John Birch Society Blues

Yesterday’s passing of Otis Chandler has prompted dozens of articles lauding the pivotal role he played in the history of journalism as well as the evolution of Los Angeles. But some of his adversaries are starting to emerge, hoping the attention on Chandler’s career will help them settle old scores.

First up: The ultra-right-wing, conspiracy-minded John Birch Society. Thanks to Google News, which put this story near the top of its Otis Chandler news links, we get to read their reaction. On The New American, Birch Society President John F. McManus has this to say:

Death notices about the passing of Otis Chandler, the Publisher of the Los Angeles Times from 1960 until 1980, mentioned his decision to have the newspaper devote several feature articles to the infant John Birch Society in 1961. JBS Founder Robert Welch remarked at the time that those articles, while not complimentary, were evidence of “honest reporting.”

The attention given to the Society by the Times had been prompted by widespread awareness that many of Southern California’s leading citizens, including several members of Mr. Chandler’s immediate family, had become members. But, after the series about the Society appeared, Mr. Chandler took it upon himself to place his own critical and condemnatory editorial on the paper’s front page. Strangely, its condemnations pointed to positions and policies never voiced by the organization and, in fact, were positions that the Society had vigorously opposed.

Previously known for its strong conservative and anti-communist stance, the newspaper under Chandler’s leadership veered sharply leftward, a stance it has never wavered from over the past 45 years. In 1973, Robert Welch included the name of Otis Chandler among several leftwing luminaries he accused of “working, throughout their whole careers, to bring about a one-world government.” It is, perhaps, because of The John Birch Society and despite the efforts of men such as Otis Chandler that the American Republic continues to enjoy independence.

McManus wants it to sound like a David vs. Goliath story, but by 1961, the Birch Society was no “infant.” It had 60,000 to 100,000 members, dozens of paid staff, hundreds of active volunteers, and was using state-of-the-art grassroots organizing techniques, many of which were later adopted by the two major political parties. It had a strong presence in Southern California especially, so the Times was taking something of a risk in picking a fight with the Birchers — especially since the Times itself was still loyally read by conservative Angelenos.

Chandler’s Times could hardly ignore a group of that size whose founder claimed that President Eisenhower was a “conscious, dedicated agent of the Communist Conspiracy,” who took orders from his high-level Communist brother Milton. Despite the madness of such statements, the Birch Society continued to be power-brokers in the Republican party at least through the mid-60s, despite being denounced by William F. Buckley and other hygiene-minded conservatives. Buckley’s name is still a dirty word among Birchers along with Chandler’s.

(The Times‘ more mainstream conservative critics have been gracious or, so far, silent.)

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