cover image COLD WAR, COOL MEDIUM: Television, McCarthyism, and American Culture

COLD WAR, COOL MEDIUM: Television, McCarthyism, and American Culture

Thomas Doherty, . . Columbia Univ., $27.95 (320pp) ISBN 978-0-231-12952-7

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. (Nov.)