Exchange of Ideas
The premise for Thomas Doherty's thoughtful and nuanced study, Cold War, Cool Medium, is that there is a simple, black and white myth about television's role in 1950's anti-Communism. According to legend, television facilitated Senator Joseph R. McCarthy's rise to prominence, nourished the blacklisting of writers and actors, and contributed to the abortion of free speech. Only after the 188-hour spectacle of the Army-McCarthy hearings and the senator's losing confrontation with army counsel, Joseph N. Welch, did TV turn against the Communist-hunter.
According to Doherty, who teaches American and Film Studies at Brandeis University and has authored several books on the visual media, the actuality of 1950s television was far more complex than the myth. He makes a convincing case. To begin with, TV was not a flattering format for McCarthy. He tended to come over as harsh and sharp, when, as Marshall McLuhan noted, television, the cool medium, favored more mellow personalities. The model politician as TV performer was Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose laid-back approach fit perfectly. Before the Nixon-Kennedy debates, Ike had a successful television style.
Further, we wrongly envisage early television programming as one-dimensional. The box allowed McCarthy and his ilk to make their points, but gave a proportionate amount of time to their opponents, who used the live talk shows characteristic of the era to hit at Red-bating excesses. Before the Army-McCarthy hearings, the senator had been weakened severely by such journalists as Edward R. Murrow, who attacked McCarthy on his show, See It Now. McCarthy's filmed rejoinder was inferior to Murrow's technically and intellectually. Television was not friendly to bullies. When Reed Harris, a state department official being badgered by McCarthy responded that he resented the senator's attempt to publicly wring his neck, the brutal image stuck in the popular mind. More successful on television were figures whose anti-Communism took a subtler form. Thus, urbane Catholic Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, on, Life Is Worth Living (1952-1957), made a modulated case against Communism. [End Page 83]
Doherty's point, in short, is that early television was more multifaceted than supposed and that, rather than hurting the quality of public debate, it encouraged the exchange of ideas. It helped the burgeoning civil rights movement, partly by unmasking injustices, and by exposing to the camera lens racial stereotypes that could not stand visual scrutiny. For example, Amos 'n' Andy, a popular comic radio show with exaggerated black characters, folded on TV. At the same time, shows attacking Communism, such as I Led Three Lives, were often complex, presenting Communists as well-read, prepared to listen to their opponents, as opposed to members of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, often shown browbeating witnesses.
Doherty points out, too, that the blacklist issue was more complex than has been suggested. Insidious as the practice was in blighting careers, it was never fully effective or efficiently implemented. Some performers, who took the smears head-on, won. The most famous examples were Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez, who were too popular and powerful as media personalities to be reached by the blacklisters. Liberace, too, survived and prospered in an era when anti-Communism blended easily into slurs on homosexuals (weren't they all effete intellectuals?) and an excessively low neckline might consign a female show host to oblivion as fast as having voted Red in her youth.
The ultimate conclusion to be reached is perhaps not a cheering one for the present time. The progress of television has not shown an optimistic Darwinian-style evolution from crude beginnings to a sophisticated, mature product. Rather, early TV may have nourished more worthwhile debate, perhaps because it had to rely so heavily on live shows featuring journalists and other public figures that had not yet made lifelong careers of surviving on the box, with its slavish adherence to ratings, official network stances, and sponsor demands. Is it possible that today only a show like Bill Moyers' Now on PBS echoes the solid intellectual fiber of the early shows?
In the end, the exposure of McCarthy's personality and message to the scrutiny of the camera and his TV critics went a long way towards destroying him. The right thing happened. But the disquieting issue we are left with is what happens when a medium so all-pervasive in its cultural power fails to ask the right questions? When, for example, TV reporters only repeat official press releases without critical analysis, does the medium still contribute to the public good or has it become simply a propaganda tool, in thrall to a specific point of view? This might be the subject for a companion study to Cold War, Cool Medium.
Michael C. C. Adams