On Native Ground
A 'RED' TALKS: ADVENTURES IN TELEVISION
by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Remember Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the Red Scare of the 1950s? The days when people lost their jobs and their livelihoods over the slightest association with the Communist Party?
The forces trying to purge communist influence from the land ruined many people's careers. However, it's important to remember that the witch hunters were neither terribly thorough nor efficient, and that many people who were party members were never outed.
Stephen E. Fleischman was a writer, director and producer of documentaries for CBS and ABC for more than three decades. He was also a member of the Communist Party. At least, he was a member while there still was a Communist Party to belong to - before it imploded in the 1950s under the weight of McCarthyism and the disarray that followed Stalin's death.
In his book, "A Red in the House," Fleischman tells how he escaped the witch hunters and went on to have a long and somewhat turbulent career in network news.
He calls his autobiography "an unauthorized memoir" because "I wrote it against my better judgment. Who would want to out oneself as a 'card-carrying' member of the Communist Party?" His answer to that question is simple - to prove that no matter how repressive the times may seem, dissenting views can never be completely stamped out.
It seems miraculous that Fleischman was able to get a job at CBS in 1953. But it was no miracle. He simply lied about his party associations and signed a loyalty oath. No one ever bothered to check if he was telling the truth.
"They were pretty sloppy going about their witch hunt," Fleischman told me in a recent e-mail interview from his Los Angeles home. "It should have been obvious to everybody that they were just out to make headlines by exposing 'name' people in film and television and putting the fear of God about the "Red Menace" into everyone - just the kind of thing they're doing today with so-called 'terrorists.' Actually, the Communists (from what I saw on the inside) didn't amount to a hill of beans as far as being a threat to the U.S. government."
The other thing working in Fleischman's favor was that television in the early 1950s was, as he put it, "like The Wild West. Nobody knew what they were doing, but they did it well."
Despite the seat-of-the-pants style of the era, the pioneers of TV news and documentary were well-grounded in how to tell a story. They had good news values. At CBS, Fleischman learned the elements of documentary film making from the legendary Fred Friendly, the brains behind news programs such as "See It Now" and "CBS Reports."
"As Friendly used to say, a documentary has to have emotion or controversy," Fleischman said. "It's got to have balance. Tell both sides of an issue, slam the other side as hard as you want, but you be on the side of the angels. And by juxtaposing opinions, you get more controversy and drama. (Just) juxtaposing a pro and a con does not make fair and balanced reporting. A lot of big media try to sneak by with that. It's just another way of neutralizing or avoiding the truth. There certainly can be more than two sides to a story. It's the facts you choose to use to tell your story. They've got to be accurate."
But under the standard yardstick of "bias," wouldn't a guy who describes himself as a Marxist be automatically disqualified from being "fair and balanced?"
"Yes, 'some would say' that my political leanings would disqualify me from being an objective journalist," said Fleischman. "You could also say the same thing would apply to a devout Catholic, a conservative Republican, a confirmed atheist, etc. If this were true you'd have to say that to be a 'good journalist' one have to be some kind of eunuch, without any opinions of its own. Which is just the opposite from the truth and reality."
Fleischman makes it clear in his book that it was the combination of the CBS News culture - a culture that set the standards for broadcast journalism in its early days - along with his Marxism, that influenced on his work. Forty of his programs are in the Museum of Television and Radio in New York. He was Walter Cronkite's producer on his series "The Twentieth Century," and he worked with Eric Severeid, Howard K. Smith and Harry Reasoner on documentaries.
After 10 years with CBS, and some personal disagreements with Friendly, Fleischman left to work at ABC in 1964. There were a number of disgruntled CBS people who drifted to ABC in the 1960s. At the time, it was a distant No. 3 in network prestige and ratings.
"It's true many CBS News folk switched to ABC in the mid-1960s when I did," Fleischman said "Some wag got the idea of printing up a card called 'Eye-Dropper' with a picture of the CBS eye falling. By signing, you'd become a card-carrying member of the Eye-Dropper club. I certainly had the opportunity to be more creative at ABC with my own documentary unit."
Because ABC was a distant third, Fleischman had lots of leeway to do programs, from oceanic exploration ("Man Invades The Sea" in 1965) and extraterrestials ("We Are Not Alone" in 1966) to popular music ("One Night Stands" in 1967) and gambling ("Everybody's Got A System" in 1965). But in that same period, he was also able to do the first in-depth documentary on U.S. involvement in Vietnam ("The Agony of Vietnam" in 1965).
But as ABC eventually caught up with NBC and CBS in the 1970s, something else was happening. News went from being a public service to a money-maker. "When news became a profit center - that's what killed long-form documentary and everything other kind of broadcast journalism," said Fleischman. He ultimately retired from ABC in 1984.
Fleischman hasn't given up on the belief that journalism can make a difference, but he knows from hard experience that it has never been easy.
"There are still a lot of damned good journalists out there," he said. "Unfortunately, if they're in the mainstream media, they're working in an oppressive environment. The editor is the guardian at the gate. He knows what kind of stories he can let through. The reporter soon learns how far he can push the envelope and it isn't very far."
Fleischman pointed to Gary Webb, the former San Jose Mercury News reporter whose career was destroyed after he reported on how the CIA used proceeds from illegal drug sales to fund the Contras in Nicaragua in the 1980s. He committed suicide in December.
"That poor guy crossed the line. Even though he got past his editor (who later recanted), the powerhouse press decided they would make a brutal example of this daredevil and teach every other reporter a lesson. They came down on him so hard, he felt his only way out was to blow his brains out."
Fleischman's book ends on a mixed note - hopeful that a lefty like him was able to survive 30 years in network TV and tell a few stories that may not have made it on to the screen otherwise, but pessimistic that big media is uniformly dismal and that most Americans are too timid to take on the capitalist system.
Just the same, Fleischman, at age 86, remains hopeful that things can't help but get better.
"Absolutely! That's the dialectics of nature," he said. "All things change. They're in constant change. As Marx said, the material conditions of life determine perception. You've got to take the long view of history. When an economic system no longer meets the needs of the masses, the system will collapse. The old always hangs on with all its might. When it seems strongest, it is usually at its weakest. That's what revolutions are all about. The capitalist system is about ready to go. It could take a few years or decades. Because of technology we are very vulnerable, but also because of technology, the world is closer. Trotsky may be proven right. The socialist revolution can only be successful as world revolution. Where is Trotsky now that we really need him!"
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at email@example.com. More information about Fleischman's book can be found at ARedintheHouse.com.