We all remember the Hollywood Ten, the industry blacklist instigated by political demagogues. But there was also a broadcast blacklist, spearheaded by five little-known crusaders. Historian David Everitt explains how these self-styled communist-hunters bent the broadcasting industry to their will.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: While former members of the Soviet Bloc squabble, let's consider a lesser-known chapter in our own struggle with the Red Menace. We've all heard of the Hollywood Ten, the movie industry blacklist instigated from the top down by Senator Joe McCarthy, the House Un-American Activities Committee and the predations of J. Edgar Hoover.
But, as David Everitt lays out in his new book, A Shadow of Red: Communism and the Blacklist in Radio and Television, unlike the movie industry purge, the imposition of the broadcast blacklist was a bottom-up grassroots affair instigated principally by five men. Three were ex-FBI agents, one a former military intelligence officer and one a grocer from Syracuse.
In 1950, with the Korean War on the horizon, the ex-agents published a booklet called Red Channels, which listed 151 suspected Communist sympathizers in broadcasting, some famous and some not.
But, as Everitt notes, for Red hunters, rooting out famous infiltrators was less important, because even the lowliest Communist posed a threat. DAVID EVERITT: Someone once asked them what possible harm can there be if there was a Communist sympathizer who was the third violinist in a studio orchestra? And the answer that they came up with is, well, third violinist, he sits next to the first violinist and he knows the engineer and he knows an announcer, perhaps, so, in effect, anyone can be a possible security risk. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so you have these three FBI agents and their newsletter, called Counterattack, and their magazine, called Red Channels, where they list these people, mostly based in New York, who are members of Communist front organizations that seemed to champion good liberal causes, like international peace, civil rights, workplace protections. DAVID EVERITT: Of course, in the larger picture, as we know now, Communists weren't just in favor of unemployment insurance and civil rights. The Communist Party was involved in facilitating espionage in this country. And also what was going on is they were raising money for Communist causes. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you have this former naval intelligence officer scouting these people out. You have the grocer in Syracuse, New York, putting pressure on advertisers, and, through them, the networks. How did the networks react? DAVID EVERITT: Yeah. Well, CBS, which was considered to be the most liberal network and as a result really became the first target of blacklisters, they caved in very quickly – instituted a loyalty oath.
NBC, there were people who were blacklisted from their shows, but there were other people who might have been blacklisted but continued to work.
Then at ABC, very early on, Gypsy Rose Lee - she had a talk show at the time – became the target of American Legionnaires who made certain charges against her. And ABC's response was, let's see the proof that you have for these charges. And then the American Legionnaires essentially said, well, you know, we just got it from Red Channels. [BROOKE LAUGHS] You should really talk to them. [LAUGHS] Each person passed the buck. The net result was that she was not blacklisted. So there is a case of a network standing up to blacklisters, and they were able to get away with it. BROOKE GLADSTONE: It seemed that the consequences depended on how big a star you were. A relatively minor actress, like Jean Muir, could have her whole professional life disrupted, whereas Lucille Ball was another matter. DAVID EVERITT: That gets to something that I've thought was very important while I was researching this book. Obviously, anti-Communists, no matter how zealous they are, have the right to talk about who might be a Communist. But what gave them their true power was the fact that broadcasters, in fact, gave them their power, that they panicked.
And when it came to people who were not that important – that [LAUGHS] often meant writers, because they didn't really care about them at all - they would just immediately go ahead and get them off the airways. But then suddenly there was some information about Lucille Ball having some connection to the Communist Party going back to 1936. Suddenly CBS developed a backbone, and they stood up to the charges, and nothing happened. There were no consequences. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So all of this is going on behind the scenes. How is it playing out on the small screen or on the radio? DAVID EVERITT: You did hear, for instance, a radio show which was called I Was a Communist for the FBI. [CLIP PLAYS] [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] MALE ANNOUNCER: Many of the incidents in the story you're about to hear are based on the actual records and authentic experiences of Matt Cvetic, who for nine fantastic years lived as a Communist for the FBI. [END OF CLIP]
DAVID EVERITT: As you can pretty much gather from the title, it was quite an alarmist show. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Was there any fighting back on the radio? DAVID EVERITT: Actually, on TV there was one show called You Are There, which actually involved the use of several blacklisted writers who were working on the show through fronts, people who would lend their names to the scripts of blacklisted writers.
This was a show which recreated historical events and made it seem like they were news reports unfolding before the viewers' eyes. [CLIP PLAYS] MALE ANNOUNCER: Salem, Massachusetts, June, 1692. CBS is there. [END OF CLIP] DAVID EVERITT: They very often would do stories which were clearly political parables. They did one about the trial of Galileo. They did one about the Salem witch trials. These parables got a lot of attention among certain people, but I think if you look at them now, they really don't come across as well. They came across as really stodgy recitations. [CLIP PLAYS] MALE ANNOUNCER: This morning, a prosecution witness, the Reverend Mr. Samuel Parris, minister of Salem Village, testified that the alleged unnatural activities of Rebecca Norse are actually part of a much larger plot against the government. [END OF CLIP] BROOKE GLADSTONE: The blacklist effectively ended in broadcasting because of a lawsuit brought by a frustrated radio personality named John Henry Faulk. DAVID EVERITT: Yeah. He was someone who was known as a professional Texan radio personality, a raconteur who appeared on CBS radio. He was blacklisted in 1957. And what he did, unlike a lot of people, he decided to take a stand.
This brought all the issues finally out into the open. John Henry Faulk was awarded 3.5 million dollars, which was the biggest award settlement for a libel case up until that time. And this is what really effectively ended the blacklist. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Did it shame the networks and the advertisers into some backbone? DAVID EVERITT: Now they didn't need any [LAUGHS] backbone. It's interesting. Years later, there was a movie about that trial, called Fear On Trial, based on John Henry Faulk's memoir, and it was broadcast by CBS, who was certainly involved in his blacklisting.
There's only one network that's mentioned in this TV movie as being involved in the blacklist, and that's ABC.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] David, thank you very much. DAVID EVERITT: Oh, thank you. BROOKE GLADSTONE: David Everitt is author of A Shadow of Red: Communism and the Blacklist in Radio and Television. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]