W. Joseph Campbell

That heroic Ed Murrow: The myth endures

In Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth on March 29, 2010 at 10:30 am

Few media-driven myths are as tenacious as the notion that Edward R. Murrow abruptly ended the communists-in-government witch-hunt of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy.

The myth dates to March 9, 1954, when Murrow’s 30-minute See It Now program on CBS television examined the campaign of innuendo, exaggeration, and half-truth that McCarthy had been waging for more than four years.

And the myth was invoked today at Minnesota Public Radio’s online site, in a commentary that declared:

“In the spring of 1954, McCarthy’s crusade of insinuation, innuendo and guilt by association was brought to an end by journalist Edward R. Murrow and Joseph Welsh, attorney for the U.S. Army.”

(The commentary mentioned Welsh because he dramatically confronted McCarthy at a congressional hearing in June 1954, pointedly asking the senator: “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”)

As for Murrow, though, his See It Now program on McCarthy was quite belated.

He took on McCarthy only after several other journalists had challenged the senator and his tactics for months, even years.

The Murrow-McCarthy myth is one of 10 that I address, and debunk, in my book, Getting It Wrong. (Note: A second edition of Getting It Wrong came out in 2017.)

I point out in the book that even Murrow’s friend and CBS colleague, Eric Sevareid, “chafed at the misleading interpretation attached to the See It Now program which, he noted, ‘came very late in the day.’

“Sevareid said: ‘The youngsters read back and they think only one person in broadcasting and the press stood up to McCarthy and this has made a lot of people feel very upset, including me, because that program came awfully late.’”

Murrow, himself, acknowledged that his accomplishments in confronting McCarthy were modest, that he had at best reinforced what others had long said about the Republican senator.

I note in Getting It Wrong that Jay Nelson Tuck, then the television critic for the New York Post, wrote in April 1954 that Murrow felt “almost a little shame faced at being saluted for his courage in the McCarthy matter.

“He said he had said nothing that … anyone might not have said without a raised eyebrow only a few years ago,” Tuck wrote.

In no way, then, can Murrow’s See It Now program be said to have “brought to an end” the McCarthy menace.

By the time Murrow took to the air in March 1954, McCarthy’s popularity was already in decline. By then, other journalists–notably Washington’s leading muckraker, Drew Pearson–had called attention to the senator’s crude investigative techniques. And the Army-McCarthy hearings, at which Welch gained lasting fame, proved pivotal to the senator’s downfall.

The hearings led to the Senate’s censuring McCarthy, and to his retreat into political oblivion.


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