Sixty years after the house un-American Activities Committee began hunting for Communists in the entertainment industry, the HUAC hearings that bred the screen blacklist are vivid in the received memory of countless Americans too young to recall the proceedings from life. Hollywood triumphed, ultimately, in ways more glorious than mere vindication. The movie business gained an ennobling narrative of persecution and martyrdom, a group hagiography that has become the sacred text of the studios. For many of us today, the era of the blacklist is a history we learned from Hollywood and one we conceive of in cinematic terms. We imagine a scene in black and white. Flash bulbs: Pop! The atmosphere has the tense formality of courtroom melodrama. There are bad guys: fleshy Washington politicians barking accusations, and scurrilous turncoats naming names. And good guys: defamed writers and actors defending their honor, upholding the First Amendment, and suffering for the sake of their principles.
This enduring conception of the blacklist period neatly simplifies it, reducing it to a clash between two familiar American institutions, Washington and Hollywood—the former, one to which we are generally disposed to suspicion; the latter, one grounded in our eagerness to suspend disbelief. Among the lesser-known problems with this mode of thinking are its sizable omissions. The cast of characters is too small for the story. After all, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the movie studios of southern California represented only one of two major power centers in American entertainment. The other was the broadcast industry, comprising radio—then the dominant form of mass communication in the United States—and the emerging medium of television.
Based in New York, the broadcast business functioned largely independently of the movie studios. Of course, the pools of creative talent in all realms of popular entertainment—including theater and recording—spilled into each other: Bing Crosby started as a jazz-band attraction, then made films and worked in radio; Jack Benny and Fred Allen got Hollywood contracts on the power of their fame on the air, although they did not translate well to the big screen; Judy Garland, a movie star from childhood, made hit records. Yet the traditions, the antitrust regulations, and the practical limits of communication technology and travel at the time kept the West Coast sphere of film-making and the East Coast world of broadcasting wholly separate on the levels of corporate culture, operating structure, and economics.
In the years following World War II, the broadcast industry was hit hard by the campaign against Communism that swept through nearly every corner of America. There were crusaders devoted to rooting out and exposing “pinkos” and anyone suggestive of a wisp of red who could be working (or trying to get work) on the air or in the control rooms; there was a broadcast blacklist, and it was enforced. While HUAC turned in time to the radio and television fields and carried some influence in New York, the driving force against Communist influence on the airwaves was not a body of the United States government but a tiny group of fervent mysteriosos functioning under the tactically generic name of American Business Consultants. And the organization’s forum of action was not dramatic public hearings, but a specimen of the humblest form of ad hoc journalism, a newsletter—two sheets of eight-and-a-half-by-eleven-inch stationery, typewritten and printed on an offset machine, folded into thirds, and delivered through the mail.