W. Joseph Campbell

Recalling, and doubting, television’s ‘finest half hour’

In Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth on March 8, 2010 at 12:18 am

It’ll be 56 years tomorrow since Edward R. Murrow, the “patron saint” of broadcast journalism, took to the small screen to confront Joseph R. McCarthy and decisively end the senator’s witch-hunt for communists in government.

Or so the story goes.

McCarthy in 1954 (Library of Congress)

The occasion was Murrow’s 30-minute See It Now program that aired March 9, 1954, on CBS.

It was a hallowed moment in American journalism, one that supposedly defined the power of television and reaffirmed the courage of Murrow. Among other accolades, the See It Now show on McCarthy has been called television’s “finest half-hour.”

But as I write in my forthcoming book, Getting It Wrong, the notion that Murrow brought down McCarthy is a tenacious though delicious media-driven myth.

Murrow “was very late in confronting McCarthy,” I write in Getting It Wrong and “did so only after other journalists had challenged the senator and his tactics for months, even years.”

I note in the book–which addresses and debunks nine other media-driven myths–that Eric Sevareid, Murrow’s friend and CBS colleague, chafed at the misleading interpretation, pointing out in an interview in 1978 that Murrow’s program “came very late in the day.”

Sevareid was correct.

“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,” I note in Getting It Wrong.

Pearson wrote the widely read “Washington Merry-Go-Round” column and was the most assertive and persistent of McCarthy’s media critics. He challenged McCarthy’s claims as early as 1950–days after the senator began raising charges that scores of communists and fellow travelers 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 a bizarre encounter in the cloakroom of the Sulgrave Club in Washington.

There, McCarthy slapped Pearson, or tried to knee the columnist in the groin. Accounts vary. (Then-Vice President Richard Nixon reportedly broke up the encounter.)

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

It’s sometimes argued that Murrow’s most effective contribution was “in mobilizing public opinion against Senator Joe McCarthy.” Such a claim was raised the other day in a post at the online site of the New American magazine.

But in fact, McCarthy’s favorability ratings had been falling for three months before the Murrow program: Factors other than Murrow’s reporting had turned public opinion against McCarthy.

Gallup Poll data show that McCarthy’s appeal crested in December 1953, when 53 percent of Americans said they had a favorable view of him. McCarthy’s favorable rating fell to 40 percent by early January 1954, and to 39 percent in February 1954.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, “it wasn’t as if Americans in early 1954 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.”

Thanks to the work of Pearson and other journalists, they already knew.


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