Television In Political Context

There was much about which to be excited in those first years of television. After decades of anticipation, the promise had become real and available. Now the world would be seen in the average American living room. Now there would be information and entertainment in this home theater. Most agreed that the United States—the entire planet, for that matter—would be a better place for having television.

Industry spokesman were quick to trumpet the significance of their achievements. For M. H. Aylesworth, former president of RCA, the new medium was the greatest single phenomenon to emerge in the past century—superior to the automobile, airplane, or any other technological invention. Allen B. DuMont, one of the developers of the industry, envisioned television strengthening the bridge between nations and complementing international linkages such as trade, trans­portation, and other forms of communication. With TV as the catalyst, DuMont wrote in 1950, "These links will be so tightly welded that the economic, cultural, educational, linguistic, entertainment, and technological interdependence between the nations of the world may well solve problems that have resisted the bonds of pacts and treaties."

Another proud parent was Niles Trammell of NBC. For him, TV was "a scientific marvel which, like the harnessing of the atom, is un­paralleled in history." He proclaimed in 1950 that television was a great business venture, for "Already American private enterprise is building television stations in South America and is furnishing equipment to European nations." Above all, Trammell praised TV as a "mighty weapon for understanding between nations and races" because, through its programs, TV would show the commonality of man­kind, “that essential human understanding that all people share.”

These were statements of pride as much as of salesmanship made by men who had nurtured the medium. Yet, inherent in many such analyses was a strong political message: television had great potential for influencing the nation and the world, and in the Cold War it would play a strategic role in enhancing the American position.

This was a notion well comprehended at NBC. Of all the networks, executives of the National Broadcasting Company were outspoken in their political perspectives on the medium. As early as 1946, network vice-president John F. Royal, who anticipated TV becoming "the most important public relations medium in our history," called for “typical red-blooded American programs of a clean and wholesome and cultural nature.” Five years later Frank M. Folsom, president of the parent company, RCA, wrote that TV was "in the forefront as a vital service to the nation." He argued that during this time of war in Korea, television was crucial as an information source "when swiftly changing events may otherwise cause confusion and alarm to the detriment of unity of purpose in safeguarding the democratic institutions of our land and our deter­mination to assist other freedom-loving people against aggression.

In August 1951, NBC joined CBS in setting up large color TV screens in West Berlin, hoping to counter Communist influence during the World Festival of Youth being held in East Berlin. With 2 million people from throughout the world attending, the American networks acceded to the wishes of the State Department by providing the latest in color video as a "secret weapon" to thwart propagandistic claims of Communist technological superiority.

Sylvester L. (Pat) Weaver wrote in 1953 on the importance of television as a molder of domestic ideology. The president of NBC noted that because "our shows can serve purposes beyond diversion" and because of "the tremendous influence we know we have on viewers," producers at NBC were "constantly vigilant to choose those sub­jects and those characters which will serve to illuminate the problems of our times, and the character of our fundamental beliefs." According to Weaver this meant programming “'within the area of American agreement,' with all the implications of that statement, including however some acknowledgement in our programming of the Ameri­can heritage of dissent.”

No one in the fledgling industry better understood the anti-Com­munist potential of TV than Brigadier General David Sarnoff, chairman of the board of RCA. Broadcast pioneer, business giant, and patriot, Sarnoff strongly bound television to national political goals. As head of the Armed Forces Communications Association, he told Army officers and engineers in 1948 that video would play a major role in any future war. By employing TV in guided missiles, remote-con­trolled explosives, and pilotless bombers—in mapmaking, reconnais­sance, and observing dangerous operations from protected positions ­Sarnoff felt "We will make a worthwhile contribution to military preparedness and to national security."

Certainly, Sarnoff comprehended television as a nonpolitical busi­ness venture. Yet in the fall of 1948, on an NBC radio program Liv­ing— 1948 he declared that television had a political dimension, for "Through its proper use, America will rise to new heights as a nation of free people and high ideals." By 1950 Sarnoff was calling for the employment of television as part of a network of anti-Communist propaganda media communicating a "Marshall Plan of Ideas" around the world. "The Communists smother the truth with their falsehoods," Sarnoff told an audience in the summer of 1950. "Through radio and television, the motion picture and the printed word, we have a great opportunity to reveal the truth to the rest of the world. We must ex­pose [their] lies and spike [their] false propaganda."

Sarnoff s political expectations for TV were most fully delineated in April 1955, when he presented President Dwight D. Eisenhower with a 42-page memorandum entitled Program for a Political Offen­sive Against World Communism. It was a guidebook for the spread of American propaganda to the world via TV and other media of communication. It was conceived primarily as a counterattack against global Communist propaganda.

In Sarnoff's view, the West and the other non-Communist areas of the world were being swamped with Red propaganda. It came in literature, sports contests, United Nations activities, and myriad other forms. The head of RCA was also upset by Communist agents—"thousands of Kremlin-oriented individual writers, commentators, editors, and trained propagandists"—who were being smuggled into strategic social positions where they supported Soviet policies. Further, Sarnoff lashed out against fellow travelers, those "newspapers, magazines, radio and TV stations, either overtly under pro-Communist control or in 'liberal' disguises."

Sarnoff called for a massive counterthrust against the Red menace. He advocated the use of TV, film, radio, leaflets, balloons, secret presses, even "scrawls on the wall" to spread the American message. He wanted fixed and mobile broadcasting stations surrounding the Soviet Union. He wanted cheap, lightweight radios distributed free of charge behind the Iron Curtain and in other critical areas. He asked for large-screen TV—color or black and white—in Asia and elsewhere to show American propaganda to impressionable natives. Sarnoff also called for free phonographs to be smuggled to people living under the domination of Russia and Communist China. Pro-American propa­ganda would then be placed on unbreakable cardboard phonograph records, flown behind the Iron Curtain and the Bamboo Curtain, and dropped from the skies like leaflets.

While statements by network officials illustrate clearly that in­dustry leaders understood the Cold War potential of television, such assessments were not confined to TV executives. American govern­ment leaders also welcomed TV as a political utility. Their early comments ranged from predictions that TV would change politics—no more long-winded speeches, the eventual merchandising of candidates through TV advertising, greater voter participation because of expo­sure of candidates and their views—to more practical suggestions, such as one senator's plan for members of Congress to disperse throughout the country in case of atomic attack but still vote on legislation via TV. Most, however, would have agreed with the general point made in 1949 by J. Edgar Hoover, director of the Federal Bureau of Investi­gation, that "The advent of television offers a new adjunct to law and order, and I see in this new medium an instrumentality of great aid and assistance in the future protection of society."

Government leaders also appreciated the propagandistic impor­tance of TV. When the Kraft Television Theater in 1948 aired a play in which a senator took bribes and conspired with a private power company to defeat a public power project, a congressman publicly warned that television needed self-censorship because such a program was "excellent Communist propaganda." Thus, early in the history of the medium, government pressure was exerted to assure the "loyalty" of the imagery offered on TV.

With a broader perspective, however, Senator Karl Mundt in 1950 proposed the creation of an agency for televising government propaganda abroad. This "Vision of America," according to the senator, would complement the Voice of America radio agency. It would be a "see bomb" producing anti-Communist values by televising Americanism around the world. In Mundt's words, "If we could supplement our know-how with some concentrative, repetitive, understandable, sym­pathetic and practical show-how, we could improve the lot of man­kind and at the same time we might well arouse mass sympathetic desire to embrace the philosophy of freedom and democracy which has made all this possible."

For Paul G. Hoffman—former president of the Studebaker Corporation and after 1948 director of the Economic Cooperative Admini­stration, which coordinated Marshall Plan aid for postwar European recovery—broadcasting was crucial in the Cold War. "On the international front of the struggle between the free world and the Krem­lin slave world we are outmanned 50 to 1," he declared in 1950. Further, he asserted, in each country there existed a "hard core of Communists" seeking "to capture the minds of people by the well-known Goebbels method. They use the big lie—they make glittering promises—but above all they seek to instill fear and hatred." Hoffman called upon American broadcasters to counter the threat of world Communism: "As I see it, your responsibility is to develop the tech­niques by which an understanding of intangible truths can be brought home to all the people. It is your responsibility to find the words that will not only inform but will, to quote Kipling, walk up and down in the hearts of men. "

Interpretations such as those expressed by industry and govern­ment leaders in the first years of video were not the musings of conspirators anxious to manipulate the medium for personal aggrandize­ment. Instead, they were ideas reflecting the era in which TV was maturing. TV emerged at the time of the Berlin blockade and airlift. Only weeks before that confrontation, the Communists had usurped power in Czechoslovakia. Without the firing of a shot, that country became a police state solidly within the Soviet sphere of influence.

Resolution of the Berlin crisis effectively ended Communist ex­pansion in Europe. When unrestricted contact with West Berlin was finally restored in May 1949, the political condition of Europe was stalemated. The German nation would remain divided between East and West. As inconvenient and expensive as it was to maintain, West Berlin would continue to be a democratic half-city deep inside the Communist empire. The Free World would no longer "lose" territory in Europe.

But there were other crises. From Chile and Algeria to Iran and Indochina, there were confrontations between Communists and anti-Communists. Not minding that anti-Communist forces might be brut­ally undemocratic or antinationalistic, American policy makers often found themselves uncritically supporting right-wing dictatorships rather than accept leftist solutions. In some cases even captured Nazi officials were exonerated and employed by the American government in its anti-Communist operations. Senator Mundt explained this policy on the public affairs show American Forum of the Air, televised August 19, 1950. Speaking of foreign aid recently voted for the authoritarian government of Generalissimo Francisco Franco, the senator told viewers:

The reason the loan to Spain was essential is because in a worldwide warfare against Communism, we have to work with people who are on our side, people that control the beachheads so essential if we're going to land troops in Europe. We have to work with people who will stand up and fight against Communism, just as in the war against Hitler we had to make an alliance with Russia in order to defeat Hitler. This time we have to work with types of government which we do not approve in order to be sure we can defeat this menace of world Communism.

Western imperialism was dying in the postwar world. The upshot of two world wars was the destruction of British, French, Dutch, Spanish, Belgian, and Portuguese colonial empires. Moreover, the process of disintegration was often accelerated by native rebellions in Asia and Africa.

Ironically, the chief American allies against Communism were those nations rapidly losing imperial power. Although itself born of armed revolution and committed to the notion of self-determination of nations, the United States found itself pitted against colonial rebels and supporting European imperialists. Every blow against colonialism was a blow against the American alliance. Every embarrassment of an imperial nation weakened the U.S.-European alignment against Communism.

The Soviet Union had no difficulty identifying with anticolonial revolutionaries. In many cases the leadership of native movements was Communist. The Cold War was a struggle for leverage in an unstable postwar world. With Western Europe and the United States arrayed against it, the Soviet Union found it both politically advantageous and ideologically fulfilling to champion the liberation movements exploding in the Third World.

Besides being tied to imperialistic allies, U.S. policy generally was hostile to social change precipitated by the political left. It did not matter that radicals had legitimate reasons for revolting, or that native nationalism was not necessarily Communistic. While they might favor orderly democratization under selected pro-Western native leaders, American policy makers did not require social freedom as a prerequisite for political or military support. A strong anti-Communist was preferred by Washington over a liberal, socialistic or even neutralist leader. Any movement toward democracy coming from the radical left was almost automatically opposed.

Innocently and often ineptly, American foreign policy emerged from centuries of noninvolvement in great-power international poli­tics. Now the linchpin of the anti-Communist bloc, the United States quickly asserted itself around the globe. Presidents found bipartisan support for their foreign policies as Democrats and Republicans sought to show the world that the United States was solidly committed to a non-isolationist course of action. Indeed, George Washington's ven­erated dictum about avoiding entangling alliances was abandoned. By the end of the 1950s, the Americans had organized bilateral and multi­lateral anti-Communist alliances throughout the world—among them the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the Organization of American States (OAS), the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO), and the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO).

The men who early defined the political nature of television were solidly a part of the American system. As such they were committed to a conservative understanding of the need for process. In the cor­porate world view, social change had to be orderly and evolutionary. With vested interests in a world arrangement that were moral and psychological, as well as economic and political, these men felt especially threatened by the course of events following World War II.

The Cold War was a threatening development. Regardless of which side "caused" the confrontation, the fact remained that a polarized planet of mutually distrustful ideologies created a situation of general anxiety. At home this meant real fears of invasion or nuclear sneak attack. Afraid of subversion by a rival ideology, Americans lashed out at suspected Communist influences. In some of its more ludicrous forms, this translated into attacks against the fluoridation of drinking water which was seen as a Red plot to weaken the health of Ameri­cans. Books such as Robin Hood were banned from public libraries—Robin after all robbed from the rich and gave to the poor. In New York a divorce could be granted if one spouse charged that the other was a Communist.

But there were more ominous manifestations of domestic public fear. Dissent was effectively stifled. Police spies abounded, as did neighbors eager to inform on "suspicious" neighbors. Governments at all levels demanded loyalty oaths from millions. For purposes of employment, businesses had blacklists of suspected political deviates, and "whitelists" of the politically reliable. The careers of teachers, librarians, singers, actors, journalists, scientists, writers, and other professionals were interrupted or destroyed in this era of social purge.

Contrary to what J. Edgar Hoover in 1949 had wished from TV, this time of fearfulness compromised law and order. Guilt by association or innuendo frequently replaced due process of law. Men and women were persecuted and even prosecuted, not for crimes but for ideas. As David Caute has argued so effectively in The Great Fear, his study of the period, the true target of this social rage was the Enemy—the Alien, the Nonconformist, the Critical Force. Here then was a palpable lack of trust in the Other, who he was, where he came from, what dark gods he might worship in his strange language, and whether he was qualified as a good American or a dangerous "unAmerican."

Anxieties of the Cold War—plus residual distrust from the New Deal years and World War II—compromised American social freedoms at exactly the moment the nation appealed to the non-Communist world in terms of the preferability of American style liberty. The nation that had carved civil freedom into its legal foundations now failed to abide by its own ethics. This led Joseph L. Mankiewicz, president of the Screen Directors Guild, to decry in September 1950 the attack upon liberalism. "As much as the Negro or the Jew, as much as any other minority in the U.S.," he claimed, the American liberal is being "slandered, libeled, persecuted, and threatened with extinction." He con­tinued, "The American liberal is being hounded, persecuted, and annihilated today— deliberately destroyed by an organized enemy as evil in practice and purpose—and indistinguishable from—the Communist menace that fosters and encourages that destruction." This philosophical and professional destruction was most evident in the blacklisting of TV entertainers whose names became associated with Communism.

Following the lead of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, anti-Communist privateers focused their energies on "ex­posing" the Red-tainted backgrounds of people associated with the motion picture industry. Their earliest medium of revelation was a weekly four-page tabloid, Counterattack—The Newsletter of Facts to Combat Communism. Founded in 1947 by three former FBI agents, this publication attacked "Commies," "quislings," and "dupes" in Hollywood. It named "Communist front" organizations, many of which the U.S. attorney general did not consider subversive. It called for the blacklisting of "traitorous" actors, producers, directors, announcers, writers, and others in the entertainment world. In this time of Cold War fear, it mattered little that Counterattack charges were unsubstantiated, distorted, out of context, based on rumor, or culled from questionable newspaper citations.

Soon, however, the purgers were looking for Red influence spe­cifically in broadcasting. On August 10, 1950, on a WOR-TV panel discussion about Communist traitors in American society, the manag­ing editor of Counterattack, Ted Kirkpatrick, spoke bluntly to his audience. He warned that a few Reds could influence thousands of innocent citizens. He revealed that Communists were infiltrating American life—from trade unions to PTA organizations. Kirkpatrick added that this infiltration "extends into radio and television. Yes, to a great extent in radio and television."

Network executives, local stations, advertisers and advertising agencies, even theatrical professionals cooperated in creating blacklists for television. The main instrument for ascertaining an employee's adherence to "the American way of life" was the loyalty oath. Since the mid-1940s, for example, NBC had required loyalty statements from all new workers. CBS went one step further. In December 1950 that network required all its paid personnel to answer the following questions:

--Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party, U.S.A., or any Communist organization?
--Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of a Fascist organization?
--Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of any organization, association, movement, group or combination of persons which has adopted a policy of advocacy or approving the commission of acts of force or violence to deny other persons their rights under the Constitution of the United States, or seeking to alter the form of government of the United States by unconstitutional means.

Those answering any of the queries affirmatively were instructed to "make any explanation you desire regarding your membership or ac­tivities therein."

Most employees signed the oaths. A few refused for various rea­sons. Those not cooperating, however, resigned or were discharged. Fred Freed, a leading documentary producer at NBC in the 1960s, worked for CBS during the Red scare. He explained the fear that compelled men and women to violate their rights and consciences by signing the oaths. "I suppose finally we were afraid,” he admitted. “If you made a stand on principle and got fired for it, you'd be out of the business. That would be the end of your career. It wasn't just a job you were concerned about, it was your life's work. But I'm not sure that was any excuse."

To assist employers in identifying "subversives" in their midst, in June 1950 a new publication—a 213-page booklet, Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television—named 151 celebrities from the popular arts and culture as having been involved in pro-Communist activities. As Red Channels explained, “The Comin­form and the Communist Party USA now rely more on radio and TV than on the press and motion pictures as 'belts' to transmit pro-Sovi­etism to the American public.”

Jean Muir had been hired to play the mother in a video version of the hit radio series The Aldrich Family. But she was listed in Red Channels. One week before the show was to premiere in September 1950, Muir was dropped from the program because General Foods, the sponsor, did not want controversial actresses associated with Jello. Ireene Wicker who had been on radio for 17 years and on TV for two years as hostess of the popular children's series The Singing Lady was also named in Red Channels. Although she pleaded her innocence of all charges, she was abruptly dropped by Kellogg's, her long-time sponsor. And after two years on TV, in the fall of 1951 General Foods demanded and received the termination of Philip Loeb from his role as Jake Goldberg in The Goldbergs. Loeb, too, had been named in Red Channels.

Two entertainers said to be "pro-Communist in sympathy"—Paul Draper, a tap dancer, and Larry Adler, a harmonica player—appeared on Ed Sullivan's Toast of the Town in January 1950. Sullivan quickly offered a public apology to the Ford Motor Company and its ad agency, Kenyon & Eckhardt. From that experience, Sullivan learned to clear controversial performers through Ted Kirkpatrick. By 1954 Sullivan was calling for the entertainment industry to establish a board to review the political loyalty of accused entertainers, so that "If they can't clear themselves, the industry can blacklist them with a clear conscience."

Adler and Draper were banned from television. Wicker had another sponsored children's show, Little Lady Story Time in the 1953-54 season; but when it was canceled she left TV. Jean Muir did not work on television until December 1960. As for Philip Loeb, despondent over his failed career he committed suicide in 1955.

Hundreds of creative personalities were proscribed from TV in the 1950s and into the following decade. A few, such as Lucille Ball and Gypsy Rose Lee, were powerful enough to fight the charges, prove them baseless, and continue their careers. Others, including Canada Lee, Lee Grant, Paul Robeson, Hazel Scott, Louis Untermeyer, Joseph Papp, and the folk group The Weavers, lacked the mass pop­ularity with which to counteract and overcome their blacklisting.

Interestingly, no crimes were committed by those who were ban­ned from TV. None ever went to trial or was found guilty of break­ing a law. None went to prison or was deported. But in this time of loyalty oaths and distorted reactions to Communism, these black­listed celebrities had histories of support for liberal causes. That was their crime. Erik Barnouw has written understandingly of these "crimes" of human concern:

They had opposed Franco, Hitler, and Mussolini, tried to help war ref­ugees, combated race discrimination, campaigned against poll taxes and other voting barriers, opposed censorship, criticized the House com­mittee on un-American activities, hoped for peace, and favored efforts toward better U.S. Soviet relations. Most had been New Deal supporters. Some had favored Henry Wallace. They had backed lost causes. They had used the neglected right of petition. Many had perhaps been naive.

Blacklisting and the hunt for subversives in prominent places con­tinued throughout the 1950s. As late as March 1957, a Senate com­mittee headed by James O. Eastland of Mississippi issued a report titled Communists in Mass Communications and in Political Activi­ties. Into the early 1960s, moreover, the House Committee on Un-American Activities held contentious public hearings in its search for Communists and their sympathizers. Few broadcast journalists seemed willing or able—or courageous enough—to report on the personal injustices created by blacklisting and related censorial activities. The TV networks that maintained lists certainly did not favor such reportage. Not until the late 1950s—on Edward R. Murrow's Small World broadcast of March 8, 1959, when Murrow involved Ingrid Bergman, Darryl F. Zanuck, and critic Bos­ley Crowther in a discussion of the phenomenon—was blacklisting broached with candor by CBS.

More forthrightly, however, ABC received a special Peabody Award in 1951 for its resistance to outside political pressure. Presented to network president Robert Kintner and his associates Robert Saudek and Joseph McDonald, this prestigious award from the School of Jour­nalism of the University of Georgia praised the network and its of­ficials, according to Broadcasting, "for a firm stand at a time when stations and networks were firing or refusing to hire writers and ac­tors on the basis of 'unsupported innuendoes' in the publication Red Channels.

Two years later, in accepting a Peabody Award for his reporting, ABC newsman Martin Agronsky spoke frankly of journalistic silence and the blacklists. He recalled the words of Robert Kintner, spoken upon receiving the Peabody Award in 1951, that "Where there is smoke, there need not necessarily be a fire, but just a smoke machine, or perhaps a vote machine." Agronsky continued:

The irrational fears and emotions that psychiatrists tell us are the usual product of the tensions under which we all live these days, do not make easy the job of those reporters who conceive it their duty to keep look­ing through the smoke to see whether it comes from a fire, or whether it is just spewed out by the smoke machine operators, burning their trash and rubbish. And if there are those who think this an inconse­quential duty, they might usefully remember the one freedom which the great Chief Justice Holmes denied to even the most passionate libertarians when he wrote this—"No one has the right to yell fire in a crowded theater." Reporters who try to make people aware of those who would arrogate themselves this dangerous kind of right—which Justice Holmes decried—are more often criticized than rewarded. For that reason, I sincerely hope this honor from my fellow fire wardens of the Peabody Board will constitute an encouragement to reporters every­where to report what they see exactly as they see it. I can think of no more useful service a reporter can perform.

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