Red Smears: A Legacy

Red Channels was the bible of the blacklist. It was the paperback book that contained the names and affiliations of American born and immigrant actors, directors, writers, and others in the movie, radio, and TV industries who admitted to, were suspected of, or were falsely accused of being members of the Communist Party. Not entirely unlike today’s “Terrorist Watch List,” which appears to catch more unsuspecting innocent fish than the big sharks in their nets, Red Channels‘ methodology for branding the unwanted Reds was often based on hearsay and innuendo—or the sound of a name.

Red Channels, The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television, a listing of 151 names of performers deemed to be communist party members or to have like-minded opinions and associations (called “fellow travelers” in the argot of the day). The Red Channels report formalized an informal practice in effect since at least November 1947 when representatives from the major Hollywood studios pledged they would “not knowingly employ a communist” and “take positive action” on “disloyal elements.” Though the scholarship of Red Channels was slipshod–the actors listed ranged from unapologetic Communist Party members, to mainstream liberals, to bewildered innocents–its impact was immediate and long-lasting. CBS instituted in-house loyalty oaths; the advertising firm of Batten, Barton, Durstine, & Osborn recruited executives to serve as security officers. A study on blacklisting in the entertainment industry published by the Fund for the Republic in 1956 concluded that Red Channels put in black and white what was previously an ad hoc practice and thus “marked the formal beginning of blacklisting in the radio-TV industry.”

The lists were put forth avoiding any libelous language. Yet to be selected for Red Channels implied those named were “the Red Fascists and their sympathizers.” The thinking, at the height of McCarthyism and Cold War fears, was to rid the most invasive media of the day of any potentially unpatriotic elements.  Each name, like folk singer Pete Seeger and satirist and author Dorothy Parker (below), is followed by information, some of it provided by FBI and House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) citations as well as articles culled from the mainstream press, industry trade journals, and Communist publications, which may have covered a specific personality. Many of these citations were democratic organizations or volunteer relief committees that were placed on lists of suspicious activities.

It is sobering to see exactly what a blacklist looks like. A designer created the cover, a typographer set the type, and a printer made it a book. What could be simpler?

Introduction excerpted from Red Channels

A page from The New Yorker author Dorothy Parker’s entry

Pete Seeger’s entry kept him off television for many years.

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