As Everitt explains in lucid detail, Counterattack was published by a trio of enterprising young FBI dropouts: Kenneth M. Bierly, John G. Keenan, and Theodore C. Kirkpatrick, all of whom had joined the bureau in the early forties and were assigned to the FBI’s New York-based “Communist Squad,” a division charged with sniffing out subversion in communications, transportation, and other fields considered vital in a time of war or national crisis. United in a conviction that the postwar expansion of Soviet power represented an immediate crisis as well as an entrepreneurial opportunity, Bierly, Keenan, and Kirkpatrick left the FBI, separately, and later regrouped. Their debut effort was an anti-Communist magazine called Plain Talk. When it failed, as most magazine start-ups do, the former agents switched to a more economical publishing model and set up American Business Consultants.
Counterattack, subtitled The Newsletter of Facts on Communism, was at once a descendant of the earliest American news sources and an ancestor to the personalized, targeted Web journalism of the blog era. Designed for the first mode of mass communication in the New World, the mail, eighteenth-century publications such as The Boston News-Letter informed colonial readers about births and deaths, ship arrivals and departures, and other comings and goings of public interest. After newspapers as we know them took form, newsletters declined in numbers for several decades only to flourish again in the early 1900s, this time providing the near opposite of mass communication: highly specialized information gathered by experts with unique access, relayed in clubby “inside” language, and delivered directly to subscribers by mail. Thousands of newsletters on subjects from gold prospecting to foot care were thriving by the mid-twentieth century. Newsletter publishing was the blogosphere of the cold-war era.
First printed in the spring of 1947, a few months before HUAC opened its hearings on the film industry, Counterattack had two missions: one, ostensibly journalistic, the other vigorously interventionist. First, it set out to expose everyone it could find who had any connection, however dubious or tenuous, to anything or anyone associated with Communism, Socialism, the Soviet Union, or progressive ideology. Then, more significantly, Counterattack sought to rally its subscribers to action against the individuals it targeted. In its assault on performers and production personnel in radio and television, Counterattack exhorted its readers to write protest letters to the corporate sponsors of programs featuring actors with purported links to the left.
Counterattack—like its digital progeny, such as The Drudge Report—flattered its audience with cryptic tidbits of information and pseudo-information obtained by unexplained means. “here’s a secret communist-party document, now in possession of counterattack,” began a typical item, in the capital letters that then, as now, read like a scream. The contents of the document, in its entirety, were these:
Dear Comrade: spring! clean up time is here—Your desks, files, pockets and your homes—all excess baggage to be destroyed.
Through obscurity and indirection, Bierly, Keenan, and Kirkpatrick gained influence. The names of the partners were never mentioned in Counterattack, nor were their claims supported with conventional journalistic or scholarly citations. Thus, the whole operation was left to grow in the reader’s imagination. Unlike HUAC, which acted on behalf of mere government, Counterattack represented the more powerful realm of fantasy.
For several years, articles in Counterattack ridiculed the idea of a broadcast blacklist while it labored to make that list reality. “If [there] were a blacklist,” the newsletter suggested in its issue of July 22, 1949, “there would be mighty few party-liners in radio .You can help to alleviate it by notifying the sponsor and the agency whenever you learn of a Communist or fellow-traveler on payroll of any sponsored program.”
In 1950, Bierly, Keenan, and Kirkpatrick dropped the doublespeak and simply published the list of performers and others in broadcasting the partners decreed to be “Communists and Communist sympathizers [who] have no place on our air.” The now notorious booklet, Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television, listed 151 names, among them the radio writer and broadcaster Norman Corwin; the actors John Garfield, Judy Holiday, and Lena Horne; and the poet Langston Hughes. Horne, who had had enough trouble being accepted in white America without being further marginalized for her loose association with liberal politics, would bellow at the mention of Red Channels forty years after it was published. “Those bastards,” she would say, were “crooks” and “blackmailers.” Indeed, Bierly, Keenan, and Kirkpatrick opened themselves to charges of racketeering by marketing services to clear the names they had cited in Counterattack or listed in Red Channels.