The Emergence of Politicized Television

Television and the Cold War became popular realities in the United States at exactly the same time. With its promise of improving the lives of Americans through wide-ranging programming, TV emerged as a technologically possible and financially affordable mass medium in the late 1940s. Simultaneously, the nation began to experience the generalized political, social, and military fear that resulted from the international rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Both manifestations were long in arriving. Television had been decades in the making. Throughout its gestation period in the 1920s and 1930s, the medium was heralded as the future arena for free inquiry and inventive diversion, a forum for improving the popular mind as well as entertaining and uplifting mass society. The Cold War, too, had been incubating for decades. And now, in the years immediately following World War II, it condemned the nation to an uncertain future replete with distrust, inhibition, and hatred of an enemy abroad and at home.

The Cold War emerged on several levels. As a geopolitical phenomenon, it was that rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union—the two nations that finished World War II as superpowers while Western Europe and its colonial empires were fundamentally weakened—on which the balance of world power and the future of global peace rested.

As a philosophical struggle it was that contest between liberal-democratic Western society with its modified capitalistic economic systems, and the Communist Eastern world with its authoritarian government and collectivist socioeconomic arrangements.

And as an unsophisticated struggle for the allegiances of men and women, in the popular American view the Cold War was that struggle between the tyranny of the Iron Curtain and the liberty of the Free World. Again in the American view, it was a moral duel against Com­munism, an ideology that was despotic, atheistic, and anti-American.

With the end of World War II, almost three decades of development had prepared television for popular acceptance. Ahead were several years of industrial retooling to produce transmission equipment and video receivers. Ahead, too, were technical perfections and improvements in programming breadth and sophistication. Nevertheless, as the nation entered peacetime, it also entered the long-awaited television age. After 1945, TV was becoming available and increasingly affordable. The FCC issued new licenses, private companies erected transmitters. With repeated exposure in such public locations as bars, hotels, restaurants, and the windows of department stores, millions of Americans soon viewed television for the first time.

For all practical purposes, TV came of age in 1948. That year Ed Sullivan and Milton Berle brought scores of celebrities and overwhelm­ing popular interest to the new medium. That year television entered the homes of average people as manufacturers produced 975,000 sets, an increase of 689 percent over the output for 1946 and 1947 combined. On the four networks in 1948—NBC, CBS, ABC, and DuMont —viewers found more programming and in a wider variety. Importantly, with this mass acceptance of video the broadcasting of news events could no longer be left to the sightless aural world of radio. Television demanded pictures, and television news meant reportage that offered visual images as well as spoken words. With such a mandate, in the late 1940s the Cold War quickly became the nation's first "television war."

That the Cold War and television emerged simultaneously was the result of converging historical trends. That video would soon be consumed by the East-West struggle and become a willing conduit for imagery and rhetoric uncritically supportive of partisan Cold War policies, was the result of still another historical coincidence—the politicization of American broadcasting.

In the decades before World War II, the radio industry developed as a balance between private business and federal regulation. The emphasis, however, was upon broadcasting as free enterprise. Unlike the heavily controlled state systems created in Europe and elsewhere, broadcasting in the United States was primarily self-regulating. There were government rules that stations respected, but for the most part the standards and practices of American radio were products of broadcasters themselves.

In theory government acted as an honest broker. It created and administered ground rules intended to benefit both industry and citizenry. Federal regulations concerned such matters as the licensing of stations, the strength of broadcast signals, the number of stations allowed in a single geographic area, the hours during which stations were permitted to broadcast, and the community standards that stations were expected to respect. In this way, the federal role was to ensure that commercial rivalries between stations did not harm the industry, and that listener sensitivities were not offended by rude, immoral, or illegal programming.

From the beginning, however, the federal government was involved as a producer of programs. As early as December 1920—only one month after the first regular radio broadcast—the Department of Agriculture began airing market reports for farmers. Within four years there were 1,000 stations carrying such government-issued information.

Throughout the 1920s federal agencies, including the Children's Bureau of the Department of Labor and the Office of Information of the Agriculture Department , produced radio series. On such programs as Your Child's Health, Housekeepers' Chats, and The Farm and Home Hour listeners received helpful information, entertainment, and the image of an active and caring government.

During the years of the New Deal, government exploitation of commercial radio increased markedly. Informational programs flowed from the National Park Service, the Department of Commerce, the Social Security Board, and the Works Project Administration. In most instances such programming consisted of useful hints on home main­tenance, personal health, government regulations, and the like. In the series produced by the Interior Department's Office of Education, however, the themes were patently political. In shows with titles such as Gallant American Women, Freedom’s People, Democracy in Action, Let Free­dom Ring, and Americans All-Immigrants All the Roosevelt administration used radio to popularize political values.

Federal broadcasting was popular. In 1936 there were 27 agencies regularly producing shows. By 1940 there were 42 such government producers. Further, if the success of the Federal Housing Administra­tion was any indication (82 network hours and 28,160 hours on independent stations in the fiscal year ending June 1937) federal pro­gramming on commercial radio was massive. All such broadcasts, moreover, were carried by stations and networks as no-fee, public service programs.

Government officials also made ample use of radio to communi­cate directly with the public. For example, CBS reported that in ad­dition to paid speeches at election time and guest appearances on discussion shows, between 1929 and 1940 senators and congressmen spoke to its network audiences free of charge on more than 1,200 occasions. Added to this figure was the utilization of radio by presidents: Herbert Hoover appeared 139 times on network programs in the period 1930-32, and Franklin D. Roosevelt exploited the medium even more. This reality prompted Carl J. Friedrich and Evelyn Sternberg to conclude in 1943 that politicians "have in radio a potent molder of public opinion—a powerful instrument which can help them to victory or defeat in the next election—and they have used it and will continue to use it to serve their personal fortunes, their parties, and their platforms."

There were no Communists regularly on American radio, although Communist Party candidates purchased air time during election campaigns. Except for WEVD, a local New York City outlet named for Eugene V. Debs, socialists were not often heard on capitalistic American radio. Even the Cooperative League, representative of the nation's rural cooperative movement, was barred from advertising on network radio until congressional pressure forced CBS and NBC to compromise. By late 1942 those networks agreed to accept advertisements from cooperatives “as long as their commercial copy advertises a specific product and does not attack other business systems.”

Nonetheless, within the spectrum of mainstream, capitalistic politics, American commercial radio did present divergent opinions. In his dinner speeches, addresses to Congress, and fireside chats, President Roosevelt presented the controversial views of his New Deal. Cabinet officers and other administration officials were heard frequently.

Roosevelt's political enemies were also on radio. Apostates such as General Hugh S. Johnson and Raymond Moley broadcast their views. Republican critics were heard, as were Democratic non­conformists such as Senator Huey P. Long of Louisiana. Throughout the 1930s Father Charles E. Coughlin railed on CBS, and then on his own ad hoc network, against international bankers, Jews, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and other matters troubling this proto-Fascist priest and political force.

In their varying political viewpoints, network news commentators presented a range of interpretations. On the conservative side, listeners encountered Boake Carter, who in the 1930s attacked the War Department, the U.S. Navy, organized labor, and President Roosevelt. Another prominent conservative was Fulton Lewis, Jr., a thorough isolationist and critic of the New Deal. But radio also featured liberal commentators such as H. V. Kaltenborn, who assailed such matters as Alabama racial injustice and the Francoist side in the Spanish Civil War, a side that enjoyed widespread support in the United States. Similarly, Dorothy Thompson spoke in favor of American involvement in European political and military affairs long before events at Pearl Harbor brought the United States into World War II.

The networks were careful, however, to limit broadcasts of opinion to those news personnel specifically rated as commentators. News­casters simply reporting events of the day were not allowed to editorialize. And entertainment shows scrupulously avoided politics. The great radio comedians of the 1930s, for instance, seldom told political jokes. With the exception of Will Rogers—whose reputation as a poli­tical jester had been established long before he came to radio—the radio clowns who helped listeners escape the doldrums of Depression life did so without joking about American or foreign government leaders, without humorous topical material, and without partisanship.

Network radio eschewed partisan politics in other forms of programming. Drama shows avoided stories involving war, domestic subversion, international intrigue, and governmental maneuvering. Discussion programs were careful to present balanced opinion on controversial matters. Although children's serials may have placed their young heroes abroad, these champions were studiously uninvolved with the world economic crisis and the rise of Fascism, Communism, and dictatorship in other countries.

Especially in matters of foreign policy, broadcasters sought a balance of acceptable ideas. Even the influence of President Roosevelt did not alter the balance in radio. By the late 1930s, Roosevelt spoke for a more active role for the United States in deteriorating world politics. He floated the idea of quarantining aggressor nations in the Far East. He challenged the Neutrality Act, which required an embargo on arms shipments to belligerent states. In the Atlantic Charter in 1941, he formally aligned the neutral United States with Great Britain, even though the British had been fighting a world war for two years.

Still, while public opinion by the early 1940s gradually moved into agreement with the president, broadcasters maintained their objectivity. Additionally, there were many interest groups to make certain radio remained neutral. Members of the isolationist America First movement monitored news and entertainment programs, and complained to authorities whenever they detected bias. The Republican party also protested when it felt the Roosevelt administration re­ceived too much air time for its interventionist ideas.

To guard against criticism, network and local executives reiterated station neutrality even though there was war in Europe, North Africa, and Asia. Importantly, the FCC took a hands-off position, allowing individual broadcasters to solve their own problems regarding news coverage and other programming.

After December 7, 1941, American broadcasting abandoned its careful neutrality, quickly becoming an instrument of support for administration war policy. In many ways, too, it became a manipulative medium for government propaganda. This was a crucial development in a nation where the boundary between federal regulation and federal manipulation of broadcasting had been strongly delineated. While this may be understood in terms of wartime exigencies, the politicization of broadcasting that occurred in the early 1940s established a precedent that endured well beyond the end of World War II.

In a certain sense, all radio before Pearl Harbor had been filled with material supportive of the American way of life. In part this resulted from the tendency of broadcasters themselves to support the general values, directions, and institutions of society. Second, because of the commercial nature of mass culture in the United States, it was always necessary for the competitive capitalist media to appeal to customers by reflecting, espousing, and defining attitudes that were popularly shared. In this way the contents of American radio propagated interpretations helpful to bourgeois American society with its liberal-democratic political and social system and its capitalistic economic institutions. Whether in a formulaic situation comedy or in the interpretation of world news, listeners could anticipate the appearance of themes such as the sanctity of private property, the importance of individualism, the rectitude of the American cause, and the prevailing of justice.

Government involvement in wartime broadcasting took distinct directions: the airing of vital information, the boosting of home-front morale, and the selling of the war itself. Whether through its own productions or by influencing private broadcasters, the government used radio to inform the citizenry about wartime problems. This might entail 30-second announcements regarding the conservation of fuel or rubber, or a request on a network entertainment show for the planting of victory gardens or the saving of scrap metal, old news­papers, magazines, and cooking fats.

The Office of War Information was most active in this area. Three times monthly it provided government fact sheets to radio writers. These gave the latest information regarding federal policy on the domestic and international fronts. Thus, a writer wishing to relate his show to wartime realities had the most current positions on such matters as manpower shortages, the need for women to undertake factory work, the course of fighting in the Far East, and monetary fluctuation at home.

Government propagandists also used commercial radio to convince listeners that the United States was right in fighting World War II. The sting of Pearl Harbor did not ensure a lengthy popular commitment to wage a two front war. The patriotism evidenced on regular network programming was also insufficient to ensure acceptance of the protracted war. Instead, the federal government became a producer of propagandistic shows whose intent was to keep domestic morale committed to the national war policies.

Dozens of programs carried out this mission. The Army Hour was a music and drama feature program that stirred listeners' emotions throughout the war. Soldiers with Wings was a Mutual net­work presentation that emanated from military installations and featured music, comedy, guest celebrities, a GI audience, and a positive image of the Army Air Corps. Music for Millions was a Treasury Department series on which renowned singers and musicians performed to raise money for War Bonds. The most flamboyant of government propaganda pieces, however, was Treasury Star Parade. This program consisted of more than 300 quarter-hour shows produced for the Treasury Department and heard in 1942 and 1943 on more than 90 percent of American radio stations. In the hyperbolic rhetoric of propaganda, this show sold War Bonds and American involvement in World War II. The programs were recorded in Hollywood and distrib­uted free to all stations willing to air them—whenever and as often as the recipient station desired.

This was radio in the service of government. Treasury Star Parade manipulated traditional social values, appealed for domestic unity, painted the enemy as demonic and the Allies as noble. It also intimidated listeners into buying War Bonds and supporting the war—all within a format that was well produced and highly entertaining. Typically, in one dramatic vignette, “The Second Battle of Brooklyn,” listeners were told that they, the noble common people, were indis­pensable, because this was a "little guys' war." As one character explained it, "Hitler ain't fightin' kings and queens, no more. We're the only ones who can win it... the little people, all dressed up in our haloes and gas masks."

Treasury Star Parade was wartime government propaganda. Deep-voiced announcers projected the horrors of Nazi-occupied Chicago, and they spoke of the savagery of the Jap­anese attack upon Hong Kong. Nazis were associated with arrogance, the enslavement of women and children, and the barbarization of European culture. The Japanese were mentioned in racially disparag­ing terms that depicted them as monkey-like and subhuman. Consider the words spoken by Fredric March in a program called A Lesson in Japanese:

Have you ever watched a well-trained monkey at a zoo? Have you seen how carefully he imitates his trainer? The monkey goes through so many human movements so well that he actually seems to be human. But under his fur, he's still a savage little beast. Now, consider the imitative little Japanese who for seventy-five years has built himself up into some­thing so closely resembling a civilized human being that he actually be­lieves he is just that.

These were emotional times. In many ways the Second World War threat­ened the American republic. But the war had begun in 1939 without the United States. For two years, while the official policy in Wash­ington was neutrality, the brutal Nazis and Japanese had slaughtered British, French, Chinese, Dutch, Polish, Russian, and other peoples. Yet, until the Americans joined the battle, commercial radio reported, but did not dramatize, the inhumanity of the German and Japanese conquests. Thus, rather than an accurate picture of Axis militarism that transcended government policy and public opinion to report the truth, accuracy seemingly had to wait until the United States entered the war. Then, it was rhetorically distorted, charged with emotion, and turned into propaganda supportive of the new government policy.

There were those in government and the military who argued that wartime radio should be placed totally under federal control. They pointed to examples among European and Asian allies where, even before hostilities began, government-owned radio was a reality. By the terms of Article 606 of the Communications Act of 1934, moreover, the president had the legal right to confiscate all broadcasting facilities in time of national calamity.

Yet, American radio was not confiscated. Government policy makers opted for an approach of­fering the best of both situations, maintaining the structure of broadcasting as a privately owned commercial business but inundating the air with propagandistic information and entertainment often produced under the auspices of federal agencies.

Further, while private ownership of stations and networks continued, many broadcasting executives entered government service during the war. The head of the government's principal propaganda agency, the Office of War Information, was Elmer Davis, a respected radio newsman who resigned his position with CBS to direct the OWI. William B. Lewis, a CBS vice-president, also left the corporate world to work in Washington.

William S. Paley took a leave of absence as president of CBS to become a radio expert on General Eisenhower's staff as deputy chief of the Office of Psychological Warfare. He left the service a full colonel. Similarly, David Sarnoff of RCA and NBC, for years an officer in the U.S. Army Signal Corps Reserves, entered wartime service and emerged a brigadier general. In this manner the federal govern­ment gained experienced and influential broadcasting personnel, and commercial broadcasting was assured sympathetic government "insiders" who respected private ownership and operation of the nation's radio stations and networks.

Government also enlisted the political services of most well-known entertainers. Celebrities from radio, film, popular music, and the stage patriotically lent their energies to the government. Personalities such as Al Jolson, Bob Hope, and Jack Benny visited American troops at home and overseas under the auspices of the USO. Kate Smith, Eddie Cantor, and Ralph Edwards were among the most successful campaigners for War Bonds. Special projects, such as the "Committee of 25," utilized the talents of Nelson Eddy, Kay Kyser, Jean Hersholt, George Burns and Gracie Allen, and others in morale- and fund-raising ventures.

This politicization of American entertainment was most pronounced in broadcasting. Here the federal government overstepped the boundary between regulation and manipulation, and became a prolific programmer throughout the war. Less than six months after Pearl Harbor, listeners were being bombarded with messages from the Departments of War, Treasury, Labor, and Justice—as well as from the Office of Emergency Management, the Office of Civilian Defense, and the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs. During the period May through July 1942, for example, radio stations carried 1,541,640 spot announcements and 186,075 live and transcribed programs, all supporting the national war effort. This represented a total of 35,995 free hours of air time given to the government.

The federal government also was concerned about programming it did not oversee. Although no harsh censorship laws were enforced, Washington depended upon an admixture of federal guidelines for broadcasters and self-censorship by the industry. In January 1942 the Office of Censorship issued the Code of Wartime Practice for American Broadcasters. It urged stations to censor news reports, ad-lib talk or audience participation shows, and foreign language programs—especially those in German and Italian. Broadcasters avoided references to the weather, fortifications, troop and materiel movements, casualty lists, war-related experiences, and the like. This censorship—in part self-imposed by American journalists and in part a required reaction to the Code of Wartime Practice—was justified as a precautionary measure. Its purpose was to frustrate domestic spies and saboteurs, as well as enemy military and naval commanders wishing to use commercial radio to communicate secret messages.

Radio cooperated fully with government during World War II. In a speech in 1950 at the FBI National Academy, Niles Trammell, chairman of the board of NBC, reflected on the closeness of commercial broadcasting to the war effort:

Radio in the United States shouldered arms and, together with the Amer­ican people and American industry, geared itself for total war. Throughout the long years until victory was won, it carried the responsibility of broadcasting for the United States government. The story of its contribu­tion is too large ever to be recorded in its entirety. Every wartime effort found its support in radio .... in every area of the war effort ... Amer­ican radio proved itself a mighty weapon in the nation's service....

The relationship between commercial broadcasting and government was altered by the experiences of World War II. While propagandistic excesses might have been rationalized as understandable aberrations of those dire war years, the lessons of that era would be applied to postwar American politics. Government would rely on radio, and soon television, to create consensus and support for its policies. Networks and stations would offer politicized programming in harmony with government policies. This was particularly true of federal efforts at thwarting the perceived threat from Communism and its political henchmen in the Soviet Union, China, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere.

In this Cold War era government would consistently use the air to persuade the nation. From the development of public relations images to the enlistment of mass support for specific decisions, national leaders relied increasingly on broadcasting to reach the widest audience in the shortest time. Broadcasters, in turn, eager to demonstrate their loyalty and to continue the struggle against those they felt would destroy the American way of life, offered their facilities and energies in the crusade.

Interestingly, the first great postwar test of this new cooperativeness occurred at exactly the time television was emerging as a popular medium, and the wartime alliance of the United States and the Soviet Union was disintegrating into an East-West struggle. Now the politicized broadcasting industry quietly stepped back while government purged the entertainment world of liberal and leftist personalities it felt to be subversive. Liberal-thinking entertainers had been warmly hailed when the national enemy was rightist Fascism. But in the postwar period, the new enemy was leftist Communism.

The impetus for national purification in this "Red scare" came from the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), which went immediately for highly visible and newsworthy targets—celebrities in the motion picture and broadcasting industries. Some bona fide Communists were uncovered. Some ex-Communists confessed their prior politics and named other party members. There were also those who had never been Communists, but who felt they knew colleagues who were party members—and they also named names. No bomb throwers or spies or sellers of military secrets were discovered. But HUAC did find a few idealistic actors, directors, and screenwriters who felt the Democrats and Republicans were impotent during the Depression and, wanting to stop the rise of Fascism, joined the only outspokenly anti-Fascist party in the United States, the Com­munist Party of the United States (CPUSA).

The broadcast industry readily fell in with the government purgists. Entertainers adversely touched by the hearings found themselves blacklisted from radio and, more important, the burgeoning new medium, television. It made little difference to broadcasters if, in the jargon of the day, these political deviates were "card-carrying members" (actual dues-paying members of the CPUSA), "dupes" (those fooled into supporting Red goals without realizing the error of their ways), "Pinkos" (those who were leftists, but not Red enough), or "Comsymps" or "fellow travelers" (those who sympathized with Communist ends without joining the party). The CPUSA was considered to be an arm of the Soviet Union, not a legitimate political party springing from the fabric of American society. Those said to be associated with Communism, then, were considered anti-American and conspiratorial. They were unwelcome in broadcasting. In this way the entertainment business became a political arena in which Cold War fears and ignorance became the basis for exclusionary professional policy. This was to be expected in a business that had been heavily politicized during the war.

Beginning in the late 1940s, television amalgamated these several historical developments. As the United States entered the Cold War and the age of video, it did so in an atmosphere of anti-Communist fear that gained persuasive popular expression in TV. Now a politicized industry, broadcasting quickly espoused the anti-Communism of the times. As the following chapters will demonstrate, in news and enter­tainment programming television presented Americans a picture of world affairs in which the honest, selfless United States was forced to defend the Free World against the barbarous onslaught of Communism—with its godless ideologues and automaton commissars in­tent upon conquering the planet. Those not wholeheartedly in favor of the national crusade were often suspected of being at least tolerant of the evil enemy. It was an oversimplified picture. But in the context of the United States at midcentury, it was widely perceived as genuine.

¤ Continue Reading          ¤ Previous Topic