WASHINGTON — 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.
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."
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.