High-Tech Tactics : People For: ‘Atheists’ or Crusaders?

Times Staff Writer

Last September, unbeknown to most viewers, an electronic duel took place on television screens throughout the country. It was a contest of sorts that began when television evangelist Pat Robertson scheduled a huge rally here to discuss his ambitions to become President of the United States.

Media arrangements for the event were elaborate. The rally site was ringed with television cameras and Robertson officials leased satellite time so the quasi-candidate could beam the entire rally, live, to 216 conference halls throughout the nation.

For Robertson it was a characteristic display of technical wizardry. Satellite communication would allow the television evangelist to speak directly to 200,000 of the faithful, bypassing the standard news coverage and its clutter of dissenting voices.


Second Satellite Feed

But then something happened that Robertson did not expect. Even as his broadcast was flowing into teleconference sites around the country, another feed began from a second satellite.

This one was directed, not at the conference sites, but at the very news operations Robertson had sought to bypass. It was the dissenting voice, a bit of counterweight from People For the American Way, the 6-year-old organization founded on its opposition to the Religious Right.

For 10 minutes the images and voices streamed from space into station monitors: Spokesmen from People For directing some well-chosen invective toward Robertson, followed by film clips showing the evangelist at his most inflammatory.

The feed was free, available instantly to every television station in the country, and designed to be easily spliced into news spots reporting on the Robertson candidacy. In a number of the country’s largest media markets, including Los Angeles and New York, television stations did just that.

Media Gamesmanship

No one knows who won this particular contest. Most likely it is beyond any accounting. But the satellite duel is the kind of media gamesmanship that has made People For the American Way one of the highest-profile opponents to the conservative tide that swept in with the Reagan years.

“When Robertson scheduled his presidential rally, we knew we had to respond. Just doing a press conference wasn’t enough,” said Susan Anderson, People For’s television specialist. “We decided to fight Robertson on his own turf, in the skies. He went to the bird, so we went to the bird.”


Founded in 1981 by television mogul Norman Lear, People For’s growth--especially over the last two years--has been phenomenal, and it now overshadows many of its older cousins in the public interest field.

Its membership has expanded from 40,000 three years ago to 250,000 today, making it roughly equivalent to the 66-year-old American Civil Liberties Union. Its 1986 budget of $7.6 million is triple that of three years ago, and it now raises more money than Common Cause. Next year the budget is projected to hit $10 million.

During that time People For has become a major mover in the often heated national debates over censorship in schools, the independence of the judiciary, secular humanism, and--foremost on its agenda--the intrusion of religion into politics.

Perhaps more than anything, the success of People For can be measured by the continuous stream of name-calling directed its way by the leadership of the Religious Right. Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority, regularly refers to Lear on his television broadcasts as an “atheist” and an “anti-Christian.”

Falwell once said: “I seen an anti-Christian, anti-Reagan fire raging in his soul. . . . He’s just got Christians in his craw.”

Lear, who created such television programs as “All in the Family,” “The Jeffersons” and “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” does not let this kind of stuff go unanswered. In his Century City office recently, Lear described Falwell as “a smarmy liar . . . the kind of man who will call me ‘anti-Christian’ and know that it’s a code word for Jew. I’ve seen so many of his victims smeared this way.”


Grim Satisfaction

Some other leaders of People For take a grim satisfaction in the attacks. Anthony Podesta, the executive director, recalled Falwell’s press conference earlier this year when the evangelist announced the transformation of the Moral Majority into a new, more political lobby known as Liberty Federation.

“He said he was doing it because America needed a counter group to stop People For. That was the sweetest, the highest moment,” Podesta said.

Unlike many other groups, People For rarely sues anyone and conducts only a modest lobbying effort in Washington. Its momentum, and its attention from the Religious Right, derives almost entirely from the group’s artful and relentless pursuit of media exposure. In newspapers, radio and especially television, People For seems to have become an almost constant presence.

The organization’s rapid rise and hard-charging management style have attracted its share of critics, even among those politically sympathetic. Some have accused the organization of occasionally indulging in the same hyperbole and guilt by association often connected with the Religious Right. One member of the group’s advisory board departed several years ago in a dispute over the content of some newspaper ads.

At the Washington headquarters, none of this has slowed the pace. In its communications office, staff writers crank out about 60 newspaper opinion pieces a year and an equal number of radio commentaries. The commentaries are broadcast on a weekly radio show; each opinion piece is sent to 1,700 newspapers under the byline of Podesta or Chairman John Buchanan, a former Republican congressman from Alabama and ordained Baptist minister.

High-Tech Tactics

The media machine also works in reverse. Every day one staff member monitors the broadcasts of Falwell and Robertson, recording and transcribing their most provocative political statements. Compilations are then sent to selected reporters.


High-tech tactics are a specialty. When People For became involved in a heated, and ultimately unsuccessful, struggle to defeat President Reagan’s nomination of former Indiana state Sen. Daniel A. Manion to a federal judgeship, the group’s communications office established an automated telephone system aimed at radio news operations. Basically, the system involved the combination of a WATS line and an automatic dialer loaded with pre-recorded messages.

Day after day the auto dialer cranked away. After Sen. Slade Gorton (R.-Wash.), announced he would take a position contrary to People For, the auto dialer called every radio station in Washington state within minutes. The recording offered the news of Gorton’s decision and then asked, “Would you be interested in our comment on the story?” The goal, People For officials say, was not to punish Gorton but to make it difficult for Washington’s other senator, Republican Daniel Evans, to follow suit.

Perhaps most famous of all are the group’s ventures into paid media: short films and television ads that are aired on commercial television. During the Manion fight, states with swing-vote senators, such as Kansas and Connecticut, were targeted for a heavy dose of anti-Manion spots. Not all were negative, however; senators in half a dozen states who voted against the nominated jurist were thanked with paid spots.

This tactic is expensive: Typically, the group spends roughly one-third of its entire budget on media efforts of one sort or another. In 1986, that portion amounts to about $2.5 million.

To understand why, Podesta said, you have to understand the group’s origins. “We began as a TV commercial,” he said. “Before there was a staff, an office, or a bank account, there was a commercial.”

‘Relentless Political Message’

That commercial was created by Lear in 1981. Planning to produce a movie about two New York City cops who were ersatz ministers on the side, Lear began watching the broadcasts of Falwell’s “Old Time Gospel Hour,” Robertson’s 700 Club, and other evangelists. By the time he had absorbed 80 hours worth, the movie had receded from his mind.


“It was the relentless political message that got to me,” he said recently in his Century City office. “Hour after hour they were telling people, ‘You are a good Christian or a bad Christian, depending on your view of the Supreme Court, or capital punishment.’ ”

So instead of a movie, Lear made the commercial. It was an uncomplicated production: several actors, portraying common folks, say they are tired to being told how to think on political issues by television preachers.

Lear tucked the film under his arm and took it to religious leaders around the country. What do you think of this? he asked. Almost invariably, he said, they loved it. “Then they said: ‘One commercial isn’t going to do it. You need an organization to keep this going,’ ” he recalled.

At the time, some of Lear’s friends and even Lear himself had doubts about the potential for a new public interest group. “My friends would say, ‘Hey, these television preachers are a passing thing; you won’t get anywhere with this,’ ” he said.

The error in that judgment is nowhere more evident these days than in North Carolina, far from the splashy fund raisers of Hollywood and the media machinations of the Washington headquarters. In this unlikely state, one of the bastions of the Christian political movement, People For has established a permanent field office.

The office in Raleigh is directed by Roger Sharpe, a gentle, scholarly man who often quotes the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Stuart Mill.


Sharpe, who was raised in North Carolina and is an active Baptist, said: “The South has always been fundamentalist. These days, though, you see all these groups on parade; people who want to pray in the streets for everyone to see. It’s become a test, a manipulative thing.”

Since he arrived in 1984, Sharpe has faced a cross-section of all those things People For was created to fight: numerous attempts to remove targeted books from school libraries and classrooms, the exclusion of evolution theory from science curricula and religious questionnaires for political candidates.

It is hard to measure the results of Sharpe’s efforts. In his first year on the job he drove more than 40,000 miles across the state, appearing before school boards and church congregations. It is quiet, persistent, gritty work that only sometimes succeeds. But it has proven that the organization is here to stay.

“Roger has established a presence as a kind of circuit rider,” said Mahan Siler, pastor of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh. “He goes from meeting to meeting, telling his story. When certain issues come up, people know Roger will be there.”

And there are moments. Early in this fall’s campaigns, Rep. Bill Cobey (R.-N.C.) wrote a letter to his supporters describing himself as an “ambassador for Christ,” and implying that his opponent was “not willing to take a strong stand for the principles outlined in the Word of God.”

Sharpe knew that Cobey’s opponent, Duke University professor David Price, was a loyal Southern Baptist and holder of a divinity degree from Yale. He dutifully distributed the letter to reporters in Cobey’s district and the resulting storm of publicity soon led to a retraction and apology from Cobey. Price defeated incumbent Cobey handily in the November election.


In Washington, it is the steady stream of hard-hitting reports, television ads and films aimed at the Religious Right that have produced occasional criticism. Some of these efforts can, at times, offer less than meets the eye.

In its annual report titled “Attacks on the Freedom to Learn,” for example, People For contends that incidents of censorship have increased steadily and rapidly throughout the 1980s. In one year, the increase was put at 66.6%; overall the group claims that the rate has tripled since 1981.

People For officials concede that these figures are not the product of any impartial study. They simply reflect the increase in incidents reported to the organization by its supporters and by newspaper clipping services.

“There may be some loopholes,” said Jacqueline Blumenthal, a member of the communications office. “We are certain there is more (censorship) going on now, rather than less. If you pin us down, I couldn’t swear to a certain number.”

Guilt By Association

And what qualifies as an incident of censorship? In People For terms, it can be any gesture to restrict material available to school children or the public at large. While its annual report contains many legitimate censorship episodes, it also includes such items as an informal and unsuccessful suggestion that Playboy magazine be taken off public library shelves in Broward County, Fla.

Some of the group’s television ads and short films have also been faulted for relying partially on a sequence of images that create guilt by association. One film offers sequences of hooded Ku Klux Klan members and a book-burning next to images of television evangelists.


“Neither Jerry Falwell nor the Moral Majority has ever been involved in censoring a book or burning books. We have never opposed a particular book in a particular library,” said Mark DeMoss, a spokesman for the Moral Majority. “Yet these films suggest we do all those things.”

Podesta said these problems are in the nature of television. “You don’t put footnotes on a TV spot,” he said. “The art form doesn’t allow it. We have never been sued and never retracted anything.”

The leader of another public interest group, who asked not to be identified, put it this way: “People For the American Way needs Falwell to be an ogre with hoofs and a tail, and vice versa. They both raise money off each other, and they’ve both been very successful. It’s symbiotic.”

Whatever the cause, the flow of money into People For has turned into a torrent over the last two years: The budget has doubled and the membership increased six fold. While many outside the organization believe that Lear’s renowned genius at fund raising is responsible, People For officials say that is not the case. Lear’s personal contribution to the group is relatively small, and the role of fund raisers in general is diminishing.

Reasons for Growth

The rapid growth appears to be a mixture of the increased media exposure and the shrewd use of direct mail promotions. Arthur Kropp, the director of membership, said the group discovered, among other things, that it could raise as much money for special “projects” as it could from membership appeals. Thus, in the last two years project appeals have doubled the annual contributions from many People For members.

For example, when People For decided to establish a fund to provide legal defenses for school boards under attack by conservative groups, it sent out an appeal for money to fund the project.


The appeal was successful and People For is now paying the legal defense for two school boards--in Mobile, Ala., where the board is being sued to remove the influence of “secular humanism” from its programs, and in Church Hill, Tenn., where the board is now appealing a ruling that it must provide alternatives to books identified by parents as having an anti-Christian bias.

In some cases, People For now consults with its membership to discover just what issues it will pursue. Then it goes after them.

That strategy was used before the group decided to jump into the then-simmering controversy over President Reagan’s judicial appointments. Pollster Peter Hart, hired by the organization, found that the membership regarded the integrity of the courts as its prime concern.

“We said, ‘Hey, if they want us to get involved, let’s go with it,’ ” Kropp said. People For sent a staff member to Indiana to research the background of nominee Daniel Manion, and found that the prospective jurist had, among other things, written letters in support of the John Birch Society and sponsored legislation allowing the posting of the Ten Commandments in schools. That information brought Manion back to the Senate Judiciary Committee for a rehearing and nearly cost him the appointment.

Momentum Questioned

The question now seems to be whether People For can keep up the momentum. In recent months some of the leading institutions of the Religious Right have faltered financially; Falwell, for example, has been forced to lay off staff members and recently announced that he was reducing his political schedule to devote more time to fund raising. If the Religious Right declines, can its prime enemy be far behind?

Podesta thinks not. For one thing, he said, the Religious Right waned before, in 1982, only to roar back for the 1984 presidential election.


“I don’t think our success depends on the success of Jerry Falwell,” he said. “It depends on our ability to get our issues on the evening news and the front page. We have done well so far because we have done just that.”

People For now is searching for new issues that will put some distance between them and the Religious Right, Podesta said. One such issue likely will be the perceived threats to the free flow of information in government.

“The most important role in democracy is the work of the citizen, and if the government restricts the right to know, then there is a great danger to the Republic,” Podesta said. There are many signs of such restrictions being imposed, he said, including limitations on the Freedom of Information Act, gag orders on some foreign visitors and the withholding of export licenses for some films because of their political content.

Other issues are also being considered. But even as the issues change, it is likely that People For’s specialty, the media waltz, will remain.

“It’s a non-elitist strategy,” Podesta said. “We want to be in newspapers in South Bend and Richmond because that’s where it matters. So we’ll be working the grass-roots. If we can’t sell the message there, New York and Los Angeles will never save us.”