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Huey P. Long vs. the media

Huey P. Long vs. the media

(From previous issue) Long had the legislature authorize an attention-grabbing investigation designed to critique moral conditions in New Orleans, suggesting that the city was a hotbed of sin and that Walmsley was ignoring and possibly even facilitating the widespread presence of gambling and prostitution. Long then had himself named chief counsel for the hearings. For several days in early September, Long had witnesses-or what the local newspapers, ever suspicious of Long, referred to as "purported witnesses"-called before his committee. Their testimony was broadcast over the local radio station WDSU, but the public and the press were otherwise barred from the hearings. The hearings resulted in no charges against local officials; the whole episode amounted to an attempt to carefully control and deploy media to make a political opponent look bad in the weeks leading up to an election. In Louisiana, antics like this were made possible by the fact that most of the state's voters remained supportive of Long, found him amusing, and, crucially, were won over by the phenomenal leaps forward in the development of state infrastructure and substantive improvements in the public weal. Yet Long's complete disregard for the central tenets of democratic practice now generated headlines and editorial critiques from other locales whose presses and editorial stances he could not control. National reporters and news magazines were not dependent on Long's largesse, and the voices of critique grew sharper in his final year of life. The acclaimed American novelist Sinclair Lewis was so alarmed by what he saw Long doing in Louisiana that he was inspired to pen the novel It Can't Happen Here in the summer of 1934. The dystopian tale has as its protagonist a weak-willed newspaper publisher named Doremus Jessup, facing down an unlikely demagogue named Buzz Windrip. By the time Jessup and the novel's other characters understand the political threat posed by Windrip, events have overtaken them. Democratic institutions exist in name only, and the only press outlets allowed to publish are those that unfailingly flatter Windrip. Now president, Windrip empowers a resentful army of "forgotten men" to engage in shocking acts of violence against anyone who dares to dissent. Lewis' fictional predictions were dire and likely darker than most Americans were willing to accept as being comparable to Long's capacities. Yet, even while Lewis wrote, Long was extra-legally engineering the adoption of Louisiana legislation designed to punish his opponents in the press. This time around, the law levied only a 2% tax on all the proceeds paid to newspapers by their advertisers. The bill passed. Long also saw to the creation of a State Printing Board that determined which newspapers would serve as the state's official journal. This was a lucrative contract, especially for small newspapers that depended on advertising dollars, even if those advertisements were paid for by the state itself. More importantly, this board gave Long the ability to reward or punish press outlets based on their coverage of him. Legislation like this was made possibly because Long continued his extra-legal practice of requesting Gov. Allen call Special Sessions of the legislature for Long to supervise, during which legislators supinely passed dozens of Long's mostly punitive proposals into law. Sen. Long was overseeing just such a session in the Louisiana State Capitol on Sunday, Sept. 8th, 1935, when he was shot on the main floor of the towering capitol building, the construction of which had recently been completed and for which he took credit. Long ran screaming and cursing from the building, proclaiming that he'd been shot. His heavily armed bodyguards pumped more than sixty bullets into the body of Long's alleged assassin, Dr. Carl Austin Weiss. After the Kingfish expired on the morning of Sept. 10th, his body lay in the state in the same building in which he'd been killed. Tens of thousands of mourners streamed past his bier. Yet, even in repose, Long was surrounded by armed guards, who had been instructed to keep the press from photographing the Kingfish in his coffin. The lone reporter who managed to capture a shot of Long lying in state did so at the risk of attack, and, after capturing the image, literally fled the premises. Even in death, trying to provide coverage of the Kingfish could be a dangerous assignment. Long's legacy was a mixed and messy one for the state, and it included the recently passed newspaper legislation that amounted to another attempt by Long to punish his opponents in the press. (Long had described the law in simple terms as "a tax on lying.") A consortium of the state's publishers joined together and pressed a challenge against this law, which they deemed a bald attempt to chip away at First Amendment guarantees, especially because it targeted only newspapers with a circulation of twenty thousand or more. The plaintiffs, who published the state's thirteen largest newspapers, argued that the tax was calculated "to limit the circulation of information to which the public was entitled under" constitutional guarantees. Each of these publishers had been required under the new legislation to "file a sworn statement every three months showing the amount and gross receipts" of their business over that term. Thus the law not only targeted the state's largest newspapers but also, through its enforcement, kept the publishers under close state surveillance, if not supervision. The year following Long's death, the Supreme Court made the final decision in the case. The Court supported a lower court's decision that enforcement of the tax was unconstitutional. The Court noted that the Louisiana law reflected earlier British laws designed to "prevent or abridge the free expression of any opinion which seemed to criticize or exhibit in an unfavorable light, however truly, the agencies and operations of the government." In an indirect acknowledgment of the role Long had played in trying to control or punish his opponents in the press, the opinion also pointed out that "with the single exception of the Louisiana statute…. no state during the one hundred fifty years of our national existence has undertaken to impose a tax like that now in question." The justices further made clear that, in their view, the law not only abridged the freedom of the press but also denied the publishers equal protection under the law. Today, the open hostilities between Sen. Long and Louisiana's newspaper publishers might seem safely historical. Yet Long's attempts to control his own political messaging when existing press outlets failed to bend to his will are actually quite timely. The technologies employed by Long were far simpler than platforms like Twitter, but Long's intent was much the same as President Trump's use of that medium-to circumvent existing news sources and speak directly to the people. No politician need start their own newspaper anymore. They simply need to pick up their phone to transmit messages-true or not-to millions of followers in a matter of seconds. Social media platforms have changed the way most Americans receive news and information. But, as it becomes increasingly difficult to discern truth from fiction and news from information, it may just be that the slower processes of newspaper reporting, fact-checking, and editorial discernment may be more important than ever to keeping our democracy vibrant. One of the maxims employed in the early days of Facebook encouraged engineers to "move quickly and break things." Such admonitions make a certain kind of a sense in our rapidly changing digital environments. But democratic institutions are not well served by this philosophy. Our political institutions have survived for almost two and half centuries, in part because they move slowly in an attempt to keep things together, even when our disagreements push us to the breaking point. The kind of compromise required to keep a democracy functioning is made possible not just by the existence of disparate news sources, but, more importantly, by the dependability of the news they offer.

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