Texas Media Lent Credence to Anti-Socialist Hysteria In the ’60s—Has Anything Changed?


A version of this story ran in the January 2013 issue.

As the New Year uncorks this month, let’s imagine that you are just emerging from a very long self-imposed exile.

It began 50 years ago, after President Kennedy was killed in Dallas. The awful news drove you into hiding, and you vowed not to come out until half a century later.

Maybe you felt that an unquestioning and unblinking media had allowed a reactionary toxicity to wash over Texas.

Sure as hell the media will be different in 50 years, you thought, and hopefully more skeptical.

Now here it is, 2013, and you’re stepping back into the light to read today’s reporting—seemingly endless news space devoted to men complaining about a “socialist” administration and a union-loving president.

Texas should secede.

Liberal judges are rewriting the Constitution.

The president is a megalomaniac, a liar, a weak-willed rube . . . a limousine liberal morphing into a damned socialist. He is consolidating power in the White House.

What else?

Federal appointments are going to people who are only picked because they are “diversity candidates.”

The government is giving away free money to people who don’t need it, or deserve it.

The country is threatened by people who are not praying enough in schools, and who are not monitoring the dangerous books being read in public schools.

There is an invasion coming from Mexico that threatens our way of life, our jobs and our families.

A thought wells up: I read the same exact headlines 50 years ago.


I’ve been lucky to work recently with the brilliant Texas journalist/historian/writer Steve Davis (he did Texas Literary Outlaws, a wise look at some of the great Texas reporters) on a long investigation into media and right-wing hysteria in Texas from 1960 to 1963.

The project involves an acute examination of the way the state’s journalists covered events back then, and the ways in which they gave unquestioning credence to the anti-liberal, anti-socialist hysteria propelled by a small handful of people and organizations, basically enabling those voices to hijack the national dialogue.

Bellowing social conservatives and anti-Kennedy zealots in Texas—Gen. Edwin Walker, Rev. W.A. Criswell of Dallas’ First Baptist Church, and University of Dallas President Robert Morris (arguably even more fervid in his communist witch-hunting than Sen. Joseph McCarthy)—had their vitriol validated by constant, non-skeptical media coverage.

And as the media gave such extremism credulous coverage, it also gave it political oxygen.

Exhuming the old stories, Davis and I discovered time and time again that if you pull John F. Kennedy’s name out of the vilifying items that appeared in countless news outlets—excepting The Texas Observer and certain courageous newspapers serving black Texans, such as The Dallas Express—you can substitute the name Barack Obama and instantly update the dateline to now.

In the stories suggesting that Texas and the nation were under threat from socialists, simply plug in “the Tea Party” for “the John Birch Society.”

What you see, then and now, is an unquestioning media and a paucity of journalistic investigation into who is bankrolling the anti-White House and pro-deregulation movements, and what their real (profit-driven) agendas are.

Fifty years after Kennedy was killed, has anything changed?

There were countless stories in 1963 featuring aggrieved Dallas energy titans complaining about over-regulation, and claiming that Washington socialists were tax-happy martinets out to squelch the state’s entrepreneurial soul.

There were even dirt-digging stories slamming the president for “hiding” his personal history from voters.

Molly Ivins would have responded on point: Why offer the lying zealots so much acquiescent ink? Why not, instead, investigate the holy hell out of them?

University of Texas at Austin professor Don Carleton wrote a great book called Red Scare! that looks at how, just a few decades ago, a small group of Texas pre-tea partyers basically commandeered the state’s airwaves, front pages, city councils and school boards, and were allowed by a willing media to hyperventilate about creeping liberal conspiracies.

Fifty years later, as Yogi Berra said, it’s déjà vu all over again.