Blacklisted in a Click by Gene Policinski

On October 11, 2018, Jewish Museum Milwaukee opened Blacklist: The Hollywood Red Scare with a Premiere featuring Gene Policinski, one of the most eminent journalists on First Amendment Rights, a founder of USA Today, and President and COO of the Freedom Forum Institute. Policinski delivered the following remarks that evening.

Blacklisted in a Click

Good evening.  Thank you to George Stanley of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, who contacted me about speaking tonight. And of course, thanks also to the Museum and to Patti Sherman-Cisler in particular for inviting me, and congratulations to those of you who have helped support and create this marvelous exhibit, “Blacklist: the Hollywood Red Scare.”

On behalf of my colleagues at the Freedom Forum Institute and at the Newseum, and myself, let me say we are honored by this invitation to have a conversation with you tonight.

I do mean for this to be a conversation, not a lecture – even if I do get to talk first.  As a journalist and as my current job focused on our First Amendment freedoms – religion, speech, press, assembly and petition – leads me to begin, I’d like to start with a bit of context.

The online description of the exhibit, in terms of context, gets it exactly right.  The exhibit and my remarks tonight will, I hope, ultimately be an examination of how our nation has responded – and will respond in the future – to “the shifting definition of what it meant and what it means to be a patriotic American.”

When the concept of the United States was first advanced, that meaning rested on terms like “Revolutionaries, Continentals, Colonials, Rebels and Yankees” in opposition to “Loyalists, Royalists, King’s Men, or Tories.” Later, our nation would redefine patriots as those loyal to particular political parties, certain religious beliefs.
We would split into Union and Confederate (Yankee and Reb) during the Civil War.  A final push to subjugate Native Americans would put a new spin on patriotism – or perhaps better put, a lasting stain on the term.
In the early 1900s, a patriot often could describe what today we would call a “nativist” – that is, someone by my definition, could ignore their own immigrant heritage while decrying that of more-recent arrivals in the United States.

Notice a theme here – one of two I want to identify at the outset. We don’t associate the term “blacklist” with those markers in time, but each has that fundamental quality necessary for a blacklist – using terms and methods to identify a particular group declared unacceptable, undesirable and ultimately, not patriotic.
Moving into the 20th Century, we made the “blacklist” process more formal and established in law. Union organizers, union members, social critics, suffragettes, civil rights advocates – from Jim Crow laws to incarceration in prisons and mental hospitals – were targeted.

The Espionage Act of 1917 and companion government policies sought to identify those who were “enemies of the people” – and I do not use that phrase lightly – and harass, imprison or deport those deemed unacceptable by government or a powerful segment of society that had access to the controls of government.
The Red Scare of the early 1920s, in response to the Bolshevik revolution in Russia coupled with the cynicism of the Western World following the slaughter of millions in WWI, resulted in two waves of what are known as the Palmer Raids, supposedly aimed at “leftist radicals and anarchists,” organized by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer with assistance from a young J. Edgar Hoover.

There’s an old joke that goes something like this: “You’re not paranoid if they really are after you.”
The Sedition Act of 1918, which was an expansion of the 1917 Espionage Act, was a direct result of the paranoia. Targeting those who criticized the government, the Sedition Act set into motion an effort to monitor radicals, especially labor union leaders, with the threat of deportation looming in the background. That threat was an all-too-real demonstration of the origin of the term, which I believe rests in the middle-1600s in England – literally lists of those to be killed in retribution for opposition to the monarchy.

Police raided education centers, thought to be the “vile dens” as one historian noted, of intellectuals, immigrants and anarchists disillusioned with the United States. In one instance, in New York, it seems that an adult algebra class was interrupted by armed agents, with the teacher being beaten. The detained were ordered to hand over their money to agents, who were then directed to tear the place apart after arresting the students.
Dragged and shoved into patrol wagons and taken into custody, agents searched among the detainees for members of the Union of Russian Workers. The questioning that followed revealed that only 39 of the people arrested had anything to do with the union.

One thousand people were arrested in 11 cities in the Palmer Raids – only to see 75% released without charges. In Hartford, Connecticut, 100 men were held for five months, during which time they weren’t allowed lawyers and were not informed of the charges.

Many of the alleged Communist sympathizers that were rounded up were deported in December 1919. The boat utilized for this, the USAT Buford, was nicknamed the “Soviet Ark” and the “Red Ark”. A total of 249 radicals were deported aboard the ship, including the ardent socialist Emma Goldman. I would have named the ship “The Blacklist.”

It’s worth noting that the American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU, was created in 1920 as a direct result of the Palmer Raids – as a reorganized group of what had been called the National Civil Liberties Bureau – and its first action was a challenge of the Sedition Act.

The tactics of those who would blacklist got a trial run in this era.  Assistant Secretary of Labor Louis F. Post joined critics after reviewing deportation cases. He invalidated well over 1,500 deportation orders.  Palmer’s Congressional allies tried to impeach Post – questioning his patriotism – but through a free press, Post was able to publicly outline Palmer’s abuses.

When a predicted May 1, 1920, armed Communist uprising failed to come about, Palmer’s star fell into decline. But his tactics and the congressional technique of challenging the patriotism of opponents was set out.
The exhibit that brings us here tonight examines the era of the Hollywood Blacklist in far greater thoroughness than I could ever aim to do here … but it does bring us to the second “theme” to touch on tonight: Fear.
As your exhibit makes very clear, those behind the Hollywood Blacklist and the entire McCarthy era used fear as a driving force, a divisive tool and a coercive means to their ends.

One needs only to see the movies, magazines and tactics that your exhibit highlights, the destruction of personal and professional reputations, the sinister use of anonymous accusers and demonizing of “the other” to get a sense of the chill this era brought over the “Land of the Free.”

Fear remains a powerful motivator. Our most recent election cycles show that. In our own annual State of the First Amendment surveys, we generally find less than 20% of us in any given year think the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees.  But some months after the 9/11 attack, in early 2002, fully 49% of us said that. In the years that followed, the percentage slid back to traditional levels. Then came the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 – and the number within a few months zoomed back up to nearly 40%.

The lesson throughout is that fear can cause us to lose sight of our core freedoms and what they mean to our nation. And in the Internet Age that sight – our attention span as individuals and as a nation – now moves at a speed unheard of in earlier generations.

It took months in the 1950s – the back and forth of congressional hearings, passed along rumors and whispers, and the circulation of a scurrilous publication, “Red Channels,” on June 22, 1950 for the forces of fear to implement their blacklist.

The magazine subtitled “The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television” was distributed to network executives along Madison Avenue by the group “Counterattack.” As an NPR report in 2010 would note, “There seemed to be something a little dirty about it from the start.  Some executives wouldn’t even admit to having seen a copy. But ‘Red Channels’ was soon the most public secret in the industry.”

The blacklisting era would include the now-infamous hearings by the House Un-American Activities Committee and – of course – Sen. Joseph McCarthy (Republican of Wisconsin.) Through the mid-and-late 1950s, Hollywood writers, movie and early TV stars, and others in government and industry would be tarred by “Red Channels,” HUAC, McCarthy and others.

As we know, some writers simply wrote scripts and screenplays under other’s names or pseudonyms.
John Henry Faulk sued AWARE in 1957, one of several organizations circulating the names of supposed left-wing artists in the film industry. Alfred Hitchcock hired blacklisted actor Norman Lloyd as an associate producer for the TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, that same year. In 1960, director Otto Preminger announced blacklisted Dalton Trumbo as the screenwriter of his film Exodus; and Kirk Douglas in that same year insisted that Universal Pictures list Trumbo as the screenwriter of that epic film Spartacus.

Frankly, we’ve gone through a time in which many say such a “blacklist” atrocity could not occur again – as if the crudity, incivility and unfairness of that period somehow inoculated us.

If only that were the case. In reality, as the Internet Age begins to pass from its “teenage” years into adulthood, it cannot only happen again, but is. “Blacklisted in a Click” is all too real and, perhaps like that Hollywood Blacklist, rolls along on a combination of paranoia, fear and – at times – the efforts of what I would call “well-meaning people” – though we should not take that term too far.

The Age of the Internet has meant many great things. We are more interconnected and able to communicate with each other than at any other time in the entire history of humanity. Advances in science, great literature, the expression of public opinion and the ability to combine efforts on behalf of the common good are powered by the Web and its personal offspring, social media.

But with this great step forward in linking all the disparate members of humankind have come situations we have yet to reconcile. A ticket to membership in this global information and opinion colossus generally requires an unprecedented public exposure of personal data – very often willingly but all too often unknowingly – and an unprecedented exposure of “self” and reliance on the pipeline that is “The Web.”

And therein is both the means to be heard and to be silenced … and, in the latter, with an effectiveness only to be dreamed of by the powers of blacklisting in the past. Every word we post – not just our latest script – can be tracked and backtracked. Every official record can and is being examined and aggregated.  For many of us, every item we buy at the grocery is noted.  And, increasingly, every step we take, every mile we travel, will be available in perpetuity.

We’re only now beginning to deal – in law and in society – with this ramped up, new tech potential for evil.
A few examples of the warning signs – or simply the circumstances – that could be used by those who would silence others: The point of the Hollywood Blacklist was to remove certain people from public dialogue – and identifying them was critical. It was to be achieved by forcing “known” individuals to name others.

Today, no need.  Two recent Supreme Court cases show how easily our right of association – one of those five freedoms I mentioned earlier – can now be overridden should the law be changed to support that work.
In 2012, in Jones v. United States, the Court  – in an opinion written by Justice Scalia … again, Justice Scalia — decided that police need a search warrant to place a GPS tracking device on a car used by a man later indicted on drug charges.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Sotomayor wrote that the “Government can store such records and efficiently mine them for information years into the future… GPS monitoring is cheap… proceeds surreptitiously, [and] it evades the ordinary checks that constrain abusive law enforcement practices: ‘limited police resources and community hostility.'”

Justice Sotomayor expressed concerns that the Government’s use of such technology might chill “associational and expressive freedoms.” “GPS monitoring generates a precise, comprehensive record of a person’s public movements that reflects a wealth of detail about her familial, political, professional, religious, and sexual associations.”

Justice Alito, in concurrence, wrote that: “Recent years have seen the emergence of many new devices that permit the monitoring of a person’s movements. In some locales, closed-circuit television video monitoring is becoming ubiquitous. On toll roads, automatic toll collection systems create a precise record of the movements of motorists who choose to make use of that convenience. Many motorists purchase cars that are equipped with devices that permit a central station to ascertain the car’s location at any time so that roadside assistance may be provided if needed and the car may be found if it is stolen.”

He noted that as of June 2011, it has been reported, there were more than 322 million wireless devices in use in the United States – goodness only knows how many there are today.

Just last June, the court – in an opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts – held that similar restraints on government apply to an even more effective means of tracking our movements … and then, by aggregating the data, determine who is meeting with whom, how often, where and when.

In Carpenter v. United States, Roberts observed that While individuals regularly leave their vehicles, they compulsively carry cell phones with them all the time. A cell phone faithfully follows its owner beyond public thoroughfares and into private residences, doctor’s offices, political headquarters, and other potentially revealing locales. … nearly three-quarters of smartphone users report being within five feet of their phones most of the time, with 12% admitting that they even use their phones in the shower. Accordingly, when the Government tracks the location of a cell phone it achieves near-perfect surveillance as if it had attached an ankle monitor to the phone’s user.”

In a truly disturbing notion that has a science fiction note about it, Roberts added that “Moreover, the retrospective quality of the data here gives police access to a category of information otherwise unknowable. The Government can now travel back in time to retrace a person’s whereabouts (and) because location information is continually logged for all of the 400 million devices in the United States—not just those belonging to persons who might happen to come under investigation—this newfound tracking capacity runs against everyone. Unlike with the GPS device in Jones, police need not even know in advance whether they want to follow a particular individual, or when.

Whoever the suspect turns out to be, he has effectively been tailed every moment of every day for years… and only the few without cell phones could escape this tireless and absolute surveillance.”

But just as in the 1950s, when relatively few people were actually targeted for prosecution, and fewer still were convicted, in matters relating to those blacklisted, we need consider not just what the government might do, but what non-governmental entities can and are doing with their private versions of blacklists – even the benign but ubiquitous “lists.”

Social media companies are not governed by the First Amendment. Online information aggregators not only brag about, but build political and business models based on their ability to scrutinize, analyze and define individuals to the “nth” degree.

We provide the data to the extent that a Mossad intelligence officer once told a Newseum audience that worldwide, what once took teams of analysts and agents months to assemble, can now be gathered with a few “clicks” and the right search tools.

It’s but a short step from knowing how we vote, purchase, travel and associate to using those characteristics to create profiles of whole groups of people who – in the terms of the blacklister – are “undesirable or unacceptable.”
Because blacklisting has a reputation for targeting those in the political or creative fields, consider what’s now potentially at risk in other areas. How many of us here tonight carry and use those friendly supermarket cards at checkout that produce savings?  While we are saving a few dollars, the supermarket’s computer is busy logging in everything we buy – and presumably, consume.

What if that checkout lane data – say, on the total tonnage of pepperoni consumed over a few decades by some – were made available to the health care and insurance industries. Will heart surgeons prioritize work on those who have taken better care of their arteries … or blacklist those high-risk consumers of spicy meats?

We already get discounts on some car insurance policies by allowing those companies to do what the Jones and Carpenter decisions deny police, at least without a warrant: track not where, but how we drive.

What recourse should we have to a decision to blacklist us not on the basis of moving violations adjudicated in a court of law, or accidents recorded in public records, but on an amorphous decision – likely made by artificial intelligence – that we’re not a good insurance risk.

The manner in which we provide the data that can be used against us is growing by the minute… from those home assistants such as Alexa, to Amazon’s downright scary ability to not just report on what we have bought to project accurately on what we might want to buy, to the now somewhat quaint realization that Google tracks our every search to Facebook’s record of who we consider ‘friends.’

Even those who prize privacy, who would oppose in a nano-second the idea of “blacklists” in the manner of this exhibit can fall prey to becoming a member of that threatening ground I mentioned some time ago: well-meaning people.

When social media – in fits and starts – decided to remove the conspiracy-laden Alex Jones from his techno-perch, I suspect most of us quietly went “well, at least that stuff is gone.”

But is the rationale for removing Jones, for now at least, from the modern-day public square – and let me declare at this moment I have no desire to ever defend the content of his ravings in that square – really different from the discredited reasoning of those who tried to silence Trumbo?  A threat to our national consciousness, perhaps our national morals and morality,  if not our national security?

Social media gurus did manage to reduce Mr. Jones’s impact by removing him from his principal means of attracting public notice:  YouTube and Facebook.

In the three weeks before the August 6th bans, Infowars had a daily average of nearly 1.4 million visits to its website and views of videos posted by its main YouTube and Facebook pages, according to a New York Times analysis of data from the web data firms Tubular Labs and SimilarWeb. In the three weeks afterward, its audience fell by roughly half, to about 715,000 site visits and video views, according to the analysis.

Joseph McCarthy could never have envisioned the power over who gets heard – and who does not – now held by Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and whatever other, newer and trendier means of social discourse now exists.
With but a click of a key in some unknown part of the Web or a social media company, we can be blacklisted in an effective manner that HUAC or “Red Channels” or AWARE desired, but could not achieve.

And the scope of blacklisting also has exploded exponentially.  The “Great Firewall of China” shows how massive investment in surveillance technology can track, block and effectively withhold and, on a practical level, erase individuals or entire sections of the worlds’ knowledge.

And think it’s bad now? Just as printing presses, telephones and such enabled the Hollywood Blacklist to spread far quicker than the “black” death list of King Charles in England in 1660, the unfathomable speed of the just-dawning era of Artificial Intelligence will make human response times – or the ability to use false names – useless and ineffective.

Consider how easily movie moguls or the zealot critic, if empowered then with a simple word processing program that compared a new script with previous submissions, could easily have spotted Trumbo’s work under any other name?

So … what do we do in the face of this awful potential for “Blacklisting in a Click?”  We have to do what those who would defeat blacklists have always done… fight for the right to be different, to be the other, and to join with others who are to some – or even the many – unacceptable, undesirable and even not patriotic.

We have to redevelop trust in a marketplace of ideas in which all may be heard, and fight to ensure that all of the means to speak in that marketplace… whether that means providing universal, equal access to the Web or to avoiding taking a meat-ax to free speech in the worthy pursuit of online predators and bullies.

It means even resisting those good people who argue that we would better off – if only we could ban the wacky, the disgusting and even the repugnant – blacklisting those sorts we all secretly wish we could do without. It means insisting on reasonable legal protections for privacy even when we run the risk of not knowing about some among us with less than honorable intentions.

It means resisting the impulse to sanction that which we do not like, or approve of, or see the value of – of recognizing that engagement is not endorsement, communication is not consent and interaction is not approval.
Much work will be needed by those last few observations – but with vigilance and such constant work, the scope, nature and impact of “blacklists” of the future … “Blacklists with a click” – may make the Hollywood Era as if a comparison of cave drawings to the Internet.

As a now-departed friend, colleague and mentor, John Seigenthaler, once observed, “First Amendment freedoms are never safe and secure, but always are in the process of being made safe and secure.”
With that thought in mind, thank you.

Gene Policinski is President and COO of the Freedom Forum Institute, which in partnership with the Newseum, is principally funded by the nonpartisan foundation Freedom Forum.  The Institute’s main offices are in Washington, D.C. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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