McLuhan's War

TV and Tailgunner Joe


Here we are, little more than a decade after the end of the Cold War, and it all seems like a distant, irrelevant dream, like the season of Dallas that turned out to be a figment of Bobby Ewing's imagination. Indeed, more people probably remember who shot J.R. than where they were when the Berlin Wall fell.

The speed with which the Cold War has dropped down the memory hole is all the more stunning given its once-central role in American life. Compared to World War II, the Cold War demanded few sacrifices from Americans, but it still permeated every aspect of everyday life, from duck-and-cover drills to ripped-shirt lamentations over the bullshit ending of the men's basketball final between the U.S. and the Soviets at the 1972 Olympics. Indeed, the Cold War haunted our culture so thoroughly that cosmonauts and Russian spies intruded with disturbing regularity even on the castaways of Gilligan's Island.

Though over, the Cold War shouldn't be forgotten, especially given the parallels with the current War on Terror. Soon after the 9/11 attacks, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was quick to link the two, arguing that the War on Terror "undoubtedly will prove to be a lot more like a cold war than a hot war." The Cold War, he said, "took 50 years, plus or minus….It involved continuous pressure….It involved the willingness of populations in many countries to invest in it and to sustain it."

Those similarities make Thomas Doherty's excellent Cold War, Cool Medium: Television, McCarthyism, and American Culture (Columbia University Press) more timely that its title suggests. Doherty, the author of (among other books) Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930-1934, has penned an engaging revisionist account of mass media and mass hysteria, forcefully arguing against critics who cast television in its early days as a co-conspirator in conducting ideological witch hunts and stifling dissent.

When it wasn't gutting journalistic and aesthetic standards to appeal to the lowest common denominator, goes that line of thinking, the boob tube was enforcing a repressive status quo in the dread gray years of Eisenhower's America. As the eminent historian Erik Barnouw put it, faced with the likes of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, television "would learn caution, and cowardice."

With characteristic nuance and insight, Doherty responds, "True enough—but it would also utter defiance and encourage resistance. The Cold War and the cool medium worked out an elastic arrangement, sometimes constricting but ultimately expanding the boundaries of free expression and relaxing the credentials for inclusion. Within a few short years, television had become the prized proscenium in American culture, and the stage was open to an array of unsettling opinions and unruly talent."

In dubbing television a "cool medium," Doherty is following Marshall McLuhan, who theorized in the early '60s that "TV is a medium that rejects the sharp personality" and that "the success of any TV performer depends on his achieving a low-pressure style of presentation."

In an entertainment context, the "unruly talent" unleashed by the small screen included people such as Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, who created the first great smash series, I Love Lucy. Doherty writes of Lucy, "In a decade misremembered as all whitebread homogeneity, male dominance, and stately decorum, the first breakout television show was brazenly multicultural, emphatically female-driven, and loopily anarchic: Lucy Ricardo (nee MacGillicuddy) and Ricky Ricardo, zany redhead and hot-blooded Latin, cornfed girl and exotic spice, wild woman and straight man."

Even a star as huge as Ball could not escape the politics of the period. In 1953 she was summoned by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) to answer questions about having registered to vote as a Communist a decade earlier. The subsequent outpouring of fan affection helped persuade CBS, which broadcast I Love Lucy, to stand by its star until she was "cleared" by HUAC. It also gave husband Desi the opportunity to proclaim that his wife's hair was "the only thing red about Lucy—and even that is not legitimate." Lucy and Desi were lucky; lower-profile actors, writers, and directors never received such support from the networks, who were especially fearful of advertiser backlash.

However craven the networks could be, Doherty also documents the ways that television facilitated "forums of the air" that made room for debate and ultimately undercut demagogues such as Tailgunner Joe. Doherty's history of the early political uses of television is never less than fascinating, whether he's talking about Dwight Eisenhower's pioneering but largely overlooked use of the medium ("he orchestrated his television campaign with military precision"), the forgotten impact of Nixon's notorious "Checkers speech" ("by all contemporary reckoning a televisual master stroke"), or "Kefauver Fever" (the popular reaction to televised Senate hearings about organized crime).

In Doherty's telling, "egghead Sunday" talk shows ranging from the still-running Meet the Press and Face the Nation to the long-gone At Issue and The Big Issue created new, highly visible spaces that promoted dialogue and dissent. Even at McCarthy's zenith, journalists on such shows were quick to challenge and correct the senator and his allies. And of course, it was television that proved instrumental in bringing down McCarthy and the irresponsible, corrupted form of anti-communism he embodied. Doherty recounts the origins and impact of Edward R. Murrow's two legendary 1954 anti-McCarthy episodes of See It Now, thankfully steering clear of the overstatement and hagiography that usually attend such material. As important to McCarthy's demise, Doherty writes, were the senator's own blustering performances during an "equal time" rebuttal of Murrow, the 1953 Senate inquiry into Communist influence at the Voice of America, and the 1954 probe that became known as the "Army-McCarthy hearings," during which the senator, with the help of Roy Cohn and Robert F. Kennedy, traded accusations about influence peddling and Communist subversion with military brass. It was after the last of those hearings that McCarthy was censured by his colleagues and began his quick descent into oblivion.

Why did McCarthy come off so badly? Doherty argues that he was essentially a "hot personality" betrayed by the "cool medium" of TV. "A decade before Marshall McLuhan coined the terms," he writes, "the Army-McCarthy hearings showed how a hot personality melted under the glare of television."

Whether contemporary TV—especially the talk fests that now fill the cable news channels—is a cool medium is up for grabs. Certainly the bombast of cable's top yak show host, Bill O'Reilly, seems anything but cool. (As an occasional O'Reilly Factor guest who has had his mike cut off during blistering exchanges with the ayatollah of the no-spin zone, I say this lovingly, like an abused child.) Yet Doherty's larger point about television seems right on target in an age of proliferating TV channels and other news outlets. "Ultimately," he writes, "the insatiable demand for material—more thought, more talk, more tales, more personalities—would override the timidity of the medium in the presence of power" and lead to wider-ranging discussions from an increasing number of perspectives.

If he's right that "during the Cold War, through television, America became a more open and tolerant place," something similar is surely going on as we fight the War on Terror.