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.
Television was a provocative medium almost from its inception. It brought the horrors of McCarthyism into American homes some claimed it abetted the effort but it also allowed viewers an opportunity to see ethnic minorities (The Goldbergs) and watch political debate (Meet the Press). Ultimately, it aided the decline of anti-communist hysteria. "Television became an artery as vital to the pulse of American life as the refrigerator," writes Doherty, Brandeis University film studies chair. He simultaneously explores TV's wonders and skillfully exposes the power of pressure groups on the new medium, which acted out the psychosis that dominated the 1950s. Relying on thorough and enlightening research, Doherty notes the ironies, anti-Semitism and class prejudices that underlined Sen. Joe McCarthy's ascension on the heels of HUAC, the House Committee on Un-American Activities. TV and the blacklist were the weapons of choice for McCarthy-styled politicians, whose ambitions and paranoia assaulted the decencies and legalities America held dear. In its embryonic stages, TV needed to fill airtime, hence, Doherty reports, "commitment to free expression and open access was self-interest." Americans saw the Hollywood Ten testify, but they also saw African-American performers on The Ed Sullivan Show, solid dramas on Playhouse 90 and the first presidential press conference. Television brought Bishop Fulton J. Sheen's Life Is Worth Living into living rooms, tethering Catholics to Americanism. Edward R. Murrow's See It Now, coupled with McCarthy's disastrous attacks on the army and rumors of homosexuality, contributed to his downfall. Doherty chronicles the medium and its players with style and scholarship, breaking his subject down by theme and focusing on particular programs throughout.