Frank Stanton and the CBS Blacklist

November 30, 2009 in Early Television, McCarthy Era

During the McCarthy period, a local grocer in Syracuse, New York took on the big powerful television networks and the Constitution of the United States and won. His name was Laurence A. Johnson, and his method was a simple one: he told the major ad agencies (which in those days controlled television programming) that if they hired talent that he decided (using the blacklister’s bible, Red Channels, as a guide) was a communist, he would post a notice on the shelves of his stores that the makers of that product sponsored a television program that hired “subversives.”

He never actually did that, mostly because if he had, no one would have given a shit, he would have been unmasked as a fraud and any power he had would have evaporated, but the threat was enough to force those pillars of Jello (actually, one of the first companies to fire artists off its shows) at the networks to cave.

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When I wrote my television book, I went to see Frank Stanton who had been the president of CBS at that time. Sitting across from his desk, I asked him, “You, who had a reputation as a master pollster, why didn’t you at least test to see if Johnson had a following?”

Stanton almost literally turned purple in fury. “I had no choice! We would have lost all of our advertisers. I had to save the company. What would you have done?”

“The right thing,” I said.

He then sputtered something that I can’t remember, turned a few more interesting colors and threw me out of his office. The interview was over.

Imagine my surprise a few years later when I read in the newspaper that Stanton was being given a lifetime civil liberties award. Now, Frank Stanton did a lot of terrific things during his tenure at CBS, but this was the man who ran the blacklist; the man who fired those employees who didn’t sign a loyalty oath. I called the Times Arts and Leisure section and suggested there was a story to be written about this, and they agreed.

One of the first people I spoke to was Sig Mickelson, who had once been head of CBS News. He told me that Stanton literally handed him a list and said, “No one on this list gets hired.” What’s more, the list was still in existence, Mickelson said. It sat among his papers at the University of Texas. Here it is, the CBS blacklist:

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I did a few more interviews, and then it was time to see Stanton again, who was by then 91 years old. Maybe he never got around to reading the interview we did for The Box, which was a good thing, and because I was writing for The Times, ┬áhe even invited me to lunch. Clearly, instead of screaming at me, he was going to charm me, but he gave me the same line: he had no choice, blah, blah, blah. At least this time he didn’t try to toss me out of the restaurant, although he did have a friend of his at Channel 13 try to pressure me not to write the story.

I then went to see Allan Sloane, who was then living in a small Connecticut house and breathing from an air tank. He was in Red Channels.

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Sloane had been a terrific writer, but thanks to Stanton, he couldn’t get hired to drive an ice cream truck. I was writing the story. It came out on May 30, 1999. I heard that Stanton checked himself into the hospital that day. I’m a cold guy. I had no sympathy for him, and now his actions were part of the newspaper of record. Of course, it would have been nice if they had been part of the newspaper of record fifty years before.

Here’s the story.

And here’s a copy of the CBS loyalty oath. It’s blank, so feel free to print it out, fill it in and send it on to CBS, or just change the word “Communist” to “terrorist” and mail it to your company’s CEO or the FBI.