To start with the stereotypes: No, he does not slick back his hair, tremble, or shout. That is the other famous person to come from Tupelo, Mississippi, Elvis Presley. Yes, the Reverend Donald E. Wildmon does talk in a rural Southern accent thick enough to spread on pancakes, but he generally does so in a quiet, reasonable voice. With his balding head, his slight, paunchy build, and his steel-rim glasses, he looks more like a pharmacist than a demagogue.

Many think of him as a sweat-streaked, ignorant fundamentalist preacher—a caricature Wildmon rather enjoys. “I’m from Mississippi, which means I don’t wear shoes,” he says with grim irony from his cluttered, windowless, undecorated office. “I’m a preacher, which means me and Elmer Gantry are first cousins.”

He does not preach much these days, nor often go on TV or talk to reporters; most of his time is spent talking to corporate advertisers or cooking up strategy with his allies. Nonetheless, television executives know who he is.

Two years ago Wildmon published an account of his work under the title The Man the Networks Love to Hate—and nobody has accused him of exaggerating. A single article in Playboy compared him to both the Ayatollah Khomeini and Joseph McCarthy. Barry Lynn, legislative counsel of the ACLU, calls him a “catalyst for cowardice” who will lead our nation to lose its direction, “if not its national soul.”

Wildmon returns the favor. He says he does not like to fight; he would rather go fishing. But that is hard to imagine. He consistently portrays those who oppose him as intolerant and untrustworthy. Images of war come readily to his lips. As his son, Tim, associate director of Wildmon’s ...

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