Cold War, Cool Medium: Television, McCarthyism, and American Culture

Cold War, Cool Medium: Television, McCarthyism, and American Culture

Cold War, Cool Medium: Television, McCarthyism, and American Culture

Cold War, Cool Medium: Television, McCarthyism, and American Culture


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 clich s. 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.


Before fiber-optic cable and satellite dishes served up a buffet of triple-digit narrowcasting, before videocassette recorders and camcorders put the means of replay and production in the hands of the people, before even the ruthless network troika of nbc, cbs, and abc acquired dominion over prime-time programming, American television was a different kind of creature comfort. At the halfway mark of the twentieth century, the seedling medium had not yet blossomed into a garden of color, cable, and World Wide Web-bing. Their tv did not look like our tv.

Condemned to a mere handful of channel selections, paleo-televiewers adjusted rooftop antennae to receive clear reception and trudged vast distances across carpeting to rotate dials manually. Drab two-tone images in black and white, fuzzy and flippy, beamed forth from a pitifully small screen. the sets were serious pieces of furniture, mammoth in girth, encased in walnut or mahogany, molded to dominate a living room and displace the upright radio from the family hearth. Once common parlance, even the video lingua franca of the day has all but lapsed into anachronism: “snow,” “ghosts,” “vertical rollover,” “horizontal tear,” “airplane flutter,” “rabbit ears,” “test patterns,” “vacuum tubes,” “Please stand by, we are experiencing technical difficulties,” and—that bracing red alert, perhaps a portent of things to come—THIS is a test of the emergency broadcasting system.

The half-forgotten phrases and extinct folkways recall the tender years of a millennial force. the shows were mainly live, the programming scarce, and the viewers still somewhat spellbound before a miraculous new communications technology. in the early 1950s, as war raged in Korea and McCarthyism roiled at home, television first mounted its full-scale incursion into American culture. Growing up in parallel waves, the Cold War and the cool medium negotiated a cultural pact that demanded adjustments on both sides of the dial.

The terms of the contract were updated almost on a yearly basis, but eventually one partner gained the upper hand and resolved a vexing point of . . .

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