Throughout the 1930s, as Fascism was on the rise in Europe, news broadcasters in the United States carefully avoided partisanship. Of course there were radio journalists who criticized the Nazis and their allies, but they were carefully identified as commentators, and they represented a wide spectrum of political opinions. As the industrialized nations entered a two-front World War II, Americans were well informed on pro-war and anti-war positions; they had been exposed to a variety of controversial opinions; they had information at their disposal with which to assess the world situation; and they could rely on network broadcast journalism for a relatively honest description of international developments and the American stake in them.
The objectivity and thoroughness provided by broadcasting in the 1930s was seriously debased in television by the mid-1950s. TV served a different United States by this date. This was no longer isolationist America. Instead, it was the richest and most powerful nation in the world. It was also the cornerstone of Western industrial capitalism locked in deadly struggle with Eastern Communism for political, economic, social, and intellectual control of a planet in flux.
Because it emerged in Cold War America, video reflected the popular values of the nation at the time. Because it was controlled by the same corporate and governmental institutions that directed the capitalist contest against world Communism, television became a strategic medium for preparing the American people for whatever exigencies that contest might bring.
What was created by this relationship was a context in which TV necessarily reflected anti-Communist values because audiences required, expected, even demanded them; a context in which anti-Communist values were created by television as a function of video's Cold War purpose. In a society whose capitalistic ethic made popular culture the servant of money, there should have been political diversity on television. For those who did not accept anti-Communist politics and its cultural expressions, there should have been anti-anti-Communism. But TV never accommodated diversity in the 1950s. Instead, it offered consensus politics and culture, a perspective that preached sameness and conformity. The rich pluralism of American society was never reflected in commercial TV. Just as there were few blacks, Latinos, Asians, Arabs, or native Americans honorably portrayed in network video, there was no diversity of political or cultural views. The same fearful mentality that homogenized and politicized broadcasting during World War II was now part of the fearful mentality that gripped Cold War America.
This was demonstrated, for example, in the nightly newscasts which sought to explain the world in 15 minutes. Typical was The Camel News Caravan as aired July 28, 1954. Hosted by John Cameron Swayze and featuring reports from some of the better NBC journalists, this telecast was marked greatly by its preoccupation with Communism and by a generalized feeling of crisis. As can be seen in Table 1, the East-West struggle was a part of virtually every segment on the nightly news except weather and sports.
|Table 1: Content of The Camel News Caravan July 28, 1954|
|Theme of Segment||Deals|
|Eisenhower and Rhee|
on U.S.-China relations
|Suez Canal problems||X||X|
|East German military||X||X||X|
|U.S. atomic weapons plan||X||X||X|
|Niagara Falls land collapse|
|New U.K. cabinet members|
|Ellis Island to close|
Anti-Communism was clearly a dominant part of American politics and culture by the mid-1950s. If this telecast from July 1954 was quantitatively preoccupied with stories about the Red menace, qualitatively the content of the evening news showed a world threatened by the spread of Communism and protected by selfless American might. In separate stories, viewers saw Red activities in China, the Soviet Union, Korea, Vietnam, and East Germany, where one of Hitler's former generals was now leading "the Red German army." In the world projected by TV news, the United States was the only important force countering international Communist subterfuge.
It was a frightening perspective in which viewers were compelled to choose sides, to opt for the evil of Communist aggression, or the good of Free World self-defense. Reassuringly, here was a tough and legalistic President Eisenhower—former leader of the American military crusade against European Fascism—defending U.S. military prerogatives in the Far East. He explained that the United States was within its rights in shooting down two Communist Chinese airplanes off the coast of China; and he demanded congressional support for his anti-Communist legislation. While viewers saw President Syngman Rhee of South Korea tell Congress that the U.S. should lead a full-scale war against Communist China, they also saw the White House righteously inform the United Nations that the U.S. would continue to arm its military with atomic weapons "as long as the Communist world continues its aggressive policy."
This anti-Communism was tough and reassuring. But it had limitations. While President Rhee was honored as a noble leader, his call for crusade was not heeded. And there was Senator Joseph R. McCarthy publicly under fire for exceeding his powers as a senator and the nation's chief anti-Communist. As can be discerned in the following transcript of that Camel News Caravan telecast, in both instances TV reported not only the substance of these stories but also the impracticality of both Rhee and McCarthy.
SWAYZE: Ladies and gentlemen, a good evening to you! The Presidents of the United States and the Republic of South Korea made top news in Washington today with separate statements on the Asian problem. David Brinkley has those stories for us at NBC News, Washington.
BRINKLEY: At his Wednesday news conference President Eisenhower told reporters this country will not be truculent with the Chinese Communists, but he said we will defend our rights and he said the U.S. Navy planes that shot down the two Chinese had a right to be where they were. This was taken here to be a kind of warning to the Chinese to be careful and also as a word to those of our allies who think we've been too belligerent and quick on the trigger. The President said our planes were there on legitimate business looking for the British survivors and that they would defend themselves and stay there until they have finished. Otherwise he served public notice that candidates for Congress who want his support had better vote for his program. This was a new Eisenhower policy over that of the last election when he said he supported all Republican candidates for office. Otherwise here today Syngman Rhee, President of South Korea, had the unusual honor of being invited to address a joint session of Congress in the House Chamber. His wife came with him, sat in the gallery to listen. Members of the Washington diplomatic corps were there too. He had a prepared speech but departed from it occasionally; once was when he said in an emotional way that while he is a Korean by law and by birth, by sentiment he is an American. Rhee's English is a little difficult and the members of Congress had some trouble catching all of what he said, but they got most of it like this: (Rhee in heavy accent) What he said was there ought to be what he called a counter-attack on Communist China and said it would be successful if carried out by an Asian army of more than two million men, backed up and supported by U.S. planes, guns and ships. In short, he called on this country to join in a full-scale war on China. He said he knew this would be a momentous decision for us to make but said unless the Chinese mainland is taken away from the Reds the free world ultimately will lose the war against Communism. After Rhee had spoken most members of Congress expressed admiration for him as a man and a patriotic leader but no enthusiasm for his call to arms. For example, Senator George of Georgia said it was a great fighting speech, that if all our allies had the same spirit we'd be in good shape. But as for war with China he wouldn't express any opinion. When he finished Rhee was loudly applauded but the applause was for him personally and not for his call to World War III. Now back to Camel News Headquarters in New York.
SWAYZE: In another part of the world, less than a day after Egypt and Britain settled their ancient feud about the Suez Canal, it's reported the United States played a key role in that agreement.
NARRATOR: At Kings Rest House near the pyramids final details of the agreement were worked out over a dinner that lasted five hours. Egypt's Premier, Gamal Abdel Nasser signed for his country where ratification is assured because rule is by a small military junta. British initials were affixed by War Secretary Anthony Head to an agreement providing British military withdrawal from the Suez Canal Zone in 20 months with a return permitted in case of attack on the Arab states or Turkey. The agreement was speeded up by U.S. promises to boost dollar assistance for Egypt. Winston Churchill stakes the fate of his government on its ratification tomorrow.
SWAYZE: Today President Eisenhower said he would be greatly disappointed if Congress failed to pass a half dozen bills in his legislative program. He named them as tax, farm, foreign aid, anti-Communist, housing and social security. Almost as he spoke the House did pass the big tax revision bill, including a cut in taxes on incomes from dividends. The measure, which reduces revenues $1,363,000 goes to the Senate tomorrow. And the House passed the foreign aid bill after cutting it a little more than 800 million dollars. Likewise in Washington senatorial critics of their colleague from Wisconsin spoke out sharply again today. And for this report we return to the nation's capital.
BRINKLEY: Today Vermont's Senator Flanders said he is determined to go ahead this Friday with his resolution to censure Senator McCarthy in spite of attacks that have been and will be made on him. Here's what he said:
FLANDERS: Let me say that I am confidently expecting attacks on myself and the supporters of my resolution, perhaps between now and July 30, certainly on July 30th. There are gumshoe tracks all around me and fingerprints on all the doorknobs. I don't have to send for an expert to trace the source of these gumshoe tracks and the fingerprints. But I'll not be diverted from my purpose of getting on Friday a vote of censure on the Junior Senator from Wisconsin. I intend to produce my own Bill of Particulars. Other senators have theirs and I hope they will state their own particulars with regard to the Senator from Wisconsin. But we should always remember that we are not merely condemning a particular action on a particular date, but that we are also dealing with an "ism." The depredations of McCarthyism launched from the perch of the chairmanship of the government's operation committee have affected the lives of all of us. McCarthyism has invaded the religious, military, educational, cultural life as well as the political affairs of our country. It is all-inclusive in its effect and must be deplored in an all-inclusive manner.
BRINKLEY: The vote will be this Friday, July 30th. Now back to New York.
SWAYZE: Senator McCarthy himself left Washington today for New York and tonight's big testimonial dinner honoring Roy Cohn. Our cameras were on hand to cover the Senator's arrival.
NARRATOR: He landed this afternoon on the way to the Hotel Astor. There, before 2,000 people tonight, Senator McCarthy will deliver the main address at a testimonial dinner for Roy Cohn, sponsored by the Joint Committee Against Communism. Accompanied by his wife and staff members Frank Carr and James Juliana the Senator faced an immediate barrage of questions that ranged from his role at tonight's dinner to his reaction to Senator Flanders.
REPORTER: Tonight's the big dinner and some of us are going on the air before the dinner. Can you tell us what words you're going to have for Mr. Cohn?
MCCARTHY: No, I don't think I can tell you now—I haven't prepared the speech yet.
REPORTER: Well, could you tell us just exactly how important you think Roy Cohn was to the committee?
MCCARTHY: Extremely important.
REPORTER: Are you gonna have a replacement soon, do you think?
MCCARTHY: It'll be impossible to replace Roy. We'll get a man to take his place, yes, but it'll be impossible to replace him.
REPORTER: Senator, how about the Flanders thing on Friday?
MCCARTHY: No reaction at all. I haven't listened to Flanders, I don't know whether I will.
REPORTER: Do you expect to be present on Friday?
MCCARTHY: I don't know if Ohl take the time to listen or not. I may....
REPORTER: Senator, tonight you know for the dinner tonight some 5,000 applications have been turned back.
MCCARTHY: I understand so.
REPORTER: Do you think that's because you're speaking there or do you think it could be for Roy Cohn?
MCCARTHY: No, I think that was strictly a tribute to Roy Cohn.
SWAYZE: In Europe, where prospects for a unified defense seemed to be dwindling, the Communists are adding more men and more equipment to their growing East German military organization.
NARRATOR: And the man who heads the Red German army is the same man who surrendered to the Russians at Stalingrad. Hidden away by the Kremlin until very recently, former Field Marshall Friedrich Pollus finally emerged from obscurity at a carefully staged East Berlin news conference. American newsmen were excluded but the U.S. now sees and hears the famous marshal as he appeared at the conference on film from behind the Iron Curtain. (VOICE IN GERMAN ON FILM) His statements themselves were far from startling, mostly to the effect that Germany must not be influenced by the U.S. His appearance was headline material because it gave to the Communist-run East German forces a name famous to all Germans. Friedrich Pollus emerges to head more than 100,000 known as the People's Police, but organized as the nucleus for the rearmament of Red Germany.
SWAYZE: In Arkansas Senator John L. McClellan has apparently won renomination. However, his margin is a thin one and his chief opponent, former Governor Sid McMath, has not yet conceded. At midday McClellan has claimed victory by 5,000 votes but what the final margin will be is a guess. McClellan blamed his thin majority on his having had a part in the Army-McCarthy hearings.
SWAYZE: Now it's time once again for our daily reports from the Camel Weatherman. Here he is—Clint Youle at NBC in Chicago.
YOULE: Getting a little unhappy. We sure missed Chicago's forecast today. We had an unexpected shower and we cooled off, but it's only temporarily. Be hot again tomorrow from west and central Texas right diagonally clear on up, say, about as far as New York and Washington area and tomorrow there'll be some showers in the Detroit-Cleveland area, a few in through Pennsylvania and New York and to upper, oh, say interior New England. It'll also be kind of humid in with this hot area. And there'll be some heavier rains in through here and a tropical storm is coming in, not quite a hurricane, but a pretty good-sized thing. It'll give some good rains and the storm will die out as it gets in. Some showers up in through there. Quite warm with clear skies along the west coast. That's it, now back to New York and the "Camel Scoreboard."
SCORE: In the American League, it was New York 7, Chicago 5 after repeated delays. And Detroit beat Philadelphia 10-2. In the National League New York smashed St. Louis 10-0 with all other games in both leagues at night. And that's the major league picture on tonight's "Camel Scoreboard."
SWAYZE: Hopscotching the world for headlines: United Nations, New York: The United States told the United Nations today that it will continue to build its military establishment along the lines of atomic weapons as long as the Communist world continues its aggressive policy. Niagara Falls: A section of the well-known Prospect Point fell today into the chasm of the Niagara River gorge. It has long been a popular observation point on the brink of the American Falls. It was reported that no one was hurt.
Ottawa: Canada has agreed to be a member of the supervisory group for the Indochina armistice. The other two member nations are India and Poland.
London: Prime Minister Churchill has shaken up his Cabinet, making some new appointments and doing so following the resignation of Colonial Secretary Oliver Lyttleton.
Washington: They may abandon Ellis Island as an immigration station. It has been recommended.
U.S. Savings Bonds announcement
SWAYZE: That's the story, folks. Glad we could get together. This is John Cameron Swayze saying good night.
Nightly newscasts reflected national concern with the East-West struggle. These were reminders of the all-pervasiveness of the Cold War and what was generally felt to be at stake in the rivalry with world Communism. But in its quarter-hour framework, the evening news had neither the time nor the intention to educate the public. There could be no deep background or historical context in what was essentially a program of news snippets and headlines.
What such shows confirmed, therefore, was the image of an evil Red force intent upon world conquest. There were no varieties of Communism, even though Communism in Yugoslavia already had given evidence of being antagonistic toward the Soviet interpretation. There were no vestiges of national history in this TV Communism, for although Chinese antipathy toward Russia dated to at least the sixteenth century, American newscasts projected only a Sino-Soviet monolith. There were no probes of domestic factors that made Communism strong in Western nations such as Italy and France, but weak in Great Britain and the Scandinavian states. There were also no consistent attempts to understand the appeal of Communism to nationalist revolutionaries in the decolonizing Third World.
Significantly, in many ways Americans understood Communism as a new variety of Nazism. All of the animus so richly directed toward Hitler and Nazi Germany was now channeled toward the Soviet Union and Marxism-Leninism. As if they were following the Fuhrer's "artichoke" policy of peeling away and conquering one country at a time, the Russians were seen as taking over the planet one nation after another. American leaders, however, consistently assured their audiences that in contrast with the attitude that allowed Hitler to violate international law and capture other nations, there would be no giving in to Communist would-be conquerors. As President Eisenhower phrased it in a nationally televised address on June 3, 1953, "In the conflict with international Communism there will be no appeasement—no new Munich."
If evening newscasts were superficial, network documentaries had the potential to offer educative analyses in the process of treating critical issues. Yet even in this type of programming, Cold War television evaded its responsibility and used the documentary to perpetuate the anti-Communist slogans of the era.
As a video format the documentary matured by the mid-1950s. Edited, written, and musically scored better than in the early days of the medium, TV documentaries in some cases became prestige programs at the networks. That was especially the situation with the Project XX productions, which brought honor and many awards to NBC. Ironically, nowhere was anti-Communism more lavishly trumpeted than in this highly acclaimed series of documentaries.
Project XX presentations were television masterpieces. They beautifully blended historical and contemporary film, inspired writing, lush original music, and a general aura of video craftsmanship. In the eight TV seasons between the fall of 1954 and the spring of 1962, the Project XX unit at NBC produced 19 documentaries that, counting network reruns, accounted for more than 43 hours of national air time. Although the series ran until 1970, by 1965 it had received 50 international awards for excellence. A list of all its productions is shown in Table 2.
In his pioneering study of the television documentary, A. William Bluem distinguished two varieties of the format. The "TV news documentary" was one in which journalistic interpretation of issues and events was paramount. In the "TV theme documentary," according to Bluem, the emphasis was on the artistic totality of the production. While journalistic values were always important, they were not as crucial as artistry in the realization of the latter type. Bluem accurately described Project XX programs as the "peak" of the TV theme documentary.
The series, however, had a political dimension not discussed by Bluem. Project XX played a strong role in communicating anti-Communist values in the 1950s. It was born, moreover, of the politicized and highly successful Victory at Sea series. This was an epic production of 26 half-hour programs tracing the record of the U.S. Navy in World War 11. Victory at Sea won many awards after appearing in the 1952-53 TV season. At the time it was the most sophisticated documentary series in the history of the medium.
The Project XX team consisted of men who had put together Victory at Sea. Until his death in 1957 Henry W. Salomon headed the production unit. He was then replaced by Donald B. Hyatt. Others included Isaac Kleinermann, Robert Russell Bennett, and Richard Hanser. Their first effort in the series was the documentary on atomic energy, "Three, Two, One—Zero!" which was written and produced by Salomon and Hanser, edited by Kleinermann, and scored by Bennett. Its success convinced NBC to keep the group producing documentaries at the rate of about two per year.
One theme dominated Project XX presentations: the historical evolution of civilization toward human freedom, with American sociopolitical achievement being a model for the rest of the world. This was evident in those programs that nostalgically and proudly treated the social history of the United States. The theme was apparent in The Jazz Age, Life in the Thirties, and Not So Long Ago. It was also integral to those productions with an earlier focus, including Meet Mr. Lincoln, Mark Twain's America, and The Innocent Years.
|Table 2: Project XX Productions on NBC, 1954-1970|
|First-run Date||Title and Theme|
|September 13, 1954||Three, Two, One-Zero! (atomic energy)|
|December 27, 1955||Nightmare in Red (history of Communist Russia)|
|March 14, 1956||The Twisted Cross (rise and fall of Nazi Germany|
|October 16, 1956||The Great War (World War I)|
|December 6, 1956||The Jazz Age (America in the 1920s)|
|January 7, 1957||Call to Freedom (modem Austria)|
|November 21, 1957||The Innocent Years (America, 1900-17)|
|February 11, 1959||Meet Mr. Lincoln (close-up of Abraham Lincoln)|
|October 16, 1959||Life in the Thirties (Depression America)|
|February 19, 1960||Not So Long Ago (America immediately after World War II)|
|April 22, 1960||Mark Twain's America (late-19th-century America)|
|November 22, 1960||Those Ragtime Years (popular music, 1900-17)|
|December 21, 1960||The Coming of Christ (the Nativity in great art)|
|January 21, 1961||The Circus|
|March 28, 1961||The Story of Will Rogers (American humorist)|
|March 29, 1961||The Real West (authentic American frontier life)|
|September 17, 1961||Laughter, U.S.A. (American humor)|
|March 18, 1962||Cops and Robbers (American crime since Colonial times)|
|April 15, 1962||He Is Risen (the Resurrection in great art)|
|November 20, 1963||That War in Korea (ten years after the armistice)|
|June 9, 1964||The Red, White and Blue (nostalgia for old-time patriotism)|
|August 13, 1965||Smalltown, U.S.A. (three rural American towns portrayed)|
|January 13, 1967||The Island Called Ellis (immigrants to America)|
|March 16, 1967||The End of the Trail (Plains Indians in the 19th century)|
|April 13, 1967||The Law and the Prophets (Old Testament in great art)|
|December 11, 1968||Down to the Sea in Ships (man's fascination with the ocean)|
|*January 25, 1969||Down on the Farm (salute to American farmers)|
|April 24, 1969||Meet George Washington|
|May 11, 1969||Mirror of America (Washington, D.C., reflects U.S. history)|
|January 7, 1970||The West of Charles Russell (frontier paintings)|
|May 27, 1970||The Shining Mountains (romantic look at the Colorado Rockies)|
|*An "NBC News Special" produced by Donald B. Hyatt and scored by Robert Russell Bennett.|
Volatile issues mellowed in these documentaries. Agitators and their causes were glossed over, and viewers were left with a flattering image of the United States as a nation of independent-minded, hardworking pioneers who had fought adversity while clinging to their dreams. Furthermore, they and their dreams had emerged triumphant. The old days were "the good old days" in Project XX television. They tested personal mettle and created a society of free and honorable citizens.
If the series approved of the American social experiment, it abhorred authoritarianism. A collapsing, anti-democratic Old World was revealed in The Great War. The rise and fall of Nazism was told in The Twisted Cross. In two of its better realizations, the series focused on the despotism of Communism.
Call to Freedom considered the history of modern Austria as a paradigm for other nations. The documentary sketched that nation as it became an independent state following the collapse of the autocratic Hapsburg monarchy in World War I. Early hope for a free and democratic society was thwarted by a forced annexation by Nazi Germany and then partial occupation by the Soviet Union following World War II.
After much negotiation and compromise, the emergence of Austria in 1955 as a democratic and internationally neutral nation was an uplifting story. Although the neutral Austrian republic was not an ally of the United States in its struggle against Communism, its liberation from Soviet influences was sufficient, as far as Project XX was concerned, to make the Austrian story a lesson in anti-Communism.
The most direct attack upon Communism occurred in Nightmare in Red. The moral of this program was explained as "an ancient prophecy come true—My father chastises you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions....” Nightmare in Red argued that for all its ineptitude and intolerable oppression, tsarist autocracy was preferable to Communist tyranny. Mixing actuality and theatrical footage, the program traced Russian history from the time of Nicholas II. While democratic revolution seemed justified by 1917, the Bolshevik victory was unforgivable. Russia now endured under a "shroud of evil." The secret police used terror to solicit approval. "The state, knowing no creed but blind obedience," the narrator rhythmically declared, "demands a captive mind, a captive spirit, a captive body."
In asserting a favorite theme of American Cold War rhetoric—the notion that the noble Russian people would one day rise up, overthrow their Red masters, and embrace democracy—Nightmare in Red ended with a poem of promise written in the nineteenth century by the nationalist poet Alexander Pushkin:
Deep in the Siberian mine,
Keep your patience proud.
The bitter toil shall not be lost
, The rebel thought unbowed,
The heavy-hanging chains will fall.
The walls will crumble at a word.
And freedom greet you in the light,
And brothers, give you back the sword.
More than historical entertainment or an attempt by NBC to offer a lesson in Soviet history, Nightmare in Red was patent propaganda. This was made apparent when General Motors, specifically its Pontiac division, withdrew from sponsorship of the documentary in shortly before it was to air. The broadcast was postponed two months until new advertisers were found. Variety offered considerable speculation about the motives behind GM's withdrawal. Some suggested that General Motors did not want to offend possible Iron Curtain customers, and that the program might undermine the new cordiality in U.S.-Soviet relations following the Geneva summit conference during the previous summer. There was also the fact that Secretary of Defense Charles E. Wilson was formerly the chief executive of General Motors, and even indirect association with such blatant propaganda might affect relations with Moscow adversely. Whatever the real reasons for General Motors' reaction, certainly few in commercial television could be unaware of the contemporary political relevance of this Project XX production.