The Forgotten Battles: Congressional Hearings on Television Violence in the
The Forgotten Battles: Congressional Hearings
on Television Violence in the 1950s
By Dr. Keisha L. Hoerrner
Manship School of Mass Communication
Room 118, Journalism Building
Louisiana State University
Baton Rouge, Louisiana 70803
(225) 767-5683 [home]
(225) 334-2794 [office]
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Paper Submitted to the History Division of AEJMC
April 1, 1999
The Forgotten Battles: Congressional Hearings on
Television Violence in the 1950s
Passage of the Parental Choice in Television Programming Act of 1996, which
mandated the v-chip, and the more recent agreement by most of the television
industry to rate programming by both age-based ratings and content-based
designations are reminders of how the issue of television violence continues
to resonate in society. This is not a new issue for researchers, who have
produced thousands of studies documenting the possible link between television
violence and anti-social behavior, particularly among children. Similarly,
this is not a new issue for Congress. It has been concerned about violent
content on television since the early 1950s and held its first hearing on the
subject in 1952.
The legislature's continuing interest in television violence is intriguing for
numerous reasons. It exemplifies the constant struggle between the government
and the television industry for control over broadcasting content; it provides
an avenue for discussion of what role the First Amendment holds in the struggle;
and it helps to define the role of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC),
the administrative agency charged with oversight of broadcast licenses and, at
times, licensees. The ongoing power struggle between the industry, legislators,
the courts, and the FCC is clearly delineated in congressional actions regarding
television violence in the 1950s.
While congressional hearings into the matter of television violence have been
discussed generally by a number of researchers, as have specific legislative
action in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1990s, little attention has been given to the
earliest hearings. This article focuses on those forgotten hearings, which are
the origins of congressional interest, to examine the genesis of these actions.
Relying primarily on primary governmental documents such as transcripts,
reports, legislation, and the Congressional Record, the article specifically
explores the congressional hearings of 1952 and 1954-55 to gain insight into how
legislators originally viewed the issue and what specific actions resulted from
this legislative interest. This historical analysis is undertaken under the
umbrella of First Amendment implications of early congressional interest in the
area of violent content on television to further illuminate the issue.
Additionally, symbolic politics theory is introduced as a possible explanation
for these "forgotten battles" in the 1950s.
After the Federal Communications Commission-imposed freezes on new television
licenses in both 1941 and 1948 were lifted, the number of both stations and
homes with sets grew quickly, making the new medium a part of eighty million
American lives by the early 1950s. There were nineteen million television
sets in the country as early as 1952. This early decade of television is
generally thought of as "The Golden Years" of television. The decade is
remembered for "I Love Lucy" and "See It Now," not violence. Still, crime shows,
action movies, and the first westerns came into American homes in the 1950s -
and caused a few parents, educators, and politicians concern.
Politicians were bound to notice a new technology generating such widespread
attention. They, like much of the country, had conflicting views about this new
form of entertainment that was changing family leisure time, consumption of
goods and services, and politics. As David Halberstam noted in The Fifties:
Politics, for the first time, was being brought to the nation by means of
People now expected to see events, not merely read about or hear them. At the
the line between what happened in real life and what people saw on television
merge; many Americans were now living far from their families, in brand-new
where they barely knew their neighbors. Sometimes they felt closer to the people
watched on television than they did to their neighbors and distant
Extreme attitudes emerged, with some viewing television as "messianic" and
others "demonic." Regardless of how they felt about television personally,
however, politicians were determined to play an important role in the industry's
development. In addition to focusing their attention on structural issues such
as station ownership and content issues such as political advertising, one
of the content topics receiving significant attention from legislators is the
issue of violence within programming.
Background: Congressional Interest in 1950
Radio and television content was originally condemned as an afterthought;
politicians discussing the evils of the movie industry began adding broadcasting
to the mix in 1950. Senator Ed Johnson (D - Colo.), while raging against the
adulterous affair Ingrid Bergman had with Roberto Rossellini, asked for a
Washington Times-Herald article to be printed in the Congressional Record about
crime programs on radio. This was the first documented mention of broadcast
violence in the Record. Two days later Senator Johnson asked that an article
from the Washington Post detailing the National Catholic Conference on Family
Life's concern with television programs be placed in the Record as well. He
also asked that FCC Chairman Wayne Coy's recent speech about radio and
television appear in the Record. It was actually Coy's words that first made
specific reference to violence on television, although the subject was, again,
treated more like an addendum than the speaker's primary point. Coy quoted a
survey of television programs undertaken by the Southern California Association
for Better Radio and Television that found close to one hundred murders, ten
thefts, and numerous other crimes portrayed on television in one week. He noted
that many citizens were concerned about this type of television content.
This first mention of television violence by a member of Congress is intriguing
for two reasons. Senator Johnson appeared to be using the issue of radio and
television violence simply to bolster his argument for tighter controls on the
movie industry. He made no specific comments on the floor of the Senate
regarding television or radio. FCC Chairman Coy's comments were also
illuminating, for he explicitly stated that the Federal Communications
Commission could not censor broadcasting content. This was the first of many
statements members of the FCC made in the 1950s about the agency's inability to
interfere with program content. Coy placed the responsibility for forcing
changes in content on the shoulders of the public, on concerned and vigilant
Later in the year Senator Johnson asked that another newspaper article on
television violence be added to the Appendix to the Congressional Record.
The July 16, 1950 New York Times article "Time for a Halt - Radio and TV Carnage
Defies all Reason" was a stinging rebuke of an NBC mystery show that aired on a
Saturday morning, when children were more likely to be in the audience, and of
crime shows in general. Senator Johnson's brief comments add no insight into his
motivation to focus congressional attention on this article. Senator Johnson's
action seemed to be moving Congress away from treating television as an
afterthought toward focusing its attention squarely on the new medium.
It was Representative E.C. Gathings (D - Ark.), however, who decided Congress
needed to take some action against television violence. On June 20, 1951,
Representative Gathings told the House "many radio and television programs, as
well as certain scurrilous books and comics are corrupting the minds and morals
of the American people." He mentioned the Southern California study of
murders and crimes on television and argued that "juvenile delinquency and
disregard for laws has increased in this country because of the laxity in which
these problems have been dealt with." Representative Gathings did not
propose legislation or call for hearings or additional study at that time but
demanded the first hearings two years later.
The earliest years of the decade show, then, a slow but steady growth of
congressional interest in violent content on television, a growth that began
simply with an insertion of a published article in the Congressional Record but
progressed in only two years to Representative E.C. Gathings introducing
legislation mandating congressional hearings. Representative Gathings'
resolution (H. Res. 278) passed unanimously on May 12, 1952. A new, yet
enduring, form of congressional action in the area of television violence began.
Round One: The 1952 Hearings
House Resolution 278 gave authority to the Committee on Interstate and Foreign
Commerce's FCC Subcommittee to "conduct a full and complete investigation and
study to determine the extent to which the radio and television programs
currently available to the people of the United States contain immoral and
otherwise offensive matter, or place improper emphasis on crime, violence, and
corruption". The resolution also charged the subcommittee with developing
recommendations to alleviate any problems it uncovered, including legislative
action if necessary. In debate over HR 278 Rep. William Colmer (D - Miss.),
stated the boundaries of the investigation:
This is not an attempt on the part of the Congress or the sponsors of this
invoke any rigid censorship or anything of that sort; but, with the youth of the
interested in radio and television programs as we know they are, considerable
should be used by those who put these programs on the air in order that the
may not flow therefrom and that the impressionable youth of the country may not
wrong concept or philosophy of life.
The seven-member subcommittee, chaired by Oren Harris (D-Ark.), held public
hearings in June, September, and December of 1952 to receive testimony from
industry representatives, private citizens, and government officials.
Chairman Harris set the tone for the hearings in his opening statement when he
remarked that the subcommittee would not seek to determine what constituted
desirable programming and was not intent on "cleaning up" the broadcast
industries. Indeed, historian Willard Rowland termed the hearings
"congenial." He remarked, "The subcommittee members and staff handled the
network representatives most gingerly, commending them for their claims of
concern and their assurances of adequate self-regulation. There was none of the
sharper tone that was to mark later hearings." Rowland speculated that Chairman
Harris's purchase of a twenty-five-percent interest in a Little Rock, Ark.,
television station at approximately the same time as the commencement of
hearings might account for the "congenial" tone.
Rowland's argument only explained Harris's ginger handling of industry
representatives, yet a majority of the committee treated them with deference and
respect. This was probably an outgrowth of the general disorganization and lack
of focus for the hearings. The atmosphere was one of legislators chatting with
witnesses rather than working toward a specific resolution. Some of the
committee members seemed unsure of the television content they were there to
investigate as evidenced from their questioning of witnesses about annoying but
non-violent commercials as often as they questioned them about specific
television programs. Radio content was almost totally ignored, except for an
occasional question or statement concerning which shows were sponsored by
tobacco or beer companies. In fact, beer sponsorship and advertising on both
radio and television were prime concerns of numerous witnesses who testified
about the deleterious effects of promoting alcohol to children and adults.
Witnesses such as C.S. Longacre of the American Temperance Society, Elizabeth A.
Smart of the Woman's Christian Temperance Movement, and Dr. Raymond Schmidt of
the National Grand Lodge of the International Order of Good Templars failed to
mention violent content as they focused solely on broadcasting's role in
promoting alcohol consumption, which was not the stated focus on the
It is not surprising, then, that after thirteen days of hearings that generated
almost five hundred pages of testimony, the subcommittee issued a succinct final
report saying the television industry was in too great a state of flux to "pass
any conclusive judgment" upon it. Industry self-regulation was seen as
positive, and government regulation was viewed as an interference broadcasting
did not need at the moment. The network representatives who testified proudly
discussed the new Television Code, and the legislators agreed that this form of
self-censorship, even though it was voluntary and not every station adhered to
it, would be preferable to any externally imposed censorship. Still, the
subcommittee's final report left the door open to future government intervention
if the industry was not serious about or successful in removing violent
programming from the airwaves. The members made it clear that they believed
there was too much crime and violence on television, and they encouraged public
criticism if broadcasters failed to be responsive to the public interest.
The 1952 hearings are generally forgotten in history books, probably because
they lacked focus, failed to discuss specific programs with supposedly violent
content, failed to generate any subsequent congressional action, and failed to
produce an outspoken leader who would continue to pursue the subject in
Congress. Unlike Senator Thomas Dodd, Senator John Pastore, and Senator Paul
Simon -- members of Congress who would lead legislative interest in the issue of
television violence in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1990s, Representative Oren Harris
was not considered a staunch proponent of congressional action.
Later congressional hearings in the 1950s did not suffer from this lack of
leadership, however, as Senator Estes Kefauver (D-Tenn.) took the reins. With
Representative Harris easily forgotten, it is Kefauver who is remembered as the
first congressional leader to investigate television violence.
Round Two: The 1954 Hearings
Following the publication of the 1952 report, Congress was relatively silent on
the issue of television violence for more than a year. It once again became a
congressional concern in December of 1953 during the hearings of a Senate
subcommittee on juvenile delinquency. What began as brief statements by two
witnesses evolved into a full-scale probe of television violence, which laid the
foundation for congressional hearings on this issue for the next forty years.
Concerned about the rise in crime rates among juveniles and the growing number
of teens incarcerated, the Senate passed Resolution 89 on June 1, 1953, to
establish a subcommittee to study the problem and devise solutions. No mention
was made of mass media specifically within the resolution, although the
subcommittee was given wide leeway to explore "causes and contributing factors"
of juvenile delinquency. Senator Estes Kefauver, ranking minority member on
the four-member Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency, brought media
into the debate on juvenile delinquency when he questioned Dr. Leopold Wexberg,
chief of the Mental Health Division of the Bureau of Disease Control in the
Department of Public Health, on his belief that movies, television programs, and
comic books may serve as a contributing factor to delinquency among juveniles.
Even though Dr. Wexburg failed to provide a source or a cite a study providing
evidence for his statement, Senator Kefauver was most intrigued.
The Kefauver-Wexburg exchange coupled with a statement during the
subcommittee's hearings in Denver by a private citizen, who also failed to
provide any documentation or source for his belief that magazines and comic
books contribute to juvenile delinquency, led to the mass media being placed
on a list of twelve "special areas" that were "worthy of concentrated
investigation because of their effects upon juvenile delinquency."  Senator
Robert Hendrickson (R-N.J.), chair of the subcommittee during the 83rd Congress,
scheduled separate hearings on motion pictures, comic books, and television
programs. Three days of public hearings on television programs were held in
June and October of 1954. Before the glare of television lights and radio
mikes, Counsel Richard Clendenen developed a new rationale for devoting the
subcommittee's attention to television - hundreds of letters received from
concerned citizens across the country. He stated:
This inquiry into television, you will recall, Mr. Chairman, had its origin in
large number of letters that the subcommittee received from parents complaining
about this matter of blood and thunder on TV. The vast majority of these
did not relate to a specific program but rather usually fell into one of two
categories. First of all it was felt that the amount, the total volume of
programs which featured or centered upon crime and violence was such as to
produce, at least in the opinion of many parents, an unhealthy and delinquency-
producing climate for young people. Secondly, a large number of parents also
complained about what we might call a lack of choice in television viewing for
children. ... he [a child] either watches a blood-and-thunder program or nothing
Senator Kefauver's files, however, show only a sprinkling of letters from
concerned constituents in the early 1950s, and there is no reference to hundreds
of letters being stored in a separate file. Senator Kefauver's files do reveal
an increasing number of letters throughout the decade and into the 1960s as he
continued to speak on the issue of media and violence, but those did not justify
the 1954 hearings. (A letter from Mrs. Hugh J. Lucas is illustrative of
those appearing in Kefauver's papers. She sent him a letter in 1954 expressing
her concern over television's influence on young children and attached two
newspaper clips of crime stories in which the criminals said they learned their
techniques for shoplifting and strangling from watching television.)
Senator Hendrickson chaired the special probe in 1954, promising that neither
he nor the subcommittee came to the hearings with any existing biases against
television or any preconceived notions that crime and violence programs did
contribute to juvenile delinquency. Senator Hendrickson, however, was not
nearly as congenial toward the television industry as Representative Harris had
been two years earlier. In fact, Senator Hendrickson allowed biased comments to
slip during interchanges with witnesses including, "As I watch my grandchildren,
Doctor, I wonder how they stand it [TV]." Nor was Senator Hendrickson
comfortable allowing the hearings to digress into seemingly unrelated topics as
Harris had allowed. The 1954 hearings focused direct attention on specific
programming decisions made by the television industry.
Industry representatives were, in fact, a prime target of Senator Hendrickson's
hearings. After viewing selected segments of television programs that portrayed
violent actions, shown in the Washington, D.C. market during hours that children
were likely to be in the audience, Senator Hendrickson and the subcommittee's
counsels questioned each of the fourteen industry representatives about what
they programmed for children. The representatives responded by discussing
numerous other subjects while failing to directly debate the legislators'
contention that certain programs were unsuitable for children. Four arguments
ran through the industry's testimony, regardless of the individual witness:
(1) interference with the First Amendment protections,
(2) research that concluded television did not affect juvenile delinquency,
(3) complexity of the issue, and
(4) positive programming presented for children.
John Hayes' testimony was illustrative of the broadcasters' reliance on the
First Amendment to diminish the criticisms of the subcommittee. Hayes, president
of WTOP in Washington, D.C., said, "I feel it is my duty respectfully to call to
the attention of this subcommittee the fact that any congressional investigation
of the content of any medium of free communication raises very profound
questions. I am confident that is not the intention of these hearings, to
interfere with the freedom of expression in this country." Hayes and
subsequent witnesses were assured that the subcommittee had no intention of
censoring television, just determining if it contributed to delinquent youths.
Merle Jones, CBS-TV vice president of owned stations and general services,
assured the committee he had research that said television was not a significant
cause of juvenile delinquency. NBC's representative, Vice President Joseph
Herrernan, echoed Jones' argument saying, "We are aware of no responsible
scientific data or opinion which fixes television as the cause of juvenile
delinquency. On the contrary, there is a decided body of opinion that television
and films have no causal relationship to juvenile delinquency." The industry
representatives continued to refute the charge that television caused juvenile
delinquency, even though the subcommittee just wanted to know if it was a
Not letting this "apples v. oranges" distinction of causal versus contributing
factor deter them, however, Jones and company tried to throw all kinds of fruit
in the basket to make the issue too complex to be explained. Jones brought up
Shakespeare's plays and "Jack and the Beanstalk," arguing that if those revered
stories were abstracts for a television movie, people would be concerned about
the level of violence. He believed that the issue of fantasy violence having an
impact on real-life violence was perplexing, and each reference to another form
of fantasy violence exacerbated the problem. In other words, no one called
congressional hearings on Shakespearean plays or children's literature because
no one would see them as a significant cause of societal behavior. Why should a
television program be any different, he argued. Jones warned the subcommittee
against seeking an easy answer or designating a scapegoat just to put the issue
to rest without really uncovering both the cause and the solution.
Robert Hinckley, vice president of ABC, also added to the complexity argument
when he compared the rate of juvenile delinquency in the U.S. to Russia's rate.
Playing to the "Red Scare" sentiment of the times, Hinckley said the delinquency
rate in Russia was rising at an alarming rate as well. With only three
television stations, though, and only 100,000 sets in the whole country, it was
apparent to him that television was not causing Russia's rise in delinquency.
Therefore, according to Hinckley, it obviously was not the cause of the U.S.'s
problem, either. He offered no further "proof" of the inability to link
television to juvenile delinquency, and no member of the subcommittee questioned
his Russian example.
Finally, industry representatives focused their testimony on the positive
aspects of television. Al Hodge, "Captain Video," proudly testified about his
"wholesome adventure program," stressing how violence and conflict were
presented in "good taste." Hodge stressed that no one was killed on "Captain
Video" and that the criminals were rehabilitated rather than executed. Each
time he was asked about a negative aspect of television, Hodge turned it around
with a positive response. When all else failed, Hodge and others lauded the
National Association of Radio and Television Broadcasters' (now the NAB,
National Association of Broadcasters) voluntary Television Code. Sections were
read into the record by numerous witnesses, including:
(q) Criminality shall be presented as undesirable and unsympathetic. The
crime and the treatment of the commission of crime in a frivolous, cynical, or
manner is unacceptable. (r) The presentation of techniques of crime in such
to invite imitation shall be avoided. (s) The use of horror for its own sake
eliminated; the use of visual or aural effects which would shock or alarm the
and the detailed presentation of brutality or physical agony by sight or by
sound are not permissible. (t) Law enforcement shall be upheld, and the officers
of the law are to be
portrayed with respect and dignity. (u) The presentation of murder or revenge as
motive for murder shall not be presented as justifiable. (v) Suicide as an
solution for human problems is prohibited. (w) The exposition of sex crimes will
The code was advanced by broadcasters as the solution to problematic
programming, an example of the effectiveness of self-regulation, just as it was
On the other side of the debate, James Bennett, director of Bureau of Prisons
in the Justice Department, called for greater levels of action than industry
self-regulation. Bennett wanted a presidential commission to be established to
study the issue and draw up a more workable code. This suggestion was actually
one of the more extreme calls for government action; no witness or subcommittee
member was ready to argue for governmental control over programming.
Not even the commissioners of the Federal Communications Commission wanted
governmental interference in broadcasting content. In one of the strongest
anti-censorship statements, FCC Commissioner Rosel Hyde said he and all but one
of the commissioners believed that the FCC should play no role in content
decisions. The FCC statement read,
We cannot agree with those critics of radio and television who believe, however
that the only way to secure the highest quality program service is to provide a
Government officials with a blue pencil. We believe it would be dangerous, as
contrary to our democratic concepts, for a few officials in Washington, be they
Federal Communications Commission or any other group, to have such power.
(Interestingly, this is exactly the same wording used by then FCC Chairman Paul
Walker in 1952 in his prepared statement read during the hearings.)
Although Commissioner Freida Hennock asked that a separate statement be placed
in the hearings transcript to represent her views -- in which she called for the
Commission to hold separate hearings on the issue of violent programming and to
adopt "a firm policy against the future renewal of the licenses of any
broadcasters who persist in failure to meet their responsibilities to the public
by continuing to subject the children ... to the concentrated and unbalanced
fare of violence", she is the sole FCC voice arguing for some control over
content for years.
With no one clamoring for strong governmental action, the subcommittee did not
push for any legislation following the round of hearings in 1954. The
subcommittee did state a need for more research, implored the industry to hire
child specialists to help screen programs, and provided advice to the industry
on improvements to the Television Code.
Round Two, Part Two: The 1955 Hearings
The Republicans lost control of Congress in 1954, so when the Subcommittee on
Juvenile Delinquency met in 1955 it had a Democratic chair, Senator
Kefauver. A nationally-known figure, Senator Kefauver was enjoying a "close
and fruitful" relationship with the media because of the popularity he
received as chair of the recent Senate's Special Committee to Investigate
Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce. The organized crime hearings were
significant because they were the first congressional hearings to be televised
that really caught the public's attention, setting a precedent for the power of
television and carrying an unknown junior senator from Tennessee into the
national spotlight. Senator Kefauver was later labeled "the first elected
public official who really capitalized on television to advance himself
Senator Kefauver's background suggested additional rationales for him having a
favorable attitude toward the media. During his college years at the University
of Tennessee, Senator Kefauver served as the first president of the Blue Pencil
Club for college editors and held the positions of associate athletic editor
and, later, athletic editor of the Orange & White, the school newspaper.
During his congressional days he was a guest speaker at the National Association
of Broadcasters' 1951 convention, where he called broadcasting a "great
industry" worthy of "the gratitude of the nation." Senator Kefauver even
seemed to support crime programs on television, serving as the narrator for
"Crime Syndicated" on three occasions. So why did this apparent media
supporter, who brought up the idea of a possible link between television and
juvenile delinquency initially, pursue more hearings on the issue?
One Kefauver biographer said the answer is quite simple. Senator Kefauver knew
a good bandwagon to lead when he saw one. As Joseph Gorman explained, "Just as
everyone had been against crime, so everyone was against juvenile
delinquency." Another Kefauver biographer explained, "As soon as Kefauver
succeeded to the chairmanship ..., he gave indications that he hoped to turn the
limping juvenile delinquency probe into a junior-grade crime investigation - and
with a presidential race coming up the next year! There was no question that
Kefauver was keenly aware of the publicity potential of a juvenile delinquency
probe." Senator Kefauver's political aspirations looked squarely toward the
White House, so he needed all the positive national publicity he could
The issue of media violence and juvenile delinquency provided him with a topic
of national concern - albeit one he worked to create. A November 1954 Gallup
poll, taken only months after the hearings on media and juvenile delinquency,
asking whether comic books and television programs contributed to juvenile
delinquency showed seventy percent of the country placing some blame on both
forms of media for teen-age problems. Senator Kefauver held hearings and
issued reports in 1955 on television and comics as well as motion pictures. And
the tone of the hearings was distinct from those held in 1954.
For two days in April of 1955 Chairman Kefauver enjoyed the publicity
television, radio, and print reporters gave him while covering the next round of
hearings on television and delinquency. Senator Kefauver opened the hearings
pledging objectivity and promising testimony from leading social scientists. He
placed twenty letters in the record during his opening statement, however, from
parents and organizations concerned about television's role in children's lives.
No letters were supportive of the industry.
Scientific research was the main thrust of the testimony as psychologists,
psychiatrists, and sociologists gave their expert opinions on the relationship
between television and juvenile delinquency. Dr. Eleanor Maccoby, a child
psychologist at Harvard, detailed the results of her study on why children watch
television and what activities children are not engaging in during the three
hours she calculated that they were watching. Would children's cognitive skills
suffer as a result of not reading? Would their imagination be stifled if they
were not engaging in fantasy play? She did not have the answers but voiced these
questions as concerns. While critical of television, she was not a strong
proponent of government intervention, however. She actually avoided Senator
Kefauver's attempts to have her call for governmental action based on her
research findings with the skill of a television industry executive.
Dr. Ralph Banay, a research psychiatrist at Columbia who was also affiliated
with the U.S. Bureau of Prisons and the Attorney General's Office, might have
been a stronger proponent of government intervention based on his highly
critical attitude toward television content, but he was never asked about what
role the government should play in regulating violence. Instead, Senator
Kefauver questioned Dr. Banay about his weeklong survey of violent actions
within television programs in the Washington, D.C. market - which included
"Hopalong Cassidy" and "Buffalo Bill, Jr."; his affiliation with professional
associations within his field; his direct work with juvenile delinquents; and
his personal attitude toward television. Kefauver asked him, "Then your
testimony is that overall you think the violent TV programs or some of our TV
programs, [sic] do increase juvenile delinquency?" Dr. Banay replied, "Yes, I
believe so." Dr. Banay offered no evidence of correlations, experiments with
children, or even systematic study of children's behavior, however.
Dr. Paul Lazarsfeld, who testified the following day, was the only academic who
had published extensive media research, especially in the area of media effects.
Dr. Lazarsfeld was, of course, the eminent sociologist at Columbia who pioneered
media research. Rather than actually discussing possible effects of television
on children, Dr. Lazarsfeld focused on why so little media research had been
conducted, how difficult it was to secure funding, and how little was really
known about children and television. He left the subcommittee with few
Industry officials were called to testify in 1955 as well, many of whom came
before the subcommittee in 1954, and they continued their four strategies
developed earlier. The grave danger of infringing on First Amendment rights was
discussed, contradictory research that found no relationship between television
and delinquency was mentioned, the complexity of the issue was reinforced, and
the positive aspects of the industry were again emphasized. Senator Kefauver
responded to these strategies, as exemplified when he called Harold Fellows,
president and chairman of the board of the NARTB, to task for focusing only on
the positive accomplishments of the industry. Senator Kefauver remarked:
You have not set it out in this testimony you are giving us [why you are
about television having negative effects on children], and I think you would be
a better public service if you would not let your television stations and
industry feel that
this [sic] is just nothing to this. But if you would set forth the fact that 7
out of 10 parents,
many great psychiatrists and child students, I mean students of children's
affairs, feel that
as to some children there is a connection and an adverse effect.
Fellows assured the assembled senators that the industry was made aware of all
research, good or bad, and all public concerns through the NARTB and other
channels. He then continued his testimony, focusing on the positive impact of
the Television Code.
Because of the vastly differing testimony, historians disagree on the actual
results of the subcommittee's probe. While Joseph Gorman argued that no definite
relationship between television and juvenile delinquency was established,
Mary Ann Guitar said that the link had been made. The subcommittee itself
fell somewhere in between, as evidenced by the language of its final report.
While stating it was not aware of a "comprehensive, conclusive study" on the
effects of television on children, the subcommittee "believe[d] that television
crime programs are ... much more injurious to children and young people than
motion pictures, radio, or comic books." The committee called for more
research, vigilance on the part of the public in criticizing the industry
whenever necessary, collective responsibility on the part of every member of the
industry, and greater responsibility on the part of the Federal Communications
Commission to use program content as a consideration when stations came up for
A letter between subcommittee counsels showed Senator Kefauver's team worked on
ways to force the FCC to accept more control over television content. They
considered stating in the 1955 report that "the subcommittee is of the opinion
that the Federal Communications Commission is not fully exercising the powers
presently vested in it to protect the public interest, and especially to protect
the Nation's [sic] children from the multitude of programs dealing with crime
and violence." While acknowledging that only one member of the FCC advocated
an increased role for the agency (Commissioner Hennock continued to support
greater FCC control over content), the letter listed several recommendations the
subcommittee could make to enlarge the commission's activities. Only the appeal
to use content as one of the determining factors for license renewal actually
made it into the final report.
The establishment of a presidential commission to oversee the systematic study
of the issue and report annually to both Congress and the president and the
added responsibilities for the FCC were the only two subcommittee
recommendations that called for government action. Neither recommendation
After weeks of hearings spread over the first half of the 1950s, Congress had
succeeded in producing over one thousand pages discussing the possibility of a
relationship between television and juvenile delinquency, but the question
remained regarding what had actually been accomplished. Many consequences
resulted from the hearings. On a personal level, Senator Kefauver increased his
popularity, one of the many reasons he became Adlai Stevenson's vice
presidential running mate in 1956 after barely losing out to Stevenson for the
top spot on the Democratic ticket. Senator Kefauver would serve as a role
model for future congressmen who sought to further their careers and increase
their popularity by criticizing the television industry for its violent
programming. Senator Paul Simon's (D- Ill.) focus on television violence in the
late 1980s while also seeking the Democratic presidential nomination is a
On a more macro level, the 1950s hearings created a relationship between the
broadcast industry and government that remained static for almost four decades:
first, the government castigated the industry for its deplorable programming,
then the industry took its verbal punishment and promised to do better, followed
by the government staying out of the industry's business - at least in terms of
content. This pattern was a "win-win" situation for both parties. The
politicians scored points with their constituents for showing concern for
children and outrage at any factor that contributed to crime and violence. The
industry kept the government out of its daily affairs, allowing it to program
the shows that would generate the greatest audience and result in more revenue.
This is not to say that there were not members of Congress genuinely concerned
about children and television or that the industry held no concern, but the
general pattern of congressional public relations moves and industry sidesteps
is quite obvious.
The 1950s hearings had another lasting effect. Almost every concern that
researchers, activists, and politicians have raised in the area of television
violence can be found in the testimonies and reports from 1952 and 1954-55. For
example, a 1954 witness raised the issue of program sponsors linking the selling
of their products to the entertainment provided in the show and suggested no
advertising during children's programs. Those issues would be debated twenty
years later by Action for Children's Television, the Federal Trade Commission,
and the industry. Witnesses also raised concerns about the effects
television had on a child's cognitive skills, reading skills, and level of
passivity. These issues have remained topics of academic research for ensuing
Dr. Ralph Banay asserted that emotionally disturbed children would be affected
by television violence more than stable children during his 1955 testimony.
Almost twenty years later the Surgeon General's Report substantiated his belief
with empirical research. Future research also debunked a belief originally
advanced during the 1952 hearings when the "catharsis theory," which stated that
television violence served as a release for aggressive children and was
therefore not harmful, was found to be lacking as a suitable explanation of the
relationship between television violence and young viewers.
Even legislation that did not pass Congress until the 1990s had roots in the
1954 hearings. Of the twenty-seven bills introduced between 1950 and 1996
concerning television violence only two actually became law, and both have
origins in the earlier hearings. The effect of removing anti-trust regulations
which prohibit stations, or networks, from discussing programming or cleaning up
the industry was explored during the hearings as a solution to each network
being fearful of dropping its violent programs when the others might continue to
show similar highly rated shows. Senator Paul Simon introduced the Television
Program Improvement Act in 1990 to exempt networks from anti-trust laws so
they could work out an industry-wide plan to cut the amount of violence on
Finally, the Parental Choice in Television Programming Act of 1996, or the
v-chip law, can be traced back to the 1954 hearings. The subcommittee inquired
as to the feasibility of a "superorganism" to review all programs prior to
airing and rate their content - an idea quite similar to the special commission
the FCC could have developed to rate television programming if the industry had
not done so voluntarily according to the Act's provisions. It also
questioned why the television industry could not rate programs like the movie
industry. Of course, the voluntary age-based ratings systems developed by
the television industry in 1997 closely mirrored the MPAA's ratings.
The legal environment in which the 1950s hearings took place provide an
interesting juxtaposition to the seeming inaction by Congress. While the issue
of the constitutionality of broadcast regulation had yet to be fully developed
by the Supreme Court (the seminal Red Lion decision would not be issued for
another fifteen years), the justices had ruled on the role of the Federal
Communications Commission on several occasions, providing the agency with fairly
substantial leeway in terms of regulation. In NBC v. U.S. (1943) the Court's
majority clearly established that the FCC held "expansive powers" with which
to regulate broadcasters due to the "public interest" clause of the 1934
Communications Act. Justice Frankfurter's majority opinion stated:
The Act itself establishes that the Commission's powers are not limited to the
and technical aspects of regulation of radio communication. Yet we are asked to
the Commission as a kind of traffic officer, policing the wave lengths to
stations from interfering with each other. But the Act does not restrict the
merely to supervision of that traffic. It puts upon the Commission the burden of
determining the composition of that traffic.
Just as he disregarded all the appellants' arguments for restricting the FCC
from enacting its chain broadcasting regulations, Justice Frankfurter ignored
their appeal to the First Amendment saying that the "unique characteristic"
of broadcasting -- spectrum scarcity -- automatically denied some speech freedom
over the airwaves. Not receiving a license because one refuses to follow the
FCC's regulations was, therefore, not an abridgement of speech. Justice Murphy's
dissent did not raise the issue of the First Amendment, making it rather obvious
that the Court did not see broadcast regulation as a potential infringement on
Subsequent decisions by the Court through the early 1950s solidified the FCC's
authority to regulate broadcasting and the justices' reluctance to interfere
with the agency's decisions. Although the Court overturned the FCC's
authority to define "give-away" programs as illegal in FCC v. ABC (1954), it did
so only because it exceeded the explicit wording of 18 U.S.C. 1304, a criminal
statute derived from Section 316 of the 1934 Communications Act.
Justice Frankfurter's dubitante opinion in RCA v. U.S. (1951) clearly
established his personal disregard for broadcasting and his view that it could
be regulated by the government quite easily. After stating his concern about the
negative impact captive listening of the radio may have on society's ability to
reflect on issues and his belief that television "may lead to the hasty
jettisoning of hard-won gains of civilization," he cited a Report of the
Broadcasting Committee which stated that "the evil is that broadcasting is
capable of increasing perhaps the most serious of all dangers which threaten
democracy and free institutions today -- the danger of passivity -- of
acceptance by masses of orders given to them and of things said to them."
It was against this backdrop of Court acceptance of broadcast regulation that
the question of governmental intervention into television content to decrease
the amount of violence shown on the air was raised. It appears rather academic
that had Congress amended the Communications Act to empower the FCC to review
violent programming content or set limits on violent content that the Court,
using NBC v. U.S. (1943) as precedent, would have found no constitutional
concerns with the action. Congressional action might not have even been
necessary. The FCC, utilizing Commissioner Hennock's argument, might have simply
included a review of violent content as part of the license renewal process to
ensure that the licensee was operating in the "public interest." The Court's
majority opinion in NBC rests so heavily on the FCC's responsibility to uphold
the "public interest" clause and finds no First Amendment issue related to
regulating broadcasting that it seems reasonable to assume that an FCC
regulation could have easily withstood constitutional challenge.
Yet it was the members of the FCC who raised the issue of First Amendment
concern just as loud as the industry representatives in the 1950s. And this
reluctance to regulate content continued even after the hearings, although
changes in FCC personnel led to changes in outlook on this issue.
From Chairman Coy's comments in 1950 to the 1960 Report and Order on Network
Programming, members of the FCC showed no desire to play the role of program
monitor or censor. During the 1954 hearings, FCC Chair Hyde invoked the First
Amendment to ward against governmental interference in television content. His
statement that no governmental entity needs "blue pencils" to edit programming
content stands as one of the strongest rebukes to governmental interference.
Although there are members such as Nicholas Johnson in the 1970s who follow
Hennock's path of calling for FCC involvement, there is a remarkable consistency
through the years of FCC Chairmen invoking the First Amendment and/or Section
326 of the Communications Act. (It is difficult to judge the attitude of FCC
personnel in the 1980s and 1990s based solely on hearing testimony, because the
FCC is rarely called to testify during the twelve hearings that occurred from
There is no clear answer to why the FCC would be so reluctant in the 1950s to
regulate, or even why Congress was so reluctant to pass legislation requiring
any level of regulation. The answer may be found, however, in a political
science theory that was not even developed until 1964, Murray Edelman's symbolic
politics theory. Succinctly explained, Edelman posited that politicians engage
in symbolic activity rather than substantive activity to manipulate the public
into perceiving that they are looking after the public's interests and
concerns. Hearings without subsequent legislation are examples of symbolic
actions taken by members of Congress to appear responsive to an issue of some
concern to the public without engaging in the time-consuming and complex task of
enacting real change. This symbolic action remained the "act of choice" for
Congress until the mid-1980s, when Senator Paul Simon repeatedly began to
introduce legislation to curb violence on television. Still, there is a
significant amount of symbolic congressional action from 1950 to 1997 in the
area of television violence, but only two public laws enacted.
The question of why the FCC would be reticent to gain control of programming is
probably explained more by history than theory, however. The 1950s were a decade
of great technological advancements in broadcasting, and the FCC was overwhelmed
by the technical aspects of its responsibility. The last thing
commissioners needed were further responsibilities, especially ones that would
be contested by the industry. By the late 1950s the FCC was embroiled in its own
controversy, with Senator Oren Harris investigating the commissioners for
accepting bribes, taking trips on privately owned yachts of broadcasters, and
being overly friendly with the industry they were charged to regulate.
Commissioners came and went at a much faster rate than what is commonplace
today. The end of the decade saw the FCC, Congress, and the industry focusing on
the quiz show scandals, which was actually the first time the agency was
involved in a programming content discussion. There is little wonder that
the activities of the 1950s left little time for the FCC to concern itself with
regulating television violence.
For all of their lingering impact on the issue of television violence and the
government's involvement in that issue, the 1952 and 1954-55 hearings are
usually thought of as merely the starting point of four decades of sporadic
government concern. Certainly, the 1968 congressional hearings that established
the research project known as the 1972 Surgeon General's Report and the 1972
hearings that followed the report's release have received much more attention
than their ancestors. Careful examination of the 1950s hearings, however,
provides invaluable insight into how the issue originated and the unwritten
guidelines that the industry, government, and researchers followed for decades.
It is no surprise these early television violence hearings are easily
forgotten, though, for the Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency
forgot about them after issuing its 1956 report. The subcommittee itself
continued into the 1960s, but its primary focus returned to families,
communities, schools, and courts. Kefauver and the Democrats did not win the
White House in 1956, and he turned his attention to anti-trust crusades for the
remainder of his congressional career. The issue of television violence did
not tickle the fancy of legislators again until 1962, when the juvenile
delinquency subcommittee briefly revisited the issue once more. More
attention was given to the 1964 hearings, held when the country was beginning to
question the violent society that allowed the president to be assassinated.
Subsequent upswings in real-life violence, at least in the minds of citizens,
led to nine congressional hearings on television violence in the 1970s, seven in
the 1980s, and five in the 1990s. That cycle looks as though it will
Still, the overarching issue is the establishment of the "game" played between
the broadcasting industry -- the media industry that faces the strongest forms
of governmental regulation -- and Congress as well as the placement of the First
Amendment into the game by both sides. The industry uses the First Amendment as
its primary defense to ward off governmental interference in its programming
decisions, while the government -- both the FCC and Congress -- uses the First
Amendment to ensure that current governmental boundaries are not enlarged. The
accepted activity of discussing the problem seems useful to all the players of
the game, as the public is assured that both Congress and the industry are
concerned about children. No further action is attempted by either side,
however. The rules established in 1952 remained in place for decades to follow,
so the game could be played over and over again.
The Forgotten Battles: Congressional Hearings on
Television Violence in the 1950s
Abstract (75 words)
Although Congress has been interested in television violence for over four
decades, little scholarly attention focuses on its first actions. This paper
looks at the 1952, 1954, and 1955 hearings, which laid the foundation for every
subsequent congressional hearing on the issue as well as legislation passed in
The paper utilizes historical methodology as well as legal analysis to expand
the discussion beyond a simple summary of these first - yet so important -
 Public Law 104-104 ( 551 (1996).
 Laurie Mifflin, "Groups Strike Agreement to Add TV Ratings Specifics," The
New York Times, 10 July 1997, sec. A, p. 12.
 Cynthia Cooper, Violence on Television: Congressional Inquiry, Public
Criticism, and Industry Response (Lanham, MD: University Press of America,
 E.C. Gathings, "Air Waves and Newsstands," Congressional Record. 82nd
Cong., 1st sess., 1951, A3742.
 U.S. Congress. House. Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce,
Subcommittee on the Federal Communications Commission. Investigation of Radio
and Television Programs. 82nd Cong., 2nd sess., 1952.
 William Rowland, The Politics of TV Violence: Policy Uses of Communication
Research, (CA: Sage Publications, 1983.)
 Christopher H. Sterling and John M. Kittross, Stay Tuned: A Concise
History of American Broadcasting. 2d ed. (CA: Wadsworth, 1990).
 U.S. Congress. Senate. Committee on the Judiciary. Subcommittee to
Investigate Juvenile Delinquency. Juvenile Delinquency (District of Columbia).
83rd Cong., 2d sess., 1954.
 David Halberstam, The Fifties (NY: Villard Books, 1993).
 Sterling and Kittross, Stay Tuned, 199.
 Rowland, The Politics of TV Violence, 19.
 Halberstam, The Fifties, 195.
 Rowland, The Politics of TV Violence, 23.
 Congressional Record. 81st Cong., 2d sess., 14 March 1950, 3285.
 Ibid., 16 March 1950, 3479.
 Ibid, 3479-3480.
 Appendix to the Congressional Record. 81st Cong., 2d sess., 1950, A5282.
 Appendix to the Congressional Record. 82nd Cong., 1st sess., 1951, A3742.
 Ibid, A3742.
 Congressional Record. 82nd Cong., 2nd sess., 1952, 5058.
 U.S. Congress. Investigation of Radio and Television Programs, 1.
 U.S. Congress, Investigation of Radio and Television Programs, 1.
 Congressional Record. 82nd Cong., 2d sess., 1952, 5058.
 U.S. Congress, Investigation of Radio and Television Programs.
 Ibid, 2. See also U.S. Congress. House. Committee on Interstate and
Foreign Commerce. Investigation of Radio and Television Programs.82nd Cong., 2nd
sess., 1952. H. Rept. 2509.
 Rowland, The Politics of TV Violence, 100.
 Rowland, The Politics of TV Violence, 100.
 U.S. Congress. Investigation of Radio and Television Programs, 30-73.
 U.S. Congress, Investigation, H. Rept. 2509, 10.
 U.S. Congress. Investigation, H. Rept. 2509, 12.
 See Cooper, Violence on Television, and Robert M. Liebert and Joyce
Sprafkin, The Early Window: Effects of Television on Children and Youth. 3rd ed.
(NY: Pergamon, 1988), 60.
 U.S. Congress. Senate. Committee on Judiciary. Juvenile Delinquency. 83rd
Cong., 2d sess., 1954. S. Rept. 1064.
 Ibid, 1.
 U.S. Congress. Senate. Committee on the Judiciary. Subcommittee to
Investigate Juvenile Delinquency. Juvenile Delinquency (District of Columbia).
83rd Cong., 2d sess., 1954, p. 396.
 See U.S. Congress, Juvenile Delingquency, S. Rept. 1064 for further
 U.S. Congress, Juvenile Delinquency, S. Rept. 1064, 5.
 U.S. Congress. Senate. Committee on the Judiciary. Subcommittee to
Investigate Juvenile Delinquency. Juvenile Delinquency (Motion Pictures),
Juvenile Delinquency (Comic Books), and Juvenile Delinquency (Television
Programs). (Three separate volumes.) 83rd Cong., 2d sess., 1954.
 Statements from both Senator Hendrickson in 1954 and Senator Kefauver in
1955 leads one to assume that television and radio reporters covered the
hearings although the record never states this as such. Senator Hendrickson
says, "... the Chair, with apologies to the press, radio, and television, will
declare a recess until two o'clock this afternoon." U.S. Congress, Juvenile
Delinquency (Television Programs), 209. During the 1955 hearings, Senator
Kefauver tells Commissioner Frieda Hennock of the FCC, "Since this is a
television hearing, the television boys would like to take some pictures of you
while you are testifying." U.S. Congress. Senate. Committee on the Judiciary.
Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency Juvenile Delinquency
(Television Programs), 84th Cong., 1st sess., 1955, 24.
 U.S. Congress, Juvenile Delinquency (Television Programs),1954, 65.
 Estes Kefauver. Papers. University of Tennessee Library. MS. 837, Box 96,
 Mrs. Hugh J. Lucas. Letter written to Estes Kefauver. Kefauver Papers.
University of Tennessee Library. MS. 837, Box 96, Folders 1-3.
 U.S. Congress, Juvenile Delinquency (Television Programs), 1954.
 Ibid, 36.
 U.S. Congress, Juvenile Delinquency (Television Programs), 1954, 107.
 Ibid, 81-82.
 Ibid, 182.
 U.S. Congress, Juvenile Delinquency (Television Programs), 1954, 83, 96.
 Ibid, 233-234.
 Ibid, 130-134.
 U.S. Congress, Juvenile Delinquency (Television Programs), 1954, 47.
 Ibid, 127-128.
 Ibid, 279.
 U.S. Congress, Investigation of Radio and Television Programs, 465.
 U.S. Congress, Juvenile Delinquency (Television Programs), 1954, 290.
 Gorman, Kefauver, 197.
 J. Derr, "'The Biggest Show on Earth': The Kefauver Crime Committee
Hearings." The Maryland Historian 17(2), 1986: 19-37.
 Greg Lisby, "Early Television on Public Watch: Kefauver and His Crime
Investigation." Journalism Quarterly 62(2), 1985: 236-242.
 See both Derr and Lisby articles for further information on the organized
 Edward Chester, Radio, Television and American Politics (NY: Sheed &
Ward, 1969), 76.
 Charles Fontenay, Estes Kefauver: A Biography (TN: The University of
Tennessee Press, 1980).
 Derr, "The Biggest Show", 24.
 Lisby, "Early Television," 238.
 Gorman, Kefauver, 198.
 Fortenay, Estes Kefauver, 318.
 See Jack Anderson and Frank Blumenthal, The Kefauver Story (NY: The Dial
 George Gallup, "The Gallup Poll: Air Waves Share Blame," Washington Post
and Times Herald, 21 November 1954..
 U.S. Congress. Juvenile Delinquency (Television Programs), 1955, 1-3.
 Ibid, 6, 17.
 U.S. Congress. Juvenile Delinquency (Television Programs), 1955, 83.
 Ibid, 87-99.
 Ibid, 69.
 Ibid, 70.
 Gorman, Kefauver, 197.
 Mary Alice Guitar, "TV Violence - The Kids React," in Violence and the
Mass Media, ed. Otto Larsen (NY: Harper & Row, 1968) 47-50.
 U.S. Congress. Senate. Committee on the Judiciary. Television and
Juvenile Delinquency. 84th Cong., 2d sess., 1956. S. Rept. 1466.
 Ibid, 31.
 Richard Clendenen. Letter to Mr. Langdon West. Kefauver Papers.
University of Tennessee Library. MS 837, Box 72, Senate Subcommittee Folder.
 U.S. Congress, Television and Juvenile Delinquency, S. Rept. 1466, 49,
 Fortenay, Estes Kefauver, 198.
 Federal Communications Commission, "Children's Television Programming and
Advertising Practices: Report and Order," Federal Register 49, 1984: 1704-1714.
See also Federal Communications Commission, "Children's Television Report and
Policy Statement," Federal Register 39, 1974: 39396-39409.
 Judith Van Evra, Television and Child Development (NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum
 Liebert and Sprafkin, The Early Window, 79-108.
 Ibid, 75.
 Keisha L. Hoerrner, "Symbolic Politics: An Historical, Empirical, and
Legal Discussion of Congressional Efforts and the Issue of Television Violence"
(Ph.D. diss, University of Georgia, 1998), 46.
 47 U.S.C. 303c (Supp. III 1991). The Television Program Improvement Act
is Title V of Public Law 101-650, Judicial Improvements Act of 1990.
 47 U.S.C. 303(b)(1)(1) (1996).
 U.S. Congress. Juvenile Delinquency (Television Programs), 1954, 228.
 Mifflin, "Groups Strike Agreement," A12.
 Red Lion Broadcasting Company v. FCC, 395 U.S. 367 (1969).
 319 U.S. 190 (1943).
 Ibid, 219.
 NBC v. U.S., 319 U.S. 190 (1943), 215-216.
 Ibid, 226.
 Radio Corporation of America et al. v. United States et al. (341 U.S. 412
(1951)) and Federal Communication Commission v. American Broadcasting Co, Inc.
(347 U.S. 284 (1954)).
 341 U.S. 412, 425 (1951).
 1949 (Cmd. 8116, 1951) 75, cited in 341 U.S. 412, 428 (1951).
 Federal Communications Commission, "Network Programming Inquiry: Report
and Statement of Policy." Federal Register 25 (1960), 7291-7296.
 Sterling & Kittross, Stay Tuned.
 Cooper, Violence on Television, 163-174. See also Hoerrner, "Symbolic
 Murray Edelman, The Symbolic Uses of Politics (IL: University of
Illinois Press, 1970).
 Sterling and Kittross, Stay Tuned.
 Fortenay, Estes Kefauver.
 U.S. Congress. Senate. Committee of the Judiciary. Subcommittee to
Investigate Juvenile Delinquency. Juvenile Delinquency, Part 10: Effects on
Young People of Violence and Crime Portrayed on Television. 87th Cong., 2d
 Hoerrner, "Symbolic Politics," 46.