Broadcast "gavel to gavel" on the ABC and DuMont networks from 22 April to 17 June 1954, the Army-McCarthy hearings were the first nationally televised congressional inquiry and a landmark in the emergent nexus between television and American politics. Though the Kefauver Crime Committee hearings of March 1951 can claim priority as a congressional TV show, and subsequent political spectacles (the Watergate hearings, The Iran Contra hearings, The Thomas-Hill hearings) would rivet the attention of later generations of televiewers, the Army-McCarthy hearings remain the genre prototype for sheer theatricality and narrative unity.
Ostensibly, the Army-McCarthy hearings convened to investigate a convoluted series of charges leveled by the junior Republican Senator from Wisconsin, Joseph R. McCarthy, at the U.S. Army and vice versa. In November 1953, a consultant on McCarthy's staff named G. David Schine was drafted into the Army. Even before Schine's formal induction, Roy M. Cohn, McCarthy's chief counsel, had begun a personal campaign to pressure military officials--from the Secretary of the Army on down to Schine's company commander--into giving Private Schine special privileges. When on 11 March 1954 the Army issued a detailed chronology documenting Cohn's improper intrusions into Schine's military career, McCarthy responded by claiming the Army was holding Schine "hostage" to deter his committee from exposing communists within the military ranks. To resolve the dispute, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, of which McCarthy was chairman, voted to investigate and to allow live television coverage of the inquiry. McCarthy relinquished the chairmanship to Karl Mundt (Republican, South Dakota) to become, with Cohn, contestant and witness in a widely anticipated live television drama.
Throughout the thirty-six days of hearings, 188 hours of broadcast time were given over to telecasts originating from the Senate Caucus Room. The network "feed" came courtesy of the facilities of ABC's Washington, D.C. affiliate, WMAL-TV. Initially, all four networks where expected to carry the complete hearings live, but NBC and CBS balked at the loss of revenues from commercial programming. With an eye to its profitable daytime soap opera line-up, CBS opted out before the hearings began, leaving NBC, ABC, and DuMont formally committed to coverage. On the second day of hearings, however, after a particularly tedious afternoon session, NBC announced it was bailing out. Henceforth NBC, like CBS, broadcast nightly round-ups edited from kinescopes of the daytime ABC telecasts. CBS broadcast from 11:30 P.M.-12:15 A.M., so when NBC followed suit, it counter-programmed its recaps from 11:15 P.M. to 12:00 midnight. Looking for a way to put his third string news division on the map, ABC's president Robert E. Kintner stuck with his decision to broadcast the entire event live, jettisoning the network's daytime programming for continuous coverage, gavel to gavel. Even so, some major markets in the United States (Los Angeles for one) were deprived of live coverage when local affiliates chose not to take the network feed.
In televisual terms, the hearings pitted a boorish McCarthy and a bleary-eyed Cohn against a coolly avuncular Joseph N. Welch of the Boston law firm of Hale & Dorr, whom the Army had hired as its special counsel. Welch's calm patrician manner served as an appealing contrast to Cohn's unctuous posturing and McCarthy's rude outbursts (The senator's nasal interjection "Point of order!" became a national catchphrase). Senators, military men, and obscure staffers on the McCarthy Committee became household names and faces, among them chain-smoking committee counsel Ray H. Jenkins, milquetoast Secretary of the Army Robert T. Stevens, and, hovering in the background, a young lawyer for the committee Democrats named Robert F. Kennedy. Along with an often partisan gallery in the packed, smoke-filled hearing room, an audience of some twenty-million Americans watched the complicated testimony, a crossfire of mutual recriminations over monitored telephone conversations, doctored photographs, and fabricated memoranda.
The afternoon of 9 June 1954 brought the emotional climax of the hearings, an exchange replayed in myriad Cold War documentaries. Ignoring a pre-hearing agreement between Welch and Cohn, McCarthy insinuated that one Fred Fischer, a young lawyer at Hale & Dorr, harbored communist sympathies. Welch responded with a righteous outburst that hit all the hot buttons: "Until this moment, senator, I think I never gauged your cruelty or recklessness....Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?" When McCarthy tried to strike back, Welch cut him off and demanded the chairman "call the next witness." Pausing just a beat, the hushed gallery erupted in applause. The uncomprehending McCarthy, shot dead on live TV, turned to Cohn and stammered, "What happened?"
What happened was that television, whose coverage of McCarthy's news conferences and addresses to the nation had earlier lent him legitimacy and power, had now precipitated his downfall. Prolonged exposure to McCarthy's odious character and ill-mannered interruptions was a textbook demonstration of how a hot personality wilted under the glare of a cool medium. Toward the close of the hearings, Senator Stuart Symington (Democrat, Missouri) underscored the lesson in media politics during a sharp exchange with McCarthy: "The American people have had a look at you for six weeks. You are not fooling anyone."
The Army-McCarthy hearings were a television milestone not only because of the inherent significance of the event covered but because television coverage itself was crucial to the meaning, and unfolding, of events. Moreover, unlike many historic television moments from the 1950s, the hearings have remained alive in popular memory, mainly due to filmmaker Emile de Antonio, who in 1962 culled from extant kinescopes the landmark compilation film Point of Order!, the definitive documentary record of America's first great made-for-TV political spectacle.
de Antonio, Emile, and Daniel Talbot. Point of Order! A Documentary of the Army-McCarthy Hearings. New York: Norton, 1964.
Straight, Michael. Trial by Television. Boston: Beacon, 1954.