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Cold War, Cool Medium

Cold War, Cool Medium: Television, McCarthyism, and American Culture

Copyright Date: 2003
Pages: 320
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    Cold War, Cool Medium
    Book Description:

    Conventional wisdom holds that television was a co-conspirator in the repressions of Cold War America, that it was a facilitator to the blacklist and handmaiden to McCarthyism. But Thomas Doherty argues that, through the influence of television, America actually became a more open and tolerant place. Although many books have been written about this period, Cold War, Cool Medium is the only one to examine it through the lens of television programming.

    To the unjaded viewership of Cold War America, the television set was not a harbinger of intellectual degradation and moral decay, but a thrilling new household appliance capable of bringing the wonders of the world directly into the home. The "cool medium" permeated the lives of every American, quickly becoming one of the most powerful cultural forces of the twentieth century. While television has frequently been blamed for spurring the rise of Senator Joseph McCarthy, it was also the national stage upon which America witnessed -- and ultimately welcomed -- his downfall. In this provocative and nuanced cultural history, Doherty chronicles some of the most fascinating and ideologically charged episodes in television history: the warm-hearted Jewish sitcom The Goldbergs; the subversive threat from I Love Lucy; the sermons of Fulton J. Sheen on Life Is Worth Living; the anticommunist series I Led 3 Lives; the legendary jousts between Edward R. Murrow and Joseph McCarthy on See It Now; and the hypnotic, 188-hour political spectacle that was the Army-McCarthy hearings.

    By rerunning the programs, freezing the frames, and reading between the lines, Cold War, Cool Medium paints a picture of Cold War America that belies many black-and-white clichés. Doherty not only details how the blacklist operated within the television industry but also how the shows themselves struggled to defy it, arguing that television was preprogrammed to reinforce the very freedoms that McCarthyism attempted to curtail.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50327-3
    Subjects: Sociology, Business

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-xii)
    (pp. 1-18)

    Before fiber-optic cable and satellite dishes served up a buffet of triple-digit narrowcasting, before videocassette recorders and camcorders put the means of replay and production in the hands of the people, before even the ruthless network troika of NBC, CBS, and ABC acquired dominion over prime-time programming, American television was a different kind of creature comfort. At the halfway mark of the twentieth century, the seedling medium had not yet blossomed into a garden of color, cable, and World Wide Web-bing. Their TV did not look like our TV.

    Condemned to a mere handful of channel selections, paleo-televiewers adjusted rooftop...

    (pp. 19-36)

    “Television’s top detective flatfoot show should do some detecting in its own household,” advised the Hollywood Reporter. “One of its employees is a Lefty actor who worked in the commie movie Salt of the Earth.” In 1953, when the warning was issued, the elliptical references were clear as crystal to the trade-wise readership of the motion picture daily. Translation: Jack Webb, producer-star of NBC’s hit police drama Dragnet, had better fire the actor David Wolfe for working on the communist-backed agitprop Salt of the Earth, an independent production by blacklisted filmmakers Herbert Biberman, Michael Wilson, and Paul Jarricho.

    Dark intimations,...

    (pp. 37-59)

    Though the effect of the blacklist was punitive, the rationale was preemptive. From the perspective of the networks, its purpose was less to rid the medium of subversive content than to avoid the uproar over suspect individuals. Rather than forcing the cancellation of scheduled appearances or firing known talent, the blacklist tended to operate off-camera, behind the scenes, by eliminating names from the potential talent pool. Neither networks nor sponsors wanted controversy or a cause célèbre; they wanted peace and profits.

    Nonetheless, television was too public a medium to keep all its business private. The institutional workings of the blacklist...

  7. FOUR HYPERSENSITIVITY: The Codes of Television Censorship
    (pp. 60-80)

    In the 1950s, television images traveled over the air, not via coaxial cable or fiberoptic lines. Electrons swirled out from towering transmitters, surfed on the electromagnetic spectrum, bombarded rooftop antennas, and linked up to the living room receiver, also known as the television set. The networks owned the equipment and the viewers owned the set, but the atmospheric path from station to station was a public trust, controlled by the federal government—and the highway patrol demanded tribute for using the road.

    The electromagnetic spectrum, the atmospheric corridor for television signals, might be likened to prime real estate where the...

    (pp. 81-104)

    Unlike motion picture stars, who shambled into television reluctantly, as if the smaller screen conferred a shrinkage in magnitude, politicians rushed before the cameras with lapdog enthusiasm. The popular misconception—that the marriage between television and politics was consummated only with the Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960—is at least a decade off. From its inception, television transformed the way politicians operated, candidates for public office being as cagey as advertisers in sensing the tremendous marketing potential of a vast coast-to-coast billboard.

    The first presidential election in the age of television confirms the prescience of the political class. In 1948, NBC...

    (pp. 105-133)

    The quality of live—the electrifying sense of witnessing events as they happened, of sharing experience in time across space—was the decisive and unique attraction of early television. Describing the radical switch from the grammar of motion pictures to the grammar of television, the media historian Erik Barnouw observed that the “real time” codes of live television recovered “an element that had almost vanished from film—one which few viewers noticed consciously but one which undoubtedly exercised an hypnotic influence.” Before television, spectators were conversant in only one moving image language, a dialect that found its most eloquent expression...

    (pp. 134-160)

    During the deepest chill of the Cold War, J. Edgar Hoover, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, reigned at the zenith of his power. Imperious, ascetic, ruthless in all things concerning the metastasizing reach of his beloved bureaucracy, he had long since federalized the face of law enforcement, reshaping the image of police authority from the town marshal to the G-man, the friendly cop on the beat to the aloof expert from Washington, D.C. Unaccountable and unassailable, Hoover occupied a unique status in the annals of unelected government officials: he towered above the law he enforced.

    The FBI was...

    (pp. 161-188)

    On Tuesday, March 9, 1954, at 10:30 P.M., CBS’s See It Now, hosted by Edward R. Murrow, telecast “A Report on Senator Joseph R. McCarthy,” a 30-minute inquiry into the methods and meaning of the man of the hour. It was network television’s first unflinching assault on the senator: a video exposé that stripped McCarthy down to bare essentials, hanging him out to dry on his own words and demeanor as he browbeat witnesses, snorted snide asides, and smirked like a vulture. At the close of the show, Murrow looked into the camera and delivered the coup de grâce. “The...

    (pp. 189-214)

    At some point during the thirty-six days of the sometimes tedious, sometimes riveting congressional inquiry known as the Army-McCarthy hearings, television emerged as the grand cathedral for the secular ritual of American democracy. The Kefauver Crime Committee hearings, the direct addresses of Truman, Nixon, and Eisenhower, the lively exchanges on the news forum shows, and the McCarthy-Murrow jousts were but warm-ups for a long-running, character-driven, political-cum-televisual show. After the Army-McCarthy program, the very word “hearings” sounded like a linguistic holdover: it was the pilot episode for a new series in which political events of sufficient moment and promising ratings would...

  13. TEN PIXIES: Homosexuality, Anticommunism, and Television
    (pp. 215-230)

    On April 30, 1954, a risqué exchange provoked gales of laughter from the unruly spectators at the Army-McCarthy hearings. While examining a doctored photograph offered into evidence by the McCarthy staff, attorney Joseph N. Welch sardonically suggested that perhaps “pixies” were the culprits responsible for the alterations. McCarthy snidely asked Welch to define “pixie” because “I think [you] might be an expert on that.” “A pixie,” the lawyer shot back, eying McCarthy’s side of the table, “is a close relative of a fairy.”

    The prickly banter made oblique reference to an unspoken suspicion hovering over the official charges and countercharges....

    (pp. 231-248)

    No ceremonial cleansing or ritual of atonement was performed to mark the end of the television blacklist. The process was mainly a series of small victories and private negotiations. Actors formerly persona non video were quietly permitted back on the air, their return unheralded; the long-absent bylines of writers and directors were discreetly restored, their names scrolling past without fanfare on the credits. The once indelible ink of the blacklist faded slowly, incrementally.

    Still, the diffusion of the gestalt of the blacklist can be roughly tracked and measured. In 1954 the critic Robert Warshow had whispered about “the present atmosphere,”...

  15. TWELVE EXHUMING MCCARTHYISM: The Paranoid Style in American Television
    (pp. 249-260)

    In writer-director Gary Ross’s motion picture Pleasantville (1998), a lonely, fatherless teenager (Tobey Maguire) is obsessed with the serene black-and-white world of a vintage 1950s television show. Devoted to a cable channel retreading syndicated chestnuts, he stares with naked longing at a series called “Pleasantville.” A hybrid of Leave It to Beaver, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, and Father Knows Best, the show transmits the clichéd images of Cold War America as viewed through decades of monochromatic reruns, known as “evergreens” in the trade, series that just keep spiraling through time and space on an endless coaxial loop.


  16. NOTES
    (pp. 261-292)
  17. INDEX
    (pp. 293-306)