- Reassessing Blacklist Era Television:Civil Libertarianism in You Are There, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and The Buccaneers
In the early fifties, the entertainment industry blacklist that had begun in Hollywood in 1947 spread to the television industry in New York City. Three former FBI agents formed the anticommunist organization American Business Consultants and in 1950 published Red Channels, a list of 151 writers, artists, and entertainment and media industry members that they suspected of being either communists, former communists, or one-time fellow travelers. The television and radio networks, afraid that employing anyone on the list would make them lose sponsors, fired actors and industry workers en masse, with no apparent prodding or influence by the state agencies.1
There was no great dividing line between the film industry and that of television in terms of the blacklist. The American Business Consultants outed film and television workers alike. But whereas scholars have seen the Hollywood blacklist either as an impediment to progressive filmmaking, or have written off the possibility that the old film studio system could ever produce left-liberal films in the first place, those that have written about television have been more likely to cite their medium of study as a site of resistance. In Cold War, Cool Medium, historian Thomas Doherty argues that television constituted a form that “utter[ed] defiance and encourage[d] resistance.”2 More recently, historian Andrew Falk has argued that television nurtured a progressive form of cultural diplomacy.3 [End Page 29]
I argue that even though television allowed blacklisted writers to work using pseudonyms or “fronts,” their ability to challenge the dominant discourses of the cold war was circumscribed by libertarianism. Powerful strains of this individualistic ideology emerged not only from conservatives, but from liberals and leftists as well. Like their counterparts in the film industry, left-liberal television writers might have previously written in the lexicon of the Popular Front, a social-democratic coalition of liberals and leftists that thrived from the late thirties and early forties. But after the blacklist came, these same writers were more likely to adopt a civil libertarian rhetoric that emphasized individual liberties over matters of social justice.4
In other words, Doherty and others are not altogether wrong in seeing effective liberal antiauthoritarian or antidemagogic discourses emerge from the television news media and entertainment industry during the 1950s.5 Where my approach diverges is in seeing the “McCarthyist” state as a means of governance rather than its origin. Anticommunism worked its way through the state, but it didn’t begin or end there. With this in mind, we discover that critiques of the state—that is, charges of fascism, totalitarianism, witch hunts, show trials, and blacklists—did not necessarily work in favor of the social democratic philosophies that had been the target of various red scare progenitors in the first place. In fact, in invoking the concept of “McCarthyism,” the historical subjects of this article (as well as many contemporary figures) have had the tendency to ascribe a large and diverse political phenomenon to the words and actions of one man. This reified a focus on the state that elides the more complex ways in which anticommunism worked symbiotically with various forms of liberal governance rather than adversarially.6
This article examines three television shows of the blacklist era: You Are There (1953–57), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1955–58), and The Buccaneers (1956–57). These shows are notable because they were relatively popular, and because their producers staffed the shows almost exclusively with blacklisted writers. In each case, the writers of these shows expressed the belief that they were combating red scare culture with their choices of plots. What is troublesome is historians and television scholars have taken reminiscences of the writers at face value. Their stories provide vehicles for us to examine the discourse of the period more critically, with an eye not only toward how the medium of television perhaps moved “left” or “right,” but rather to how the very conceptions of what constituted these categories shifted during this period of fear. Just as in Hollywood, the discourse of civil libertarianism provided left-liberals a means to...