Cold War, Cool Medium

Television, McCarthyism, and American Culture

Thomas Doherty

Columbia University Press

Cold War, Cool Medium

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Pub Date: March 2005

ISBN: 9780231129534

320 Pages

Format: Paperback

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Pub Date: October 2003

ISBN: 9780231129527

320 Pages

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Pub Date: March 2005

ISBN: 9780231503273

320 Pages

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Cold War, Cool Medium

Television, McCarthyism, and American Culture

Thomas Doherty

Columbia University Press

Conventional wisdom holds that television was a co-conspirator in the repressions of Cold War America, that it was a facilitator to the blacklist and handmaiden to McCarthyism. But Thomas Doherty argues that, through the influence of television, America actually became a more open and tolerant place. Although many books have been written about this period, Cold War, Cool Medium is the only one to examine it through the lens of television programming.

To the unjaded viewership of Cold War America, the television set was not a harbinger of intellectual degradation and moral decay, but a thrilling new household appliance capable of bringing the wonders of the world directly into the home. The "cool medium" permeated the lives of every American, quickly becoming one of the most powerful cultural forces of the twentieth century. While television has frequently been blamed for spurring the rise of Senator Joseph McCarthy, it was also the national stage upon which America witnessed—and ultimately welcomed—his downfall. In this provocative and nuanced cultural history, Doherty chronicles some of the most fascinating and ideologically charged episodes in television history: the warm-hearted Jewish sitcom The Goldbergs; the subversive threat from I Love Lucy; the sermons of Fulton J. Sheen on Life Is Worth Living; the anticommunist series I Led 3 Lives; the legendary jousts between Edward R. Murrow and Joseph McCarthy on See It Now; and the hypnotic, 188-hour political spectacle that was the Army-McCarthy hearings.

By rerunning the programs, freezing the frames, and reading between the lines, Cold War, Cool Medium paints a picture of Cold War America that belies many black-and-white clichés. Doherty not only details how the blacklist operated within the television industry but also how the shows themselves struggled to defy it, arguing that television was preprogrammed to reinforce the very freedoms that McCarthyism attempted to curtail.

Invigorating and wide-ranging scholarship... The heart of Cold War, Cool Medium is a lively and compelling retelling of the effect of McCarthyism on television.


[A] seriously intelligent history.

Library Journal

Cold War, Cool Medium, by Thomas Doherty, ranks as one of the seminal books ever written about the history of television and politics in the USA.....Doherty brilliantly challenges this conventional wisdom and indeed turns it upside down. He skillfully, systematically, and clearly demonstrates that early television helped the USA become a more tolerant nation, and provided for more open discussion.

Douglas Gomery, Television Quarterly

Doherty's Cold War, Cool Medium earns its place as a subtle new map of America's politics during television's toddler years. It offers fine-grained images for television's political pontification and purifications from the late 1940s to mid-1950s.... For the study of this awkward period in America's television culture, it is hard to imagine a better text for discussions with students. Colleagues who lived in that era will read it with pained appreciation.

John Shelton Lawrence, Journal of American Culture

fresh and important accurate and engrossing account for the nonspecialist, and its methodology provides a revealing context for the specialist as well

Brenda Murphy, The Journal of American History

thoughtful and nuanced

Michael C. C. Adams, Film & History

Thomas Doherty's groundbreaking new volume, Cold War, Cool Medium, [is] a sweeping examination of the collision of television and McCarthyism, and one of the most searching looks at the intersection of popular and political culture in years.

Boston Globe

Doherty's excellent Cold War, Cool Medium: Television, McCarthyism, and American Culture [is] more timely than its title suggests.... [Doherty] has penned an engaging revisionist account of mass hysteria, forcefully arguing against critics who cast television in its early days as a co-conspirator in conducting witch hunts and stifling dissent.... Doherty's history of the early political uses of television is never less than fascinating.

Reason Magazine

A witty, often riveting account of the simultaneous rise of television and McCarthy.

Film Comment

Explores TV's wonders and skillfully exposes the power of pressure groups on the new medium, which acted out the psychosis that dominated the 1950s. Relying on thorough and enlightening research, Doherty notes the ironies, anti-Semitism and class prejudices that underlined Senator Joseph McCarthy's ascension.... Doherty chronicles the medium and its players with style and scholarship.

Publishers Weekly

A wide-ranging, impressionistic portrait of the era... Mr. Doherty, a professor of American studies at Brandeis University and a noted film historian, deftly recaps this familiar story.

New York Observer

Doherty succeeds in illuminating both the history of television in the US in the 1950s and television's relationship to the era's anticommunist crusade.... this volume carefully examines the often-overlooked political side of 1950s television. Essential.


Cold War, Cool Medium is an excellent overview of television and American culture at a pivotal moment in United States history. It is also wittily written, with Doherty's sense of humour and irony coming through on nearly every page.

Jennifer Frost, University of Auckland, Australasian Journal of American Studies

It is not only readable, enlightening and amusing, it does what all good books on the televisual Cold War should do: it can distinguish between hype and substance.

Adam Piette, Journal of American Studies

Doherty delivers an enlightening and critical reassessment of television, culture, and politics in the early 1950's.

Michael Curtin, American Historical Review

Cold War, Cool Medium is an engaging and complex account of US commercial television during the 1950's.

Megan Mullen, Technology and Culture

[A] superbly written analysis of the link between the rise of American television and the fall of Senator McCarthy.

Vincent Brook, American Studies

Cold War, Cool Medium is engagingly written, offering prose that is brimming with wit and insight.

Christine Becker, Film Quarterly

A learned and astute historian (and also something of a poet), Thomas Doherty has written an extraordinary book about the close relationship between the Cold War and the rise of television...Doherty has demonstrated that the medium—a various and even feisty forum in its early days—would often challenge the prevailing creed of paranoid anti-communism....An exhilarating work of scholarship, revealing that there was another, livelier, and more complex dimension to the period of 'brinksmanship' and blacklists.

Mark Crispin Miller, New York University, and author of Boxed In: The Culture of TV

For those who think that too many words already have been written about McCarthyism and television, this book will come as a most welcome surprise. Cold War, Cool Medium connects these two vital currents of modern American history in remarkably perceptive ways, demonstrating the impact of television upon the rise and fall of extremist politics in this era, and the powerful legacy that survives to this day. Cold War, Cool Medium is a wonderful read—riveting as a cultural history, perfect as a teaching tool.

David M. Oshinsky

George Littlefield Professor of History

Un, University of Texas at Austin, and author of A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy

1. Video Rising
2. The Gestalt of the Blacklist
3. Controversial Personalities
4. Hypersensitivity: The Codes of Television Censorship
5. Forums of the Air
6. Roman Circuses and Spanish Inquisitions
7. Country and God
8. Edward R. Murrow Slays The Dragon of Joseph McCarthy
9. "The Speaktacular": the Army-McCarthy Hearings, April 22-June 17, 1954
10. Pixies: Homosexuality, Anti-Communism, and Television
11. The End of the Blacklist
12. Exhuming McCarthyism: the Paranoid Style in American Television
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About the Author

Thomas Doherty is a professor in the American studies department and chair of the film studies program at Brandeis University. He is the author of Projections of War: Hollywood, American Culture, and World War II; PreCode Hollywood: Sex, Immorality and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930-1934; and Teenagers and Teenpics: The Juvenilization of American Movies in the 1950s, and is associate editor of the film journal Cinéaste.