W. Joseph Campbell

Unpacking errors in a ‘history lesson in media freedom’

In Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth on August 29, 2010 at 11:11 am

Confirming anew that prominent myths of American journalism travel far and all too well, a columnist for a South African newspaper recently offered “a brief history lesson in media freedom” that thoroughly mangled the legendary encounter between Edward R. Murrow and Senator Joseph McCarthy.

In offering her “lesson,” the columnist for the online Mail & Guardian wrote:

McCarthy in 1954

“You’ll remember Senator Joseph McCarthy as the one who made America scared of those nasty Communists ….

“He was so scary that the media, although not legally required to do so, practiced extreme self-censorship, and did not criticise McCarthy in an attempt to avoid accusations of trying to bring down the government.

“Thankfully,” she added, “a radio presenter called Edward Murrow, who famously ended his broadcasts with ‘goodnight, and good luck’, came along and said: ‘We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty … We are not descended from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular.’ At which point everyone realised just how unpopular McCarthy was, and he didn’t last long after that.”

There’s just an astonishing amount of error to unpack in those paragraphs.

Prominent among them is the discussion of Murrow, who was more than just a “radio presenter.” His searing assessment of McCarthy and his communists-in-government witch-hunt was shown on television, on the CBS show See It Now that aired March 9, 1954.

By then, as I write in Getting It Wrong, my new book debunking media-driven myths, McCarthy’s “favorability ratings had been sliding for three months,” from a high of 53 percent in December 1953.

So Americans were turning against McCarthy well before Murrow’s show.

I note in Getting It Wrong, that “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. By then, McCarthy and his tactics were well-known and he had become a target of withering ridicule—a sign of diminished capacity to inspire dread.”

I further write:

“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.”

Hardly did Pearson (not to mention several other American journalists) practice “extreme self-censorship” as McCarthy pressed flimsy claims that communists had infiltrated high into the U.S. government, the military, and the Democratic party.

Pearson in the 1950s was Washington’s most-feared muckraking columnist and he challenged and criticized McCarthy years before Murrow’s program.

In February 1950, just after McCarthy began making extreme charges about communists in government, Pearson ridiculed McCarthy as the “harum-scarum” senator and wrote that his allegations were “way off base.”

Pearson also reported in 1950 about McCarthy’s tax troubles in Wisconsin, the senator’s questionable campaign contributions, and the suspicious payment he accepted from Lustron Corporation, a manufacturer of prefabricated housing that had received millions in federal  government support.

Pearson was unrelenting in his scrutiny of McCarthy, who in typical fashion took to the Senate floor in mid-December 1950 to denounce  the columnist as the “diabolically” clever “voice of international communism.”

A few days before the speech, McCarthy had physically assaulted Pearson in the cloakroom of the exclusive Sulgrave Club on DuPont Circle in Washington.

I write in Getting It Wrong that accounts differed as to what happened at the Sulgrave, noting:

“Pearson said McCarthy pinned his arms to one side and kneed him twice in the groin. McCarthy said he slapped Pearson, hard, with his open hand. A third account, offered by a radio broadcaster friendly to McCarthy, said the senator slugged Pearson, a blow so powerful that it lifted Pearson three feet into the air.”

Richard Nixon, then a U.S. senator, intervened to break up McCarthy’s attack.

So as I note in Getting It Wrong, “the legendary status that came to be associated with the [Murrow] program obscured and diminished the contributions of journalists who took on McCarthy years earlier, at a time when doing so was quite risky.”

And that is the real lesson here.



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