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The Birth of Conservative Media as We Know It

It all started in a small apartment in Washington, D.C.

Flickr/Haverford College

Henry Regnery flipped through his notes a final time as he waited for the rest of the group to arrive. In a few minutes Room 2233 in New York City’s Lincoln Building would be packed with some of the brightest lights of the conservative movement, gathered together at his request. Writers, publishers, and editors made up most of the guest list, including William F. Buckley Jr., the enfant terrible of the right; Frank Hanighen, cofounder of Human Events; Raymond Moley, Newsweek columnist and author of the anti–New Deal book After Seven Years (1939); and John Chamberlain, former editor of the Freeman and an editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal.

When everyone was settled, Regnery explained why he had called the meeting. As 1953 came to a close, he observed the men in Room 2233 were unquestionably on the losing side of politics. And that puzzled him. “The side we represent controls most of the wealth in this country,” he told those gathered. “The ideas and traditions we believe in are those which most Americans instinctively believe in also.” Why then was liberalism ascendant and conservatism relegated to the fringes? Because, Regnery argued, the left controlled institutions: the media, the universities, the foreign policy establishment. Until the right had a “counterintelligence unit” that could fight back, conservatives would remain a group of elites raging against a system that by all rights they should control.

As the meeting in Room 2233 suggests, from the start conservative media activism was a group effort. It emerged as a shared intellectual and political response to the new postwar world. The activists involved forged close (and often contentious) personal and professional relationships. Their ventures, which included Human Events, Regnery Publishing, the Manion Forum, and National Review, among many others, drew from the same pool of supporters and benefactors. The social and institutional networks they created thus set them apart from conservatives involved in media in earlier eras. Only with the creation of this postwar network did the concept of “conservative media” take its modern form.

The springboard for all this activism was the America First Committee, convened more than a decade before the meeting in Room 2233. Though the nonintervention movement collapsed when the nation went to war in 1941, its most conservative set of donors and organizers endured. Even before the war ended, they were looking for ways to push back against the emerging consensus that the twentieth century must be Henry Luce’s “American Century,” with the United States deeply involved in world affairs and international institutions. Concerned that foreign policy was veering off course as the war wound to an end, the men behind America First came together again to support a four-page foreign policy weekly.

And so, in a small apartment in Washington, postwar conservative media got its start.

To hear Felix Morley tell it, Human Events began with an article he wrote in 1942 for the Saturday Evening Post. Titled “For What Are We Fighting?” the provocative piece reflected a skeptical stance toward American involvement in World War II, one rarely seen post–Pearl Harbor. But this was not merely Morley being a contrarian—he wrote from a stance of principled opposition to the war. An experienced journalist and Rhodes scholar, in 1933 Morley became editor of the Washington Post. From his perch at the Post he regularly skewered the Roosevelt administration in sharp-quilled editorials that won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1936.

Not exactly the profile of a political outsider.

Morley’s eventual exile, to the extent that it existed, was self-imposed. In 1940 he resigned from the Post to become president of Haverford College, a Quaker school just outside Philadelphia. Haverford was in his blood: it was where his father taught mathematics, where Morley received his undergraduate degree, and where Morley and his two brothers were born, right on campus. The family’s ties to Haverford were a reflection of how central the Quaker faith was to Morley’s life. The pacifist tradition of the American Friends reinforced his belief before Pearl Harbor that the United States must stay out of the war and his belief after that the postwar world must be arranged to prevent future conflicts.

The Saturday Evening Post article caught the eye of Frank Hanighen, a fellow Haverford graduate with solid nonintervention credentials of his own. In 1934 Hanighen coauthored with H. C. Engelbrecht Merchants of Death. An exposé of the armament industry, Merchants of Death became a best seller and a favorite in antiwar circles. Hanighen, a foreign correspondent for a number of newspapers including the New York Times, had been active in America First before heading to Europe to cover the war for Reader’s Digest. When he came across Morley’s article in 1942, he knew he had found a kindred spirit. While he appreciated Morley’s continued opposition to the war, he was even more impressed with the plan for the postwar world that Morley described in the article. Back in the United States a year later, Hanighen headed to Haverford with a scheme to convince Morley to use his plan for the postwar world as the basis for a new publication.

Morley needed little convincing. His skeptical stance on the war opened him to accusations of isolationism, a damaging epithet in the 1940s. It particularly irked Morley, whose politics hardly fit the isolationist mold. In the late 1920s he had served as director of the Geneva offices of the U.S. League of Nations Association, later writing a favorable study of the League called The Society of Nations (1932). Yet those credentials had not spared him accusations of isolationism. Which is why Hanighen’s proposal intrigued him so: a newsletter focused on the postwar world could illustrate that pacifism was not simply an oppositional philosophy but one that could advance a positive plan for the future.

Inspired, Morley began working his connections with journalists and professors. Among these was William Henry Chamberlin. Chamberlin, also a graduate of Haverford, had marinated in the radicalism of Greenwich Village before alighting to the Soviet Union in 1922 as the foreign correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor. He arrived in Moscow an ardent advocate of communism. But as he observed the subjugation and violence upon which the Soviet government relied, Chamberlin changed. “Enthusiastic hope gave way first to detached disillusionment,” he wrote, “and finally horrified repulsion.” The god that had failed so many others failed Chamberlin as well.

Their engagement in foreign policy debates and their broad experience as journalists made Morley, Hanighen, and Chamberlin ideally suited to launch a publication on world affairs. Their shared anti-interventionist stance and wariness toward communism ensured that publication would have a strong point of view. That point of view would not yet be called “conservatism”—“Americanism” was a more common term, a holdover from the days of nonintervention; “conservatism” would become more common in the mid-1950s—but in time Human Events would emerge as one of the leading sites of conservative media activism.

Human Events did not look like much when it launched in February 1944. A four-page essay by Chamberlin comprised the entire first issue, sent to 127 subscribers from the newsletter’s headquarters (a.k.a. Frank Hanighen’s D.C. apartment). The funds and subscriptions had been wrung from a handful of donors, most of whom had gathered in Chicago in early 1944 at Hanighen’s invitation. Hosted by former AFC president Robert E. Wood, the meeting was a veritable reunion of America Firsters: Charles Lindbergh, Colonel McCormick, Sterling Morton, William H. Regnery. Their network, disbanded by the war, re-formed around Human Events.

Though Hanighen and Morley were considered the founders of Human Events, Chamberlin joined them in signing a “Statement of Policy” a month after the publication of the first issue. The statement, largely written by Morley, laid out the purpose of Human Events. The philosophy he outlined was one of libertarian Americanism, rooted, as the newsweekly’s name suggested, in the principles of the Declaration of Independence. The statement promised analysis “undertaken primarily from the viewpoint of the essential American tradition” and in defense of the “development of Man as an individual.” In the field of international affairs, this meant a wholesale opposition to both communism and imperialism.

While dedicated to foreign policy, Human Events founders did not overlook the domestic scene. Indeed, their statement of policy warned that the postwar threat to American ideals was “more insidious because it comes to a large extent from within.” Morley, who had once called promoters of a postwar alliance with Britain “Anglo-American Nazis,” now pointed to “a domestic counterpart of National Socialism” that was “already affecting the freedom of the individual and the vitality of local self-government.” Provocative language for a publication that also promised it would “never be classifiable as vindictive, misleading or deliberately propagandistic.”

In addition to expressing a philosophy of politics, the statement of policy also contained a critique of American journalism. In the 1940s, the founders of Human Events were less concerned with the liberalism of the media than with the blackout of their nonconformist ideas. They believed mainstream American journalists were shutting out alternative points of view, that they were “coloring, slanting, selecting and editing the news” in order to tamp down any criticisms of the war. Morley argued that in trumpeting the official line doled out by government agencies, journalists had played a role in the “subtle regimentation of public opinion.” Never one to shy away from a Nazi comparison, he added, “While we have not yet carried these practices as far as did the unlamented Dr. Goebbels, the general direction of governmental propaganda has paid that Nazi leader the sincerest form of flattery.”

Dedication to “the reporting of facts that other newspapers overlook” thus inspired the founders of Human Events. But while touting this fact-based approach, they also promoted a distinct point of view. By the early 1960s, Human Events arrived at this articulation of its mission: “In reporting the news, Human Events is objective; it aims for accurate representation of the facts. But it is not impartial. It looks at events through the eyes that are biased in favor of limited constitutional government, local self-government, private enterprise, and individual freedom.” Distinguishing between objectivity and impartiality, the editors of Human Events created a space where “bias” was an appropriate journalistic value.

The tension between those two ideas—between objectivity and ideology—would become a defining feature of conservative media, one evident fifty years later in Fox News’s slogan “Fair and Balanced.” On the one hand, the editors of Human Events insisted their work was objective. They understood the cultural and political power of objectivity and were unwilling to relinquish all claims to it. Yet theirs was also an ideological publication, dedicated to the propagation of conservative ideas. That contradiction was resolved—to the extent it was resolved—in two ways. Human Events pledged to report, in a factual way, the stories and angles other media missed because of their liberal biases. In such news stories selection, not content, would be biased. (Human Events also ran conservative columnists, opinion pieces, and analyses that made no pretense at content neutrality.) The editors also believed their ideological worldview was correct, and so believed they did not need to sacrifice accuracy in order to be ideologically consistent. In other words, there was no contradiction to resolve.

That logic would be worked out over the course of the 1950s, as other conservative media outlets joined Human Events. So many, in fact, that by the mid-1950s, an informal network of conservative media had emerged, bound by a shared belief in media bias and a shared sense of exclusion. Whatever their disagreements—and there were many, both of substance and personality—right-wing media activists agreed that established media were under the control of liberals. For each of these media figures, this state of affairs required more than just the exposure of liberal bias. They felt called to fight back with their own institutions, creating small, interlocking fields: conservative book publishing, conservative magazines and journals, and conservative broadcasting. They might not always have appreciated being lumped together—“I do get very tired of constantly being bracketed with [the libertarian] Caxton printers and Devin-Adair,” Regnery grumbled to a friend—but they saw the necessity of working together to pool resources, promote crusades, and assail established media. As such, in the mid-1950s, it began to be possible for the first time to speak about conservative media in a meaningful way.

This article was adapted from Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics and excerpted with permission of the University of Pennsylvania Press.