June 17, 2024

charlatans to cable charlatans

Today’s Events in Historical Perspective
America’s Longest-Running Column Founded 1932
From radio charlatans to cable charlatans
By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift
          WASHINGTON — By the 1930s the relatively recent invention of the radio had become ubiquitous, and as so often has occurred both good and evil made use of the new technology. In this regard, radio was the Internet and cable of the 1930s. And as with those modern means of mass communication, radio attracted its share of charlatans.
          In Germany, Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels discovered the power of radio to mesmerize his listeners with Hitler’s Nazi bigotry, lies, and disinformation, turning a nation and its allies into zealots who thought they could subjugate the world.
          One of those allies was Father Charles Coughlin, an anti-Semitic Catholic priest who took his lead from Goebbels to spew hate speech and support fascists Adolf Hitler and Italy’s Benito Mussolini from his radio station near Detroit. Millions of people tuned in as he weaponized the First Amendment. He was giving aid and comfort to future enemies, and that is not a crime. He was inciting large swaths of the American public with bigotry, and that is not a crime. He was unpatriotic, but not unconstitutional.
          Only the onset of World War II and America’s eventual involvement finally brought his broadcasts to an end, both through pressure from the U.S. government and the Catholic Church, because, by then, he was aiding and abetting the enemy.
          Today, in America, bigotry, lies, and disinformation are once again at the forefront of mass communication, fueled by charlatans in the mode of Father Coughlin and primarily communicated through cable channels and the Internet. And as in the 1930s, millions of listeners are tuning in and being manipulated. As then, the perpetrators are weaponizing the First Amendment, even causing increasing numbers of those listeners to go so far as to advocate civil war.
          This vitriol is quite simply being perpetrated for money and bringing the nation to a dangerous place.
          But the antidote cannot be the undermining of the First Amendment. True, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.'s opinion that “falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic” is illegal. This has been used as a basis to prosecute speech without violating the First Amendment, but the standard of proof is high, such as aiding the enemy in time of war.
          However, this criterion comes late. It does not apply to the runup to war as Father Coughlin well knew.
          Silencing speech cannot be arbitrary, which means in the absence of a cataclysm such as war it cannot be squelched by government. However, through the Federal Communications Commission, government can regulate the use of public air waves and presumably use of public lands and facilities. In this capacity, one method is to force communication companies to provide equal time to dissenting opinions. This has not been applied to cable and the Internet, and there would be considerable pushback if it is attempted.
          Another route is through the courts. This would require standing by people or entities to sue for damages. Here is where it gets murky. If a charlatan convinces people to refuse vaccinations for a disease and people die, damage has occurred. If a charlatan falsely claims a government or government official has not counted all ballots in an election, damage has occurred. If victims of these assaults filed civil suits against these con artists for the harm inflicted upon them from their blatant lies, things would change. Leading the way, Dominion Voting Systems has sued Fox News, Newsmax, OAN, and Patrick Byrne of Overstock for $1.6 billion each over their false election fraud claims.
          In the end, our litigious society may be the antidote to the Coughlins of our day.
          Douglas Cohn’s latest books are The President’s First Year: The Only School for Presidents Is the Presidency and World War 4: Nine Scenarios (endorsed by seven flag officers).
          Twitter:  @douglas_cohn
          © 2021 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.
          Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

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