W. Joseph Campbell

Blithely invoking the Murrow-McCarthy myth

In Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Watergate myth on March 3, 2010 at 11:15 am

It’s fairly remarkable how blithely and routinely media myths can be invoked.

A reminder of that appeared in a column posted today in the Times-News, a newspaper in Twin Falls, Idaho. The column, which ruminated about the use of middle initials, opened this way:

Murrow in 1954 (Library of Congress)

“When I was a young journalist, the most revered person in my profession was Edward R. Murrow, the CBS News reporter who brought down Sen. Joseph McCarthy.”

Brought down McCarthy.

It’s a story as famous and revered in American journalism as the notion that intrepid young reporters for the Washington Post brought down the corrupt presidency of Richard Nixon.

Both tales are exaggerated.

And both are media-driven myths that are examined in my forthcoming book, Getting It Wrong.

Murrow was a leading and ultimately a legendary figure in American broadcasting who in the 1950s  stood up to McCarthy, the Red-baiting junior senator from Wisconsin, when, supposedly, no one else would, or dared. In so doing, the story goes, Murrow brought an abrupt end to senator’s witchhunt for communists in the U.S. government.

The vehicle for Murrow’s brave exposé was his 30-minute television program, See It Now, which aired on CBS.

As I write in Getting It Wrong:

“Long before the See It Now program, several prominent journalists—including the Washington-based syndicated columnist Drew Pearson—had become persistent and searching critics of McCarthy, his record, and his tactics.”

Pearson, who wrote the widely published “Washington Merry-Go-Round” column, was the most assertive and, ultimately, acerbic of McCarthy’s media critics. He challenged McCarthy’s claims as early as 1950, soon after the senator began charging that communists had infiltrated the U.S. State Department.

McCarthy became so angered by Pearson’s searching columns that he threatened the columnist with physical harm–and followed through in December 1950 in the cloakroom of the exclusive Sulgrave Club on DuPont Circle in Washington. There, he slapped or tried to knee Pearson in the groin.

All that came long before Murrow confronted McCarthy on See It Now in 1954.

By 1954, I note in Getting It Wrong, “it wasn’t as if Americans … were hoping for someone to step up and expose McCarthy, or waiting for a white knight like Murrow to tell them about the toxic threat the senator posed.”

Pearson and others had been doing so for years.


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  2. […] Similarly, the 2005 motion picture Good Night, and Good Luck served to popularize and extend the media myth that broadcasting legend Edward R. Murrow exposed and abruptly ended the communists-in-government witch-hunt of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. […]

  3. […] myth on April 10, 2010 at 3:11 pm The myth and misunderstanding associated with Edward R. Murrow’s famous broadcast on CBS about Senator Joseph R. McCarthy are many, and […]

  4. […] tribute recalled Murrow’s famous See It Now documentary program in March 1954 in which he took on the red-baiting Republican senator from Wisconsin, Joseph R. […]

  5. […] no surprise that the story–so rich and delicious in its assertion of media power–would resurface on the Fourth of […]

  6. […] news, Edward R. Murrow, the patron saint of American broadcasting, has been invoked as a brave and exemplary journalist who remained properly above the sordid […]

  7. […] the two history lessons he cited–the mythical “Cronkite Moment” of 1968 and the Murrow-McCarthy encounter of […]

  8. […] media-driven myth even more tenacious than the Murrow-McCarthy tale is the legendary “Cronkite Moment” of February 1968, when CBS anchorman Cronkite […]

  9. […] Edward R. Murrow’s famous See It Now program in March 1954 did not end Senator Joseph McCarthy’s communists-in-government witch-hunt; […]

  10. […] a 1950s feel, permits no other conclusion than Murrow’s See It Now program about McCarthy single-handedly ended the senator’s communists-in-government […]

  11. […] Blithely invoking the Murrow-McCarthy myth […]

  12. […] The 65th anniversary of Edward R. Murrow’s report about Joseph R. McCarthy — extravagantly called “television’s finest half-hour” — falls this week. Over the intervening years, the program has become infused with a tenacious media myth. […]

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