Blacklisting was a uniquely American political reaction to a perceived threat to internal security during the early years of the Cold War when there arose a public concern that individuals loyal to what was believed to be an "international Communist conspiracy" might be infiltrating American institutions.
In 1947, J. Edgar Hoover, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee and claimed that the Communist Party had "taken to the air" as its "medium of propaganda." Those statements contributed to a growing atmosphere of suspicion toward radio.
Outside government, some private individuals believed HUAC was not doing an adequate job. Three such men were Ken Bierly, Ted Kirkpatrick and John Keenan, ex-FBI agents in New York. In April 1947, they set up American Business Consultants "to obtain, file and index factual information on Communists, Communist fronts and other subversive organizations."
American Business Consultants' main instrument was a weekly newsletter called "Counterattack: The Newsletter of Facts on Communism," whose content consisted largely of names and data collected from HUAC, the attorney general's office and other lists. While little of Counterattack concerned broadcasting during its first three years, several large advertisers subscribed to the publication, included E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., General Motors Corp., Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and Bendix Aviation Corp.
On June 22, 1950, Counterattack published "Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio & Television," a special report that rocked the broadcasting and advertising industries. The 215-page report, which represented the unofficial beginning of the blacklist, named 151 individuals in the entertainment world suspected of having communist sympathies or associations.
June 1950 proved to be a flash point for the Communist issue in the U.S.: The Soviet Union recently had developed the atomic bomb; a Communist revolution had swept China; a second trial had concluded that Alger Hiss was indeed part of a Soviet espionage ring; Sen. Joseph McCarthy had charged that there were Communists in the State Department; and it was widely believed (correctly, it is now agreed) that there were a number of Communists and Communist caucuses active in trade unions, including those involved in the broadcasting industry.
Above all, the very week "Red Channels" was published, the U.S. went to war with North Korea. Many U.S. advertisers and ad agency executives suddenly gave up trying to distinguish between liberals and subversives in the face of a Communist threat, both internal and external, that seemed to have a basis in fact.
With no clear strategy of its own, Madison Avenue turned to "Counterattack." In September 1950, Wildroot hair tonic dropped its sponsorship of the TV series "The Adventures of Sam Spade," based on a Dashiell Hammett character and starring Howard Duff. Both men had been on the "Red Channels" list.
Dropping "controversial" performers
General Foods Corp. and its agency, Young & Rubicam, found themselves at the center of highly publicized incidents in the wake of "Red Channels." In August 1950, Y&R cast actress Jean Muir in a TV version of "The Aldrich Family," sponsored by Jell-O, even though Ms. Muir had been named two months before in the report. When Y&R, General Foods and NBC began receiving letters and calls, concern mounted. The program's debut was postponed a week, during which time Ms. Muir was quietly replaced.
With no evidence to support any wrongdoing by Ms. Muir and mindful of libel and slander laws, General Foods and Y&R made no accusations against her and offered no reason for her dismissal other than a desire to avoid "controversy."
The two faced a similar situation a few weeks later when Y&R was asked to drop Phillip Loeb, another name on the "Red Channels" list, from "The Goldbergs" TV series, which the agency produced. This time, however, the show's creator and star, Gertrude Berg, stood by Mr. Loeb. Instead, General Foods simply dropped the program at the end of the season "for economic reasons."
Those incidents were highly embarrassing to General Foods and Y&R. To repair the damage, in September General Foods announced in September a "temporary" suspension of its policy toward "controversial" performers. However, the suspension did not last, nor did it weaken the blacklist. It merely drove it behind closed doors and deeper into a shroud of discretion and denials by agencies, which, as producers of their clients' radio and TV programs, were reluctantly obliged to become the blacklist's principal enforcers.
There were many gradations of blacklisting on Madison Avenue. Few performers were actually considered totally "unemployable." They could work for certain sponsors, certain agencies, certain networks, but not others. Some were suitable for radio but not TV.
Robert Carney, speaking for Foote, Cone & Belding, laid out the common agency position: "As an advertising agency, it is our job to increase sales of our clients' products . . . and to enhance their public acceptance. It is our policy to refrain from employing anyone who may embroil our clients in controversies of any kind, for any reason."
In 1954, four agencies in the U.S. controlled $542 million, or 64% of the money spent in all media by the top 100 agencies. Because about 42% of that, or about $229 million, went to broadcast time, those four agencies had enormous power over the networks and dominated the hiring of production and performing talent. The largest agency was Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn at $148 million, followed very closely by Y&R, J. Walter Thompson Co. and McCann-Erickson.
Many agencies publicly denied working with freelance consultants and rarely admitted to any use of lists. Privately, agencies had to make judgments because they hired most of the talent, a responsibility that obliged them to produce winning programs as well as shield their clients from embarrassment.
If the agencies were eager to take control of talent hiring from "Counterattack" and the vigilantes, the networks were just as eager to take control of it from the agencies. This meant that the networks, like the agencies, had to get into the business of security. CBS, which entered the 1950s with an unfashionably left-wing reputation, was more than willing to walk the extra mile in order to prove its anticommunist credentials. It became the only network to require a loyalty oath. That reputation tended to make a CBS clearance negotiable currency anywhere on Madison Avenue.
By 1955, security screening was functioning so smoothly and quietly in most of the larger agencies and the networks that it seemed to drop from public attention. The vigilantes continued to persevere, and in 1956 one such group, Aware Inc., finally went too far.
It attacked a CBS radio personality named John Henry Faulk, who had just been elected VP of the New York chapter of the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists on a centrist ticket opposing the methods of Counterattack and Aware Inc. In June 1956, Mr. Faulk launched a counterattack in a lawsuit. After five years in the courts, he won a judgment of $3.5 million. More important, the trial revealed how a small group of right-wing extremists had brought the U.S.' largest advertisers, ad agencies and broadcasting networks to heel. It was the verdict that finally broke the back of the independent blacklisters.
By the early 1960s, rising costs and other factors forced advertisers to retreat from full sponsorships of programs to participating sponsorships. As control of production moved away from ad agencies and toward independent producers and the networks, Madison Avenue's once enormous influence over talent and creative decisions became limited to the production of commercials.