FIRST LINE OF CHORUS: That's why I'm a Klansman and wear a Klansman's mask.
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DR. FELIX HARCOURT: What’s normally referred to as the second Klan gets refounded in 1915.
LOIS BECKETT: Dr. Felix Harcourt is a professor of history at Austin College and the author of Ku Klux Kulture, a historical study of the rise in the 1920s of what’s called the second Klan, which exploded nationwide, thanks, in part, to the media.
DR. FELIX HARCOURT: The New York World ran a three-week front- page exposé of the Klan in 1921, daily denunciations of its ideology, of its hooded secrecy and its propensity to violence. They ultimately spark a congressional hearing into the Klan’s growing power. By some estimates, it boosts the World’s circulation by over 100,000 readers but the Klan’s gain is in the hundreds of thousands of new members, reportedly cutting out membership applications from the New York World stories to join this organization that they were just now hearing about.
LOIS BECKETT: Wait, so they’re saying, here is the Klan’s secret membership application form. Isn’t it terrible that this is what hate looks like, and people cut that out of their newspapers and say, I’m going to join.
DR. FELIX HARCOURT: Indeed, yes.
LOIS BECKETT: How aware was the Klan of the media context it was operating in?
DR. FELIX HARCOURT: Very aware. They know that certain kinds of events are going to draw more press attention, which is why you see events with the largest fiery cross in the United States or the fleet of aeroplanes with electric crosses hanging from underneath, and there really is this emphasis on showmanship.
LOIS BECKETT: How did the debates over the media coverage play out initially and then change?
DR. FELIX HARCOURT: Early on, the tendency is to follow the New York World model of hyperbolic denunciation. Increasingly though, the Klan wields very effective methods of regulating the kinds of coverage it receives. Sometimes they would use physical threats. The editors of the Messenger received a severed hand in the mail. But more often, as they grew in power and influence, they were able to wield the boycott as a very, very effective tool, and advertising.
LOIS BECKETT: And did that focus on advertising dollars pay off?
DR. FELIX HARCOURT: Oh, most certainly. You see very widely circulated advertisements claiming, this is the truth about the Klan, don’t listen to what the press is saying. And a lot of particularly white mainstream dailies are increasingly aware that the way to benefit is to cover the Klan in a fairly neutral light, presenting the Klan normalized and sanitized, as controversial, yes, but a widely-accepted organization.
LOIS BECKETT: So what groups and communities are contesting the way that they’re portrayed in the media?
DR. FELIX HARCOURT: Catholic, Jewish and black newspapers all pushed back. Some in the black press think that the best thing to do is to deny the Klan any publicity, whatsoever, what was referred to at the time as “dignified silence.” Other papers argue that there needs to be a far more active press campaign to try to combat this idea that we've been peddled in mainstream white newspapers, that while the Klan was controversial it was successful, so rather than presenting the story of a popular day at the Texas State Fair dedicated to the Klan, for example, a publication like the Pittsburgh Courier would instead focus on Klan rallies that descended into violence and riots.
LOIS BECKETT: Was humor or mockery used by any journalists as a method of combatting the Klan?
DR. FELIX HARCOURT: You see a lot of political cartoons and humorists like Ring Lardner lampooning the Klan. But one of the most prominent journalists and theater critics of the time noted that the Klan could prosper in a “cloud of custard pies.” This mockery was satisfying to a certain segment of the readership but that it wasn’t really having any effect on Klan membership.
Quite often, Klan members and Klan sympathizers saw those criticisms as evidence of having earned the right enemies.
LOIS BECKETT: You had said that eventually the Klan moved beyond even favorable mainstream press coverage and made their own outlets.
DR. FELIX HARCOURT: The national leadership create their own newspaper syndicate called the Kourier, with a “K”. It was a really valuable form of propaganda that used local news but also brought in national news and presented all of it through this Klannish ideological lens.
LOIS BECKETT: What kind of stories would run in a Klan paper?
DR. FELIX HARCOURT: This is meant to be a family publication, so you would have a lengthy denunciation of Catholic influence in America and on the next page a recipe for pimento toast, a page for young readers with jokes, crosswords and puzzles, ridiculously called the fiery crossword.
LOIS BECKETT: You’ve been describing an ascendant organization running its own newspaper, an explosion in membership. What happened? Why didn’t it last?
DR. FELIX HARCOURT: There is kind of a standard narrative that says outside pressure and particularly the scandal revolving around one of the major Klan leaders in Indiana who sexually assaults a woman who then kills herself, that these scandals ultimately discredit the Klan and leads to their collapse. Alternatively, there are arguments that after the 1924 Immigration Act is passed the Klan has, to some extent, lost its reason for being and kind of dissolves back into the ether. These traditional narratives are problematic though because none of them really deal with the fact that while the Klan as an organization goes away, the Klan as movement remains entirely present because the millions of members and the millions of sympathizers don’t suddenly change their minds about their beliefs.
LOIS BECKETT: What effect did the debate over the Klan and the coverage of the Klan in the ‘20s have on the media going forward? Did their approaches to this kind of story change?
DR. FELIX HARCOURT: It’s kind of a sad story. [LAUGHS] There were crusading newspapers through the ‘20s who took bold stances against the Klan. But the fact that a number of these papers had been awarded Pulitzer prizes allowed the press, by really the 1930s onwards, to look back and congratulate themselves on having defeated the Klan, even if those bold stances ultimately were not very effective in combating the Klan.
LOIS BECKETT: So newspapers looked back and they saw their Pulitzer Prize-winning investigations and they ignored the fact that coverage had, in fact, grown the Klan’s membership.
DR. FELIX HARCOURT: Yes, very much so. The reality of the relationship between the Klan and the press in the ‘20s was really a relationship of mutual exploitation, more than anything.
LOIS BECKETT: Thank you so much, Dr. Harcourt.
DR. FELIX HARCOURT: Thank you for having me.
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LOIS BECKETT: Dr. Felix Harcourt is a professor of history at Austin College and the author of Ku Klux Kulture.
Coming up, how much does who you are affect how you’re able to cover white supremacists? This is On the Media.