Originally published in the 26 February 2019 issue of the Washington Examiner magazine.
Which is more scrupulous, the “#MeToo” movement or McCarthyism? The original McCarthyism, I mean, that of the blacklist and the Hollywood Ten, of which the junior senator from Wisconsin was only a small part. The anti-Communists whose banner he picked up were, on the whole, more serious and conscientious than Joseph McCarthy himself. For all the publicity and energy he brought to their cause, it was ultimately their misfortune to have become entangled with a namesake whose tactics were not always befitting the seriousness of the threat against which they fought.
The MeToo movement has become entangled with its own toxic form of hysteria, in its case the tactics of the online mob. The so-called “Shitty Media Men List” is a good example. In October 2017, a writer in her early 20s named Moira Donegan created a spreadsheet for women to list men working in media who were guilty of sexual misconduct and invited her friends to add to it. The spreadsheet was shared around New York and Washington, eventually listing 70 names. The accusations ranged in seriousness from rape to “creepy DMs.” All were anonymous. Several of the men lost their jobs after the list was leaked on social media, including such pillars of elite journalism as Leon Wieseltier and Paris Review editor Lorin Stein.
This, you might say, was a classic blacklist, right down to the anonymity of the accusers. Which raises the question: How can this sort of thing still happen? Didn’t we establish the last time around that this method of dealing with national problems, even serious ones, was more trouble than it was worth? A closer look at the terminal stages of McCarthyism reveals that it did not come to an end because Americans got together and decided as a country that collective hysteria should be put on hold until the facts about an accused’s case are in. McCarthyism didn’t end because it was unpopular. It ended because a court case made the blacklisting of suspected Communists illegal.
The case was Faulk v. Aware, Inc., and its story begins with a publication called Red Channels. The men behind Red Channels were textbook McCarthyites, but they also respected certain ground rules of fairness and due process that their modern successors in MeToo have preferred to disregard.
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The three men responsible for Red Channels all joined the FBI in 1940 and were assigned to the bureau’s Communist Squad, where their duties were infiltrating Russian spy operations and handling various moles and informers. After six years, they left the FBI, partly because the bureau wasn’t allowing them to go after spies as aggressively as they wanted but mostly because they came to believe that the biggest obstacle in the fight against Communism was public apathy. Basic facts about the scope of Communist operations in the U.S. that were obvious to them from their work were completely unknown to the wider public. They therefore decided to start a magazine called Counterattack, in order to (as their mission statement put it) “assist in changing emotional dislike of Communism to informed and documented knowledge.”
Counterattack focused at first on the union movement and left-wing activist groups. It pivoted to the entertainment industry after one of the founders came across an amateur pamphlet in an office where he’d gone to sell subscriptions. This document, which was being passed around the offices of advertisers and radio producers, was titled “MOST UNDESIRABLE” and gave a list of names of actors and writers to be blacklisted for Communist ties. No explanation of why an individual was on the list, no evidence offered, no indication of who had compiled the list. Just the names. The Counterattack team thought that wasn’t right. They decided to make a more ethical version of the list, “lay it all on the line and sell it over the counter to try to clear the air.”
Communist infiltration of the entertainment industry was a less serious threat than spies in the State Department, but the matter was hardly frivolous. If Communists took over the relevant unions and guilds, they would be in a position to bring production to a standstill any time they liked, giving them effective veto power over what got produced. The nightmare scenario that kept the Counterattack team awake was not that lyrics from “The Internationale” would be slipped into the next Gene Autry picture. It was that someone would replicate the panic caused by Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds on purpose, in order to create a political crisis.
Counterattack hired a researcher who specialized in Communist infiltration of the entertainment business named Vincent Hartnett, an Irish Catholic from Queens with a masters in apologetics from Notre Dame, where he studied under the Russian émigré Waldemar Gurian, one of the world’s leading experts on Bolshevism. After Pearl Harbor, Hartnett had joined up and become a naval intelligence officer in the Pacific. He stayed on through the postwar years, posted to Eastern Europe, where he observed firsthand the slow-motion Soviet takeover of the governments of Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Romania, seeing for himself all the ways Communists manipulated the democratic process to get themselves into power and then implement one-party rule.
The resulting pamphlet, Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television, was a bare-bones affair, not much more than a directory: 151 names, each with a list of the Communist front groups they had been associated with and the nature of their involvement. The entries were almost entirely based on public documents. If it said that so-and-so had appeared at a Henry Wallace rally in 1948, it was because Hartnett had a copy of a Daily Worker article about that rally. The only editorializing in Red Channels was in the introduction, where it emphasized that being listed did not necessarily mean that someone was a Communist or even a sympathizer, only that they had had associations that raised questions about their judgment and warranted further inquiry from prospective employers or advertisers.
Not everyone listed in Red Channels saw their careers suffer; Uta Hagen and Gypsy Rose Lee were fine. One who did was an actor named Joe Julian, who decided to sue Red Channels for libel. The first judge assigned to the case recused himself because of his ties to left-wing organizations, which were thought might prejudice him against the defendants. The case ended up being heard by Irving Saypol, who earlier in his career had been the prosecutor in the Rosenberg spy case. As one might expect from the man who sent Julius and Ethel to the electric chair, he ended up dismissing the actor’s case, saying that Red Channels had done nothing more than list facts that, as Julian himself acknowledged, were entirely accurate. They had also done it not out of malice but for a legitimate public purpose, and they had urged their readers to use the information in Red Channels responsibly.
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In 1953, Hartnett launched his own operation separate from Counterattack— Aware, Inc., which was more of a consulting firm than a publishing house. Producers would hire him to investigate actors and screenwriters that they were thinking of hiring, the idea being that Hartnett was an expert who could tell the difference between a harmless liberal and an actual Communist sympathizer. Hartnett also continued to put out various newsletters and circulars, including one explaining how an actor or writer could get himself un-blacklisted by publicly demonstrating his opposition to Communism.
One of these circulars mentioned a radio personality named John Henry Faulk, a folksy storyteller from Texas. The pamphlet described him as having a long history of involvement in Communist front groups, which it listed with the relevant dates and circumstances. Faulk was let go from his job at CBS soon thereafter, they said because his ratings weren’t very good, he said because of the blacklist. It had been a few years since the last libel case, so Faulk — with the help of $7,500 from Edward R. Murrow to cover his legal fees — decided to take his chances and sue Hartnett. As in the previous case, a lot came down to the judge. The judge selected for the case was the same judge who had recused himself the last time, Ernest Geller. This time he did not recuse himself.
He had it right the first time, because in the second his handling of the case was absurdly biased. Geller ruled inadmissible almost all of the evidence that Hartnett offered to back up his assertion that Faulk had ties to Communist front groups. Geller put no stock at all in Hartnett’s expertise, saying, “On the question of Communism, I don’t understand the concept of an expert on Communism. An expert has to be an expert on a scientific subject or something of that character.”
Frankly, Geller could have used the services of an expert in Communism himself, because his grasp of how front groups operated was woefully deficient. Hartnett’s attorney, Tom Bolan, attempted at one point to cite the congressional testimony of former Communist Party operative Louis Budenz, who had told the Senate that one of the ostensibly independent left-wing groups Faulk had been involved with “was worked out originally from my office when I was managing editor of the Daily Worker.” Geller ruled that this testimony could not be cited as proof that the group in question was a Communist front. He added from the bench that Budenz “doesn’t even say that this is a communist front. He says ‘was worked out’ in the office [of the Daily Worker]” — as if that were merely a coincidence.
Bolan tried to cite the U.S. attorney general’s official list of groups with Communist ties, but Geller ruled the document inadmissible. Transcripts from the House Un-American Activities Committee were likewise disallowed. “Those citations, as I have already told the jury, are not binding and do not constitute a finding — a proper finding. It must be a judicial finding,” Geller explained to a frustrated Bolan, who could hardly believe that the judge was placing such narrow limits on his client’s ability to use the term “Communist-linked.” But Geller was emphatic: “Listings by the House Committee or Attorney General do not constitute a judicial finding that an organization is a Communistic or pro-Communistic front organization.”
Even when Bolan tried to read excerpts from Aware’s bylaws, in order to give the jury some idea of what the company’s mission was, Geller prevented him from quoting these documents, saying they were nothing more than “self-serving declarations.” Eventually Bolan got so frustrated with Geller’s constant interventions that he was on the verge of tears — this from a man who was tough enough to be Roy Cohn’s law partner. Bolan said, his voice quavering, “I wish you wouldn’t be shouting at me throughout the trial, as you have done from the very beginning. It gets to the point where the pressure is too great for me. You have done it from the beginning.”
Unsurprisingly, given that Hartnett was forbidden from citing any of the evidence he had used when compiling his dossiers, the jury ruled in Faulk’s favor, handing him what was at that time the largest damages award in any libel case in American history, $3.5 million dollars. Hartnett knew he was in trouble when the jury foreman came back in the middle of deliberations and asked the judge if they were allowed to award the plaintiff more money than he asked for.
The amount was eventually brought down on appeal to mere six figures, but Hartnett and his company were broke, so he was stuck sending little checks to John Henry Faulk every month for the rest of his life. Hartnett retired to become an English teacher at a high school in Pelham, New York. The author of a very good book about Red Channels visited the school in the early 2000s and found that students and colleagues remembered Hartnett as an exceptionally kind and caring teacher, if a little reluctant to talk about his political beliefs.
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Vincent Hartnett was a nice Catholic boy from Queens trying to do what he thought was right, and in the end he suffered for it. Moira Donegan is a self-described “angry feminist writer” who walked away from the Shitty Media Men List scandal with a regular column in the Guardian and a book deal from Simon & Schuster.
But her story is not over yet, because one of the men on the list is suing her for defamation. Stephen Elliott is co-founder of the online magazine The Rumpu sand the author of eight books. His entry on Donegan’s spreadsheet tarred him with “rape accusations, sexual harassment, coercion, [and] unsolicited invitations to his apartment.” He claims total innocence and is suing Donegan for $1.5 million. He also wants Google to trace the ISPs of contributors to the original spreadsheet so he can face his anonymous accuser.
The legal case, filed in October 2018, is ongoing. Morally, the case is open and shut. Of the two blacklisters, Hartnett was far more scrupulous in his methods than Donegan. A side-by-side comparison: Red Channels had standards of proof and was based on hard evidence such as congressional testimony or printed stories from the Daily Worker; Donegan’s list was based on anonymous accusations and hearsay. Red Channels was public; Donegan’s list was distributed secretly. Hartnett actively encouraged the people he listed to come forward and clear their names, even offering to do everything he could, pro bono, to help them demonstrate that they had put their Communist ties behind them; Donegan had a rule against removing anyone’s name from the list, because removing a name would invalidate the suffering of the “survivor” who had listed it and we need to #BelieveWomen.
When your methods make the Cold War’s most notorious blacklist look soberly judicial by comparison, it is time to reexamine your methods. Donegan herself has expressed no regrets, but what about her enablers? The editors who would never greenlight a story based on anonymous and unsubstantiated allegations but who allow their reporters to write about online controversies in a way that amounts to the same thing? The bosses who immediately fire employees at the center of social media hurricanes even when they proclaim their innocence? Unless the courts deliver a Faulk v. Aware–type blow to any would-be Moira Donegans, it will be up to these enablers to put a stop to this era of seemingly all-powerful social media mobs. Because if there is one lesson to be drawn from the McCarthy era, it’s that they won’t stop as long as it works.