Cold War Politics In News
And Information Programming
Television was apolitical at birth. It was the product of scientists and engineers establishing new technological boundaries, and businessmen seeking a profitmaking utility. To a degree TV was American, but throughout the 1930s British research often was more advanced than that in the United States. In Europe government financial support assisted technology. In the United States the fiscal foundations of video rested in the world of free enterprise.
The programs on television in the United States, however, were of great political significance. These were Americanized products. Whether it was a detective show, romantic play, newscast, Western, children's show, or even a commercial, the content of TV programming reflected the environment in which it was created. This meant that TV mirrored the mentality of most of the nation. And given the commercial nature of the medium—programs were meant to attract the largest possible audiences and sell sponsors' products—television sought to present materials with which a majority of viewers would be comfortable.
Every time a policeman or private eye captured, reformed, or killed a criminal in a detective story, TV communicated the message that crime does not pay. Every time a boy met a girl, lost her, then regained her, the program promoted the importance of personal fulfillment in romantic love. Inherent in every religious broadcast was endorsement of freedom of religion. Whenever a child on TV followed the command of an adult, that show communicated to youngsters the validity of obedience. Even news programs had an American slant, focusing primarily upon what transpired at home—be it the local town, the state, or the nation—or upon external matters impacting upon the United States.
As surely as a child's fairy tale—whether spoken, read, on film, or in a radio dramatization—TV shows communicated educative moral lessons and imparted values strategic to the viability of American society. Since the smooth operation of society was the goal of politics, TV was necessarily political.
For the most part these programs were authentic cultural phenomena, created by and for people generally sharing a perspective on social life. There were censors, however, at network and production levels to ensure that program content adhered to such a perspective. There were community tastes, network standards and practices, and industry codes that had to be met by creative personnel. In most cases such censorship involved matters of vulgarity or graphic violence. But the history of American television is not without instances of political censorship touching upon matters as diverse as racial politics, foreign policy, and the sensitivities of military and government leaders.
Whether news-related or entertainment, American TV programming from its inception was political. This was especially the case in the former, where in a multiplicity of ways viewers were shown the world through politicized cameras. Since one of the dreams of the developers of television had been to bring news and information into the homes of all Americans, it was inevitable that this communication would reflect the values of those airing it and those viewing it. A study of the nonfiction programming from the late 1940s and into the 1960s clearly illustrates that the video road to the Vietnam War was paved in part by the imbalanced understanding of the nation and world transmitted by nonfiction television.