• Written by William (Bill) Kovarik, Professor of Communication, Radford University

In speeches filled with hatred and falsehoods, a public figure attacks his enemies and calls for marches on Washington. Then, after one particularly virulent address, private media companies close down his channels of communication, prompting consternation from his supporters and calls for a code of conduct to filter out violent rhetoric.

Sound familiar? Well, this was 1938, and the individual in question was Father Charles E. Coughlin[1], a Nazi-sympathizing Catholic priest with unfettered access to America’s vast radio audiences. The firms silencing him were the broadcasters of the day.

As a media historian[2], I find more than a little similarity between the stand those stations took back then and the way Twitter, YouTube and Facebook have silenced false claims[3] of election fraud and incitements to violence in the aftermath of the siege on the U.S. Capitol – noticeably by silencing the claims of Donald Trump[4] and his supporters.

A radio ministry

Coughlin’s Detroit ministry had grown up with radio, and, as his sermons grew more political, he began calling President Franklin D. Roosevelt a liar, a betrayer and a double-crosser. His fierce rhetoric fueled rallies and letter-writing campaigns for a dozen right-wing causes, from banking policy to opposing Russian communism. At the height of his popularity, an estimated 30 million Americans[5] listened to his Sunday sermons.

Then, in 1938, one Sunday sermon crossed the line. On Nov. 20, he spoke to listeners on the subject of the recent anti-Semitic Nazi rampage in Germany known as Kristallnacht[6] – during which mobs of Nazis burned down 267 synagogues, destroyed 7,000 Jewish-owned businesses and arrested 30,000 Jews. Worldwide condemnation quickly followed[7]. An editorial in the St. Louis Globe, for example, stated: “We stand in horror at this outbreak of savagery.”

Coughlin saw things differently. He blamed Jews for their own persecution and claimed in the sermon[8] that the Nazis had actually been lenient. Only a few synagogues were burned, he lied, adding: “German citizen Jews were not molested officially in the conduct of their business.” And communists, not Jews, were the real targets of the Nazi mobs, according to Coughlin.

In the wake of these obvious lies, a New York radio station decided to break with Coughlin. “Your broadcast last Sunday was calculated to incite religious and racial strife in America,” said a letter from WMCA radio[9]. “When this was called to your attention in advance of your broadcast, you agreed to delete those misrepresentations which undeniably had this effect. You did not do so.”

Other radio stations in major cities like Chicago and Philadelphia also canceled Coughlin’s broadcasts. Neville Miller, the president of the National Association of Broadcasters[10] backed them up, saying that radio could not tolerate the abuse of freedom of speech.

That time private US media companies stepped in to silence the falsehoods and incitements of a major public figure ... in 1938 New Yorkers take to the streets after Kristallnacht. FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images[11]

Coughlin claimed that he’d been misrepresented[12], and that his intention had only been to stir sympathy for Christians persecuted by Communists. The Nazi press crowed at what they saw as American hypocrisy, saying Americans were “not allowed to hear the truth.” Meanwhile, Coughlin’s followers began showing up and protesting at radio stations[13] where his broadcasts had been cut off.

FDR anticipated the controversy[14]. “To permit radio to become a medium for selfish propaganda of any character would be shamefully and wrongfully to abuse a great agent of public service,” he said the day before the Kristallnacht sermon. “Radio broadcasting should be maintained on an equality of freedom which has been, and is, the keynote of the American press.” But Roosevelt did not want to take action.

Dorothy Thompson[15], a newspaper columnist who had been expelled from Germany by the Nazis a few years before, asked her readers: “Have you been listening to the broadcasts of Father Coughlin?” He was clearly a threat to democracy, she said, and the FCC itself should take him off the air.

Sidelining Coughlin

Coughlin’s radio empire continued eroding that winter and into the spring. With his pickets still protesting at radio stations, the National Association of Broadcasters changed its code[16] to promote “fair and impartial presentation of both sides of controversial issues.” The code was originally established in 1929 to address issues like fair advertising practices. The revisions in 1939 prevented radio stations from selling air time for presentations from single speakers likeCoughlin. Naturally, Coughlin claimed that his rights were being violated, even though he tried to justify his own violation of other people’s rights.

By the middle of the 20th century, this would become known as the paradox of tolerance[17]. Philosophers like Karl Popper[18] and John Rawls[19] would insist that, at some point, a society’s tolerance should not be allowed to threaten its own survival.

For Americans who were unsure of how to deal with Coughlin, the paradox was solved by the advent of World War II. In January of 1940, the FBI caught 17 of his followers[20] in a Nazi spy ring, and soon after, calls for more understanding of Nazis were flatly treasonous.

After the war, the idea that radio listeners should hear two sides of every controversy evolved from self-regulation by the broadcasting industry into the government’s “Fairness Doctrine” of 1949[21], which required broadcasters to allow responses to personal attacks and controversial opinions. It was enforced by the Federal Communications Commission and upheld in Red Lion Broadcasting v. FCC in 1969.

Then, with the deregulatory era of the 1980s, the Fairness Doctrine was abolished as the abundance of cable TV and radio was said to have “eroded” the rationale[22] for regulation. And yet, as it turned out, the expected abundance morphed into one-sided talk radio and social media echo chambers. These worked, as did Father Coughlin, to undermine tolerance and democracy.

Stepping in

There’s not much that separates, on the one hand, the mad fanaticism that held Jews supposedly responsible for their own persecution in 1938 and, on the other, the fevered delusion of 2020: that Donald Trump’s victory was stolen[23] or that the president is on a mission to expose a satanic pedophile ring consisting of liberal politicians and media elites[24].

In both cases, a relatively new medium was harnessed to inject hateful ideas into American society for political gain. And in both cases, private business had to step in when the consequences became evident.


  1. ^ Father Charles E. Coughlin (
  2. ^ a media historian (
  3. ^ have silenced false claims (
  4. ^ silencing the claims of Donald Trump (
  5. ^ 30 million Americans (
  6. ^ known as Kristallnacht (
  7. ^ Worldwide condemnation quickly followed (
  8. ^ claimed in the sermon (
  9. ^ a letter from WMCA radio (
  10. ^ National Association of Broadcasters (
  11. ^ FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images (
  12. ^ he’d been misrepresented (
  13. ^ showing up and protesting at radio stations (
  14. ^ anticipated the controversy (
  15. ^ Dorothy Thompson (
  16. ^ changed its code (
  17. ^ paradox of tolerance (
  18. ^ Karl Popper (
  19. ^ John Rawls (
  20. ^ FBI caught 17 of his followers (
  21. ^ Fairness Doctrine” of 1949 (
  22. ^ “eroded” the rationale (
  23. ^ victory was stolen (
  24. ^ satanic pedophile ring consisting of liberal politicians and media elites (

Authors: William (Bill) Kovarik, Professor of Communication, Radford University

Read more

Metropolitan republishes selected articles from The Conversation USA with permission

Visit The Conversation to see more

Entertainment News

Danny Winn-An Acting Master Class A-Z, Hollywood Hysteria !

Ah Hollywood, the land of the hopes and dreams for many an entertainer. As so many entertain the idea of relocating their life to the land of milk and honey, we must ask ourselves, is this the right career move or not? This is a question of so ma...

Danny Winn - avatar Danny Winn

ACTING 101 - Getting Noticed

We have all our tools ready to go:  resume, headshots, skills and training, typecasting, and branding.  Now we are ready to look for auditions.  Well sort of.  When we first start out, the pickens are very slim so you take what you can.  That inclu...

Paris Hepburn - avatar Paris Hepburn


SANDRA BOOKER "Until We Meet Again" RELEASES WORLDWIDE MARCH 30TH There is something beautiful about artists whose insight into the human condition allows them to create works that meet our collective moment at a time we most need their...

News Co Media - avatar News Co Media

How Can Music Itself Survive Without Rock n Roll?

Just because you don’t hear much straightforward rock and roll on the Top 40 charts these days doesn’t mean it’s going anywhere. Its time in the mainstream limelight may not be as popular as it was when I was growing up in the 70s and what we now...

Michael Mesey, American Greed - avatar Michael Mesey, American Greed

Danny Winn-An Acting Master Class A-Z, G is for Guild

While I pondered ever so deeply to what the subject matter of G would be this week, a reader of the column came up with an important topic. To the credit of veteran stage and screen actor Rusty Meyers, we will probe into the subject of Guilds als...

Danny Winn - avatar Danny Winn

Is Rock Music a Dying Breed?

“Rock ‘n’ Roll [is here to stay, it...] can […will] never die” – David Ernest White, Neil Percival Young, etc. “Rock ‘n’ Roll is dead” – Leonard Albert Kravitz, Barrington DeVaughn Hendricks, etc. “And so on and so on and scooby dooby dooby…” – S...

Eli Soiefer/Emodulari - avatar Eli Soiefer/Emodulari

Metropolitan Business News

Perfecting Web Design For A Health-Based Website

These days, when it comes to understanding what we put into our bodies, we are more focused than ever. It seems that everywhere we look, there is another health benefit, product, or trend on the...

News Co Media - avatar News Co Media

3 Realistic Reasons Why Physical Offices Are (Almost) Dead

Nowadays, more and more businesses are trying to find alternatives to traditional offices. For many years, brick and mortar offices have been at the heart of a company’s life. But work environme...

News Co Media - avatar News Co Media

Advantages of no-code app development for businesses

A marketer may or may not have knowledge about coding. But even if you don't’ have knowledge in coding, it is easy to build an automation sequence between two apps by making use of a no code app bui...

News Co - avatar News Co

Do Directories Still Help SEO?

Directories were once one of the main staples of SEO and they were definitely in existence before search engines took over. Directories were once the main way that people navigated the world wide we...

News Co - avatar News Co

Shipping Container FAQs

If you are looking to rent or purchase a shipping container, you probably have a few questions. We have selected some of the most common questions and answered them here. We hope that you find this ...

News Co - avatar News Co

Is Duplicate Content an SEO Myth?

Any marketer you speak to about duplicate content is concerned about a “duplicate content penalty” but they are probably not very experienced with SEO. Google has specific guidelines on duplicate co...

News Co - avatar News Co

Writers Wanted

News Co Media

Content & Technology Connecting Global Audiences

More Information - Less Opinion