"You have to be true to yourself, to what you believe in. You have to have a bottom line. You have to have some place beyond which you know you can’t be pushed. It’s not politics. It’s morality." - Walter Bernstein, Writer
Blacklisting is the practice of refusing to hire or terminating from employment an individual whose opinions or associations are deemed politically inconvenient or commercially troublesome. In the U.S. tradition, the term is forever linked to the fervent anti-communism of the Cold War era, a time when government agencies, private newsletters, and patriotic organizations branded selected members of the entertainment industry as (variously) card-carrying communists, fellow travelers, pinkos, or unwitting dupes of Moscow. The rubric "McCarthyism" is often used as shorthand for the reckless accusations and limitations on free expression during the Cold War, but from a media perspective the term is something of a misnomer. The period of the blacklist pre-dated and post-dated the junior senator from Wisconsin's reign and McCarthy himself evinced little interest in the entertainment industry: his targets of choice were the Department of State and the U.S. Army. The blacklisting of directors, writers, and performers in film, radio, and television was the project of a much wider coalition of anti-communist forces, a web of interlocking agents that included government investigators (the FBI), legislative committees (the House Committee on Un-American Activities and the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee), private interest groups (American Business Consultants, AWARE, Inc.) and patriotic organizations (The American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars). They applied pressure on, and worked in concert with, fearful and compliant studio heads, network executives, sponsors, and advertising agencies to curtail the employment opportunities and civil rights of targeted undesirables.
The convergence of two cultural historical factors abetted the blacklist. One of the legacies of World War II was a heightened sensitivity to the political impact of the popular media; one of the coincidences of history was that television's early days paralleled precisely the escalating intensity of the Cold War in the years from 1946 to 1954. The contest between East and West, Soviet Communism and American Democracy, found its domestic expression in impassioned debates over the subversive influence of the mass media. In June 1950, the atmosphere reached fever pitch with the arrest of the atomic spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and the outbreak of the Korean War. That same month the editors of Counterattack, a four page "newsletter of facts on communism," issued a special report entitled Red Channels, The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television, a listing of 151 names of performers deemed to be communist party members or to have like-minded opinions and associations (called "fellow travelers" in the argot of the day). The Red Channels report formalized an informal practice in effect since at least November 1947 when representatives from the major Hollywood studios pledged they would "not knowingly employ a communist" and "take positive action" on "disloyal elements." Though the scholarship of Red Channels was slipshod--the actors listed ranged from unapologetic Communist Party members, to mainstream liberals, to bewildered innocents--its impact was immediate and long-lasting. CBS instituted in-house loyalty oaths; the advertising firm of Batten, Barton, Durstine, & Osborn recruited executives to serve as security officers. A study on blacklisting in the entertainment industry published by the Fund for the Republic in 1956 concluded that Red Channels put in black and white what was previously an ad hoc practice and thus "marked the formal beginning of blacklisting in the radio-TV industry."
As an emergent medium subject to government oversight by the Federal Communications Commission, television was the most timorous of the mass media when confronted by state power. The scrutiny of legislative bodies concentrated the minds of network executives powerfully, notably the hearings held by the House Committee on Un-American Activities in November 1947 and throughout 1951 and 1952 and a kindred set of hearings on the "Subversive Influence of Radio, Television, and the Entertainment Industry" held by Senator McCarran's Internal Investigatory Subcommittee in 1951. Moreover, as an advertiser supported medium still in embryonic development, television was especially susceptible to protests from special interest groups threatening product boycotts, pickets, or public censure. Casting the widest commercial net possible, the networks aimed for "100% acceptability" and assiduously avoided alienating any group of potential viewers.
Though the effect of the blacklist was punitive, its rational was preemptive. From the perspective of the networks, its purpose was less to rid the medium of subversive content than to avoid the controversy that ensued upon the appearance of a suspect individual. Rather than canceling the appearance of announced performers or firing known talent, the blacklist tended to operate off-camera, behind the scenes, by deleting or clearing talent in advance. Though the list in Red Channels was the founding document, other lists and publications (not to say rumors and innuendo) might also render an individual politically radioactive in the eyes of any one of the networks, sponsors, or advertising agencies.
For talent tainted with the communist brush, the path to vindication was tortuous. Once accused, actors might suffer in silence, defy the accusations, or engage in rituals of public recantation or denial ("clearance") either before Congress, in the public press, or at the offices of Counterattack itself. Given the difficulty of proving a negative, the total number of people burned by the blacklist--careers permanently derailed, jobs lost, or energies squandered--is difficult to gauge, but hundreds were listed and investigated and thousands were singed by paranoia. Even allowing for the vagaries of memory and self-romanticization, the blacklist traumatized a generation of artists in the entertainment industry. One particularly tragic case may stand for many. Listed in Red Channels, Philip Loeb, who played the warm Jewish patriarch in Molly on radio and in the show's first television season in 1950-51, was replaced in the show's second season after General Foods withdrew its sponsorship. An embittered and unemployed Loeb committed suicide in 1955.
In the wake of the TV-inspired downfall of McCarthy in 1954, some of the pressure to purge alleged subversive from the airwaves lifted, but the blacklist--both as a formal, institutionalized procedure and as an informal gentleman's agreement--endured well into the next decade. The motion picture industry begin gingerly defying the blacklist in the late 1950s and by 1960 was giving screen credit to once-blacklisted writers. By contrast, television, ever cautious, kept well back in the ranks of defiance. Not until the fall of 1967, on The Smothers Comedy Brothers Hour, was blacklisted folk singer Pete Seeger finally "cleared" for a return to network television.
Bentley, Eric. Are You Now or Have You Ever Been: The Investigation of Show Business by the Un-American Activities Committee, 1947-1958. New York: Harper & Row, 1972.
Burton, Michael C. John Henry Faulk: The Making of a Liberated Mind. Austin, Texas: Eakin Press, 1993.
Ceplair, Larry. The Inquisition in Hollywood: Politics in the Film Community, 1930-1960. Garden City, New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1980.
Cogley, John. Report on Blacklisting. New York: Fund for the Republic, 1956.
Faulk, John Henry. Fear on Trial. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1964.
Foley, Karen Sue. The Political Blacklist in the Broadcast Industry: The Decade of the 1950s. New York: Arno, 1979.
Navasky, Victor S. Naming Names. New York: Viking, 1980.
Vaughn, Robert. Only Victims: A Study of Show Business Blacklisting. New York: Putnam, 1972.
Video: Chairman J.Parnell Thomas brings the House Un-American Activities Committee to order: