallek read early drafts. Ella Howard also offered me valuable assistance. Not only did the project begin in a Bruce Schulman seminar, but his advice and gentle criticism guided it through...
Introduction: Jesse Helms’s Politics of Pious Incitement
In the American South, a region where cultural conservatism and segregation coexisted with loyalty to the Democratic Party and wide support for liberal economic policies, Jesse Helms became a pivotal figure in advancing the conservative movement of the 1950s and 1960s. From the...
1. “There Is Another Way”: Free Enterprise, the Mainstream Media, and Southern Realignment in the 1950s
Helms was born in 1921 and grew up going to a Baptist church in Monroe, North Carolina. Monroe was a southern piedmont town of three thousand where segregation and cultural conservatism were taken for granted. Helms’s father served as police chief.1 Given this background,...
2. “The Voice of Free Enterprise”: A Conservative Commentator and News Director
Aired twice a day five days a week on WRAL-TV, Jesse Helms’s commentaries were rebroadcast on radio and appeared in a number of small-town newspapers. Helms claimed that WRAL was nonpartisan, but this was true only in the sense that the station supported conservatives from both...
3. “An Uncommon Number of Moral Degenerates”: The Conservative Alternative and the Fairness Doctrine
The Federal Communication Commission required broadcast stations, radio and TV, to renew their licenses every three years. Renewals were routine before Helms arrived at WRAL, but his editorials and changes at the FCC meant scrutiny of the station’s political activity. Eisenhower’s...
4. Backlash: The Great Society, Vietnam, and Conservative Solutions
Before the 1964 election, President Johnson began using the term “Great Society” to sum up his domestic agenda, including the war on poverty, Medicare, Medicaid, civil rights, education, and the environment. Johnson’s Great Society committed the federal government to advancing social...
5. Turning Off Turn-On: Helms as a TV Executive in the 1960s
In May 1961, the new FCC chairman, Newton Minow, spoke at the National Association of Broadcasters annual meeting. Television, he warned, had become “a vast wasteland.” It was “a procession of game shows, violence, audience participation shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder...
6. The Dawn of a Conservative Era: Gaining Power, 1968 to 1972
Since the 1950s, Helms had alternated between premonitions of an America doomed by an immense conspiracy and a nation saved by conservatism’s ascent. At the end of the decade he labeled the “sick Sixties,” Helms concluded that America would either choose conservatism or succumb...
Epilogue: Mainstreaming the Fringe
After his victory in the Senate race, Helms wrote to William Loeb of the Manchester Union-Leader that voters would be “more conservative . . . if there were some concerted effort to harness their interests.” Many conservatives had failed to grasp this, let alone understand how to do it. Helms’s...