How Watching Congressional Hearings Became an American Pastime

Decades before Watergate, mobsters helped turn hearings into must-see television

Mobster Frank Costello testifying before the Kefauver Committee. (Library of Congress)
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A Congressional hearing is the perfect stage for political drama—and long before people could live-tweet, compelling testimony from investigations like the Teapot Dome scandal and the Titanic disaster captured the nation's attention.   

But turning on the television to follow the action is a relatively new practice. It dates back to a set of dramatic crime syndicate investigations in the 1950s that became a televised political theater triumph—and set the stage for what has become a uniquely American pastime.  

The precedent for today’s media spectacles was set in 1922, when Congress attempted to pass a bill that would allow both the legislature and the country to “'listen in' on the doings of the floor of the House.” The legislation failed, as did another bill introduced soon after.

Then came Prohibition. While the Speaker of the House denied requests to livecast debates on the radio about repealing the 18th Amendment in 1932, broadcasters didn’t comply. Instead, aware of the intense public interest around the story, members of the major networks snuck a microphone under the doorway of a library adjacent to the House chamber. Listeners who tuned in were able to hear the vote repealed in real time.

“Radio edged closer to the floor of Congress at the opening session,” wrote Orrin E. Dunlap, Jr. for The New York Times, “but it dared not step over the doorsill.”

The avid audience for the 18th Amendment repeal suggested that radio would soon breach the walls of Congress, and a push to allow radio and TV coverage of Congress began in earnest in the 1940s. As Florida senator Claude Pepper put it: “If we don't broadcast the proceedings some time and keep step with the advances of radio, the people are going to begin asking whether we are afraid to let them hear what we are saying. It's their business we are transacting.”

But due to costliness and an unwillingness by members of Congress to have their proceedings recorded, progress was halting. It would take nearly three more decades before the 1970 Legislative Reorganization Act approved continuous live coverage of the chambers, writes congressional research analyst Sarah J. Eckman.

Committee hearings, however, were early adapters of the television medium. Individual committees could decide for themselves whether or not they wanted to be broadcast, and the Senate Armed Services Committee to became the first to do so in 1948. But it would take the right hearing—and the testimony of some of America's most notorious gangsters—to break through.

That came in 1951, when a series of investigative hearings on interstate gambling by Tennessee senator Estes Kefauver became a television sensation. “Millions of Americans tuned in [to the Kefauver committee hearings] much to the surprise of network officials, who hadn't yet recognized that people would watch television during the day,” writes historian Charles L. Ponce de Leon. At the time, TV was still a burgeoning medium. In 1950, only nine percent of American households owned a television set, and most networks didn’t even broadcast daytime programming.

The Kefauver hearings might have been the only thing on TV, but that wasn’t the only reason people tuned in. The footage, filmed live in black and white, played like a Hollywood picture. Gangsters that looked straight out of central casting were called to testify—and the nation couldn’t get enough. During the height of the hearings, historian David Halberstam notes, one of America’s most popular magazines observed that American politics had fundamentally shifted on its axis. "Never before had the attention of the nation been so completely riveted on a single matter,” LIFE magazine wrote. “The Senate investigation into interstate crime was almost the sole subject of national conversation.”

The decision to air the hearings was supposedly a last-minute one. But coverage riveted an estimated 30 million viewers and made Kefauver a household name. The senator even won an Emmy in 1952 for “outstanding public service on television.”

Though the committee's actual legislative achievements proved “modest, at best,” as a United States’ Senate history website puts it, Kefauver’s use of TV to court public opinion is still regarded as a breakthrough for the medium.

Other Congressional hearing hits followed, like when Senator Joseph McCarthy made news—and put himself in the noose of public opinion—during the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings. Broadcast "gavel to gavel," McCarthy’s flailing attempt to characterize the United States Army as “soft” on Communism has gone down in history as another example of must-see Congressional television. By the time Variety dubbed the 1973 Watergate hearings “the hottest daytime soap opera,” the new medium’s rise was complete. 

Why did TV coverage of Congressional hearings excite America’s imagination?

As pioneering broadcast executive Reuven Frank recalled in Covering Congress, theatrics were built into the DNA of the Congressional hearing. Still, he writes, televised hearings opened up a new world where “the theater was always open, the audience always receptive, the press always in attendance.”

With television, live politics beamed into the living rooms of millions of Americans, bringing the story and its characters to life in a way unlike anything they’d seen before. For good or bad, the genie was out of the bottle. And though it would take decades for continuous Congressional coverage to become the norm, you can thank mobsters—and an intrepid senator—for your C-SPAN addiction. 

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