W. Joseph Campbell

If not for Edward R. Murrow

In Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Newspapers on October 22, 2010 at 10:11 am

One of the especially savory myths in American journalism centers around Edward R. Murrow, the CBS newsman, and his takedown of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy.

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, my new book that debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths, legend has it that Murrow “single-handedly confronted and took down the most feared and loathsome American political figure of the Cold War, Joseph R. McCarthy, the Red-baiting Republican senator from Wisconsin.

Murrow in 1954

“Murrow, it is often said, stood up to McCarthy when no one else would, or dared,” and did so March 9, 1954, on the half-hour CBS television program, See It Now.

The Murrow-McCarthy myth was repeated the other day in a commentary posted the other day at the online site of the News-Press of Falls Church, Virginia.

The commentary deceased that “the thuggery of Sen. Joe McCarthy in the early 1950s would not have ceased but for a determined effort by Murrow and CBS news to reveal the extent of the excess.”

Not only is the claim undocumented; it just isn’t true.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, “the evidence is overwhelming that Murrow’s famous program on McCarthy had no such decisive effect” as putting an abrupt end to McCarthy’s communists-in-government witch-hunt. Murrow, in fact, “was very late in confronting McCarthy,” I write, doing so “after other journalists had challenged the senator and his tactics for months, even years.”

What’s more, McCarthy’s favorability ratings had begun to slide months before the Murrow program.

I note in Getting It Wrong that “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 had slipped to 40 percent by early January 1954, and to 39 percent in February 1954, when an almost identical number of Americans viewed him unfavorably.”

Interestingly, the Murrow-McCarthy media myth took hold despite the protestations of its central figures.

As I point out in Getting It Wrong:

“In the days and weeks after the See It Now program, Murrow said he recognized his accomplishments were modest, that at best he had reinforced what others had long said about McCarthy. Jay Nelson Tuck, the television critic for the New York Post, wrote 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.'”

Fred Friendly, Murrow’s collaborator and co-producer, also rejected the notion that the See It Now program on McCarthy was pivotal in the senator’s decline. Friendly wrote in his memoir:

“To say that the Murrow broadcast of March 9, 1954, was the decisive blow against Senator McCarthy’s power is as inaccurate as it is to say that Joseph R. McCarthy … single-handedly gave birth to McCarthyism.”

McCarthy had no more persistent or implacable media foe than Drew Pearson, the muckraking, Washington-based syndicated columnist who wrote critically about the senator as early as February 1950–more than four years before Murrow’s program.

Pearson’s columns criticizing McCarthy began appearing soon after the senator launched his witch-hunt, in which he claimed that communists had infiltrated the U.S. State Department, the military, and the Democratic party.

So why was Murrow so late in confronting McCarthy? Why did Murrow wait until Pearson and other journalists had challenged McCarthy? Why did Murrow move only after McCarthy’s ratings had hit the skids?

Those are questions I pose in Getting It Wrong.

Among the explanations I offer is “the well-recognized tendency of television to follow the lead of print media.”

By the end of 1954, McCarthy had been censured by the Senate and his career had fallen into terminal decline.


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