- Firing Line and the Black Revolution
Media historians are slowly beginning to fill in the blanks regarding a variety of educational “orphaned” media, but clearly much research remains to be done in this area, and the work is particularly challenging in light of the fact that so many educational media artifacts have been deliberately discarded, spottily archived, or simply lost forever. Media designed for utilitarian reasons are often consigned to the dumpster once their value is perceived as “used up,” and educational current events media would seem particularly destined for a short shelf life. Yet William F. Buckley’s TV program Firing Line is one example of “educational media” that has escaped the ashbin of history. Buckley designed the program to convert viewers to the conservative cause and implicitly to promote his magazine the National Review, and he made sure that each episode was preserved, initially at his alma mater, Yale University, and later at the Hoover Institution at Stanford. When he donated the materials to Yale, he wrote off their value on his tax return and was subject to investigation, because the Internal Revenue Service refused to believe that old public affairs TV shows had any value whatsoever. Buckley contacted confirmed liberal Fred Friendly to testify on his behalf.1 Friendly’s credentials were impeccable: he had long worked for CBS News and had been the producer of Edward R. Murrow, one of the most respected newsmen in America. Friendly confirmed that Firing Line was valuable, though, technically, the value was more historical than financial, until the programs began to be available for sale on DVD many years later. Firing Line certainly never turned any kind of profit in its initial incarnation, though a fascinating (and failed) attempt was made to generate income from a spin-off, four-part filmstrip series William Buckley’s Firing Line: The Black Revolution.2 But the show was “valuable” on many levels beyond the financial.
This essay focuses in particular on the show’s contribution to and discussion of the Black Power movement. My approach is twofold. First, I examine Firing Line’s early history and its primary objective—to convert viewers to a conservative viewpoint, often via discussion of racial issues. I also briefly examine the program’s precarious position vis-à-vis the Nixon administration, which was none too pleased by any TV program covering the “race problem.” Next, I examine how Black Power was represented in the two very different venues of the TV show and the filmstrip—the former designed for an adult audience of PBS viewers, the latter based on Buckley’s TV show and targeting adolescent students—and how the filmstrip’s producers retooled Firing Line’s presentation of Black Power to support liberal (and arguably radical) educational goals.3
The post-Sputnik years witnessed a surge in educational media production, and, in the late 1960s, a number of 16mm films addressing concerns about black urban youth emerged. Such films, as Marsha Orgeron has noted, were “primarily about black [End Page 2] youths’ reactions to discriminatory or underprivileged environments” and reflected “widespread anxieties about the kind of explosive behavior associated with black urban areas in this ‘riot era.’”4 The Firing Line TV program was certainly responsive to (and expressive of) exactly these anxieties. The filmstrips were also created, in part, in response to such anxieties; they offer a bleak picture of a failed civil rights movement, and, though certainly not advocating rioting, they provide ample evidence for why many would see such rebellion as fully justified by American social and economic conditions. As Nat Hentoff states, visiting as Buckley’s guest on the “Black Power” episode, by the late 1960s, there was a widespread feeling among blacks that the ending of “We Shall Overcome” would be endlessly deferred. The legislation King had advocated had been enacted, but it simply was not being enforced.
The national evening news had amply covered civil rights, and the network newsmen of that era saw such coverage as creating a kind of golden age for TV news, advancing the profession from merely reporting facts to investigating and shaping news.5 But Black Power aggressively signaled the inadequacy of the...