Congressional Hearings Became a TV Sensation in an Instant

The Washington Post
Sunday, April 15, 2018

In early March 1951, a Philadelphia man was watching TV so intently that he became, as Life magazine later reported, “unaware of a fire until it had destroyed a shed in his back yard and swept into the upper story of his home.”

The man was not watching The Howdy Doody Show. Like other popular TV shows, it had been preempted for a new form of television — a live congressional hearing like the one Mark Zuckerberg is now enduring. Across the country, millions tuned in as Sen. Estes Kefauver, a Democrat from Tennessee, conducted a sweeping investigation into organized crime.

“It became apparent,” Life reported, “that at least one fifth of the population had absented itself from normal pursuits. All along the television cable it had suddenly gone indoors — into living rooms, taverns and clubrooms, auditoriums and back offices. There, in eerie half-light, looking at millions of small frosty screens, people sat as if charmed.”

Trolley cars rolled along empty. In New York, cabbies fought over passengers, whose numbers were few. Dishes went unwashed. Reporters even called housewives for their reactions.

“It is positively the most wonderful thing I ever saw,” one said.

While bits and pieces of congressional hearings back then had been shown on newsreels, the Kefauver hearings were the first time they were carried live across the country. The subject matter — racketeering, corruption, violence — combined with the immediacy of television was irresistible. Life described the novelty of it all, writing:

“The very act of swearing in a witness — having stand and raise his right hand and say ‘I do’ — was a strange solemnity. The face of the witness, waiting in fear, confidence or arrogance for the first question, was a new type of real-life drama. The expressions of senators, listening to the testimony with politeness, with outrage, sometimes with boredom and sometimes with the deceptive wariness of the hunter, were a new study in human emotions. ... Everybody, including the kids, suddenly became expert in legal jargon; amateur attorneys sprouted in every living room and bar. A newspaper columnist, Ollie Crawford, summed it up perfectly: ‘Friend of ours hasn’t eaten for a week because his wife is judging the case.”

Kefauver did not set out to create a television “circus,” as critics and media scholars later called the hearings. In taking testimony in different cities throughout the country, local TV stations carried some of the proceedings. But as the senator’s committee moved from city to city, word spread across the country about the unfolding drama. Advertisers became interested. Time magazine even sponsored TV coverage in an attempt to sell subscriptions.

The senator had lost control.

While he publicly seethed about the hearings turning into a spectacle, there is no doubt that TV was quite good for his own brand. Before the hearings, Kefauver was pretty much a nobody in national politics. After, he beat out a fellow named John F. Kennedy for the vice president spot on Adlai Stevenson’s losing ticket in 1956.