Red Channels

In its first three years of investigating the entertainment industry the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) managed to get a large number of people blacklisted for their political views. This included Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, Albert Maltz, Adrian Scott, Samuel Ornitz, Dalton Trumbo, Edward Dmytryk, Ring Lardner Jr., John Howard Lawson, Alvah Bessie, Larry Parks, Leo Townsend, Isobel Lennart, Roy Huggins, Richard Collins, Budd Schulberg, Elia Kazan, Clifford Odets, Michael Wilson, Paul Jarrico, Jeff Corey, John Randolph, Canada Lee, Paul Robeson, Richard Wright and Abraham Polonsky.

Protest meeting of Hollywood Ten
Protest meeting of Hollywood Ten

In 1947 Roy Brewer, a close friend of Ronald Reagan was appointed to the Motion Picture Industry Council. Brewer later commissioned a booklet entitled Red Channels. Published on 22nd June, 1950, and written by Ted C. Kirkpatrick, a former FBI agent and Vincent Hartnett , a right-wing television producer, it listed the names of 151 writers, directors and performers who they claimed had been members of subversive organisations before the Second World War but had not so far been blacklisted.

The names included in Red Channels had been compiled from a variety of sources including a right-wing journal, Counterattack , FBI files and a detailed analysis of the Daily Worker, a newspaper published by the American Communist Party. A free copy was sent to those involved in employing people in the entertainment industry. All those people named in the pamphlet were blacklisted until they appeared in front of the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and convinced its members they had completely renounced their radical past.

People listed in Red Channels included Larry Adler, Stella Adler, Leonard Bernstein, Marc Blitzstein, Joseph Bromberg, Lee J. Cobb, Aaron Copland, John Garfield, Howard Da Silva, Dashiell Hammett, E. Y. Harburg, Lillian Hellman, Burl Ives, Zero Mostel, Arthur Miller, Betsy Blair, Dorothy Parker, Philip Loeb, Joseph Losey, Anne Revere, Pete Seeger, Gale Sondergaard, Howard K. Smith, Louis Untermeyer and Josh White.

Marsha Hunt was another one who was named in Red Channels: "Well, that ended my career. Red Channels came out in the summmer of 1950, while - how's this for irony? - I was in Paris being invited to dinner by Eleanor Roosevelt. Red Channels was concerned entirely with the broadcast field. The film industry later had its own lists of victims. Red Channels included me because I had been offered my own TV talk show. I'd had beginner's luck on TV, being, as you can see, very voluble. I had been on a number of early talk shows with people like George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly, bright, articulate folk. And I was currently quite successful on Broadway, having starred in Joy to the World with Alfred Drake and The Devil's Disciple with Maurice Evans in 1950.... They had listed several affiliations under my name - some I'd never heard about, complete lies. One, I think, had me attending a peace conference in Stockholm. I had never been to Stockholm, nor to a peace conference. The rest were innocent activities that Red Channels viewed with suspicion."

Hunt's husband, Robert Presnell Jr., was never blacklisted and was not prevented from working: "I don't think I could have survived without being married. Inexplicably, Robert was not blacklisted. I cannot tell you why. He was certainly more outspoken in his political pronouncements and outrage about what was going on, and enjoyed a good argument. He was without any kind of political discretion. And yet he kept working. Thank heaven. He was never a top-salary screenwriter, but he did work.... I, to keep functioning, would do plays in stock. I did twenty or thirty different plays around the country during the 1950s and 1960s. That was not very rewarding financially, because you had to spend a week rehearsing and then one week playing."

Raymond Gram Swing was a strong opponent of Joseph McCarthy and on the advice of Edward R. Murrow and Hans von Kaltenborn, he agreed to debate with Ted C. Kirkpatrick, the co-author of Red Channels, at the Radio Executives Club on 19th October, 1950. "I shall be brief in giving the reasons why I believe the approach of Red Channels is utterly un-American. It is a book compiled by private persons to be sold for profit, which lists the names of persons for no other reason than to suggest them as having Communist connections of sufficient bearing to render them unacceptable to American radio. The list has been drawn up from reports, newspaper statements and letterheads, without checking, and without testing the evidence, and without giving a hearing to anyone whose name is listed. There is no attempt to evaluate the nature of the Communist connections. A number of organizations are cited as those with whom the person is affiliated, but with no statement as to the nature of the association."

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Raymond Gram Swing, speech to the Radio Executives Club (19th October, 1950)

Let me begin by saying that we are dealing with an unsolved problem. One of the questions we have to answer is whether Mr. Kirkpatrick and his associates and Red Channels are the right way to solve it. Let me state the problem as I see it. It is not only how the American public is to be protected from insidious, concealed Communist infiltration in the radio industry. Obviously that by itself is an undeniable necessity of the greatest urgency and importance. But there also is the need of protecting American standards and American freedom, both in radio as an employer and through radio as an instrument of democratic survival. There must not be Communist influence in American radio. But there also must not be the slightest weakening of genuine Americanism in keeping out the Communist influence.

I shall be brief in giving the reasons why I believe the approach of Red Channels is utterly un-American. It is a book compiled by private persons to be sold for profit, which lists the names of persons for no other reason than to suggest them as having Communist connections of sufficient bearing to render them unacceptable to American radio. The list has been drawn up from reports, newspaper statements and letterheads, without checking, and without testing the evidence, and without giving a hearing to anyone whose name is listed. There is no attempt to evaluate the nature of the Communist connections. A number of organizations are cited as those with whom the person is affiliated, but with no statement as to the nature of the association.

Furthermore, in addition to Red Channels and the news letter Counter-Attack which published it, the Kirkpatrick associates offer a so-called screening service to employers, whereby they will tell them whether the names of their employees are on any of their lists. So a profitable enterprise is put together, which makes quite a thing out of pretending to help keep radio safely American by these slipshod and strangely un-American ways.

I could use much of my time in demonstrating that Red Channels is one-sided in important particulars. There are cases of inaccuracies which I shall not try to enumerate. I don't want you to think that if Mr. Kirkpatrick and his associates were more workmanlike I would approve of them. I wouldn't.

The point I want to make is that Red Channels does not show that there is any clear and present danger to the people of the United States if the persons it lists work in American radio. And to prove that is, I believe, the only legal or ethical reason that can be advanced in America for not employing these persons. The technique used is that of the blanket smear, against which, as you experts in public relations will appreciate, there is no adequate disinfectant or deodorant. A person once named, however innocent he may be, can never be quite rid of the taint, the taint not of his guilt, but of his having been named. It is the power of people using these methods that an ounce of insinuation outweighs a ton of fact. It is conviction by a private committee without even a trial. Certain persons are declared guilty without weighing the evidence and then punished for life without possibility of sufficient redress even if the most flagrant wrong has been done...

Let me point out that Red Channels is largely a compilation of the performing artists. There are few commentators in it (and may I say that the two of these I know most about should not be listed at all, and it is an outrage that they are).

In reality Red Channels is little more than a blacklist of these artists which borrows a dignity it is not entitled to because it plays on the very true and present danger to America of Communist influence on American political life. Because Communism is a danger, Red Channels appears to be rendering a public service. The fact is that Red Channels really does not take up much more than the feeblest category of danger, the category of the performing artists, and does not even refer to the third and fourth categories I have named.

I should mention that Mr. Kirkpatrick and his associates have the backing of a committee which can recruit letter-writers and telephone callers to denounce the appearance of blacklisted persons on the air, they can flood a radio switchboard with protesting telephone calls, they can pretend that they represent a large part of the public. And if a radio executive or advertising agency is pressed for time, and frightened about offending a substantial section of the listening public, he may be tempted to shirk his own responsibility to inquire into the truth himself.

Nothing is easier than to gather together a small group of an identical bigotry and the same political hatreds, and produce telephone calls and letters by the dozens. Everyone in radio knows this. Every Congressman knows it. It is one of the facts of life of a democracy. And it is, as I said, nothing new in America.

But let me repeat that the pressure group is not the danger to American life, nor is the blacklist. The danger from these is not that they exist, but that those who have been vested with the power of safeguarding America yield some of their power to pressure groups and blacklisters. The weakness in American democracy would come from those who, having been given responsibility for one of America's most vital institutions, unwittingly, or carelessly, or timidly, yield some of their authority to people who are not entitled to it. Let the danger of communism be met, not by resort to stealthy weapons, not by blacklists, not by unventilated and often inaccurate charges, but openly and with courageous faith in the due process of law, faith in a civilization which fully protects the free rights of the individual.

(2) Marsha Hunt, interviewed by Glen Lovell in Tender Comrades (1997)

Well, that ended my career. Red Channels came out in the summmer of 1950, while - how's this for irony? - I was in Paris being invited to dinner by Eleanor Roosevelt. Red Channels was concerned entirely with the broadcast field. The film industry later had its own lists of victims. Red Channels included me because I had been offered my own TV talk show. I'd had beginner's luck on TV, being, as you can see, very voluble. I had been on a number of early talk shows with people like George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly, bright, articulate folk. And I was currently quite successful on Broadway, having starred in Joy to the World with Alfred Drake and The Devil's Disciple with Maurice Evans in 1950. When Disciple closed, Robert and I and the Drakes went off to Europe together, and while we were there I was branded a "patriotically suspect citizen" in Red Channels. When we returned from Paris, the offers had vanished, just mysteriously vanished. I called my agent and said, "I'm back, you know. How are things?" He said, "Haven't you heard?" Then he told me, and that was the first time I heard of Red Channels. They had listed several affiliations under my name - some I'd never heard about, complete lies. One, I think, had me attending a peace conference in Stockholm. I had never been to Stockholm, nor to a peace conference. The rest were innocent activities that Red Channels viewed with suspicion. One of these was the movement in the theater to stop a proposed bill in the city legislature to empower a"moraliry czar" of Broadway with the authority to close any production. The whole theatrical community rose up in protest over that issue, and it was duly reported in the press that I was part of it. The bill was defeated, of course, but that made me "suspect" in the eyes of Red Channels.

(3) Victor S. Navasky, Naming Names (1980)

In 1962 John Henry Faulk was awarded $3.5 million (later reduced to $550,000) in his six-year libel suit against his blacklisters - the fanatical Lawrence A. Johnson, owner of a chain of supermarkets in Syracuse, New York, who had mounted a campaign based largely on material from Counterattack and aimed directly at sponsors, agencies, and networks to prevent them from employing Faulk and other of "Stalin's little agents." Since about 60 percent of television advertising revenue came from goods sold in supermarkets, Johnson's campaign was effective. Other defendants in Faulk's suit were the professional anti-Communist Vincent Hartnett and his Aware, Inc., the organization which cleared for a fee the performers it exposed.