W. Joseph Campbell

On ‘transformational moments’ that journalists see

In Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, New York Times, Newspapers, Spanish-American War, Washington Post on January 20, 2011 at 9:04 am

The “turning points” that journalists seem eager to find in dramatic events usually turn out to be mythical–chimeras built on a convenient if faulty and clichéd storyline.

'Turning points' sculpture in Ohio (Marty Gooden)

That’s a central point blogger and political scientist Brendan Nyhan offered the other day in a perceptive commentary dismissing the notion that the shootings this month in Tucson may be seen, sooner or later, as a turning point in American political life.

Nyhan argued that “single events almost never reshape social and political life” and added:

“The turning points of the past seem more clear in large part because the messiness of those events has faded in our memory and we remember the narratives that have been constructed after the fact.”

Well said.

Nyhan’s particular target was the New York Times and two rather superficial commentaries written by Matt Bai in the aftermath of the Tucson shootings. The longer and more recent piece was published Sunday in the Times “Week in Review” section. In it, Bai ruminated:

“If the shooting didn’t feel like the turning point in the civic life of the nation that some of us had imagined it might become, then it may be because such turning points aren’t always immediately evident.”

Welch (Library of Congress)

He went on to consider a few supposedly “transformational moments” of the past, such as the televised Senate hearing in 1954, when lawyer Joseph N. Welch upbraided Senator Joseph McCarthy, declaring:

“Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

It was a moment, Bai wrote, that “resonated throughout a country that was just then discovering the nascent power of television. Years of ruinous disagreement over the threat of internal Communism seemed to dissipate almost overnight.”

The sweeping claim caught my eye, given that my latest book, Getting It Wrong, addresses and debunks the media myth that broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow put an end to McCarthy’s communists-in-government witch-hunt in a 30-minute television program in March 1954.

I don’t discuss the Welch-McCarthy encounter in Getting It Wrong, but barnacles of media myth seem to cling to that tale, too.

Take, for example, the claim that Welch’s famous line — uttered on the 30th day of what were called the Army-McCarthy hearings — “resonated throughout” the country.

The hearings centered around the Army’s accusations that McCarthy and his top aide, Roy Cohn, had sought special treatment for a McCarthy staffer who had been drafted into military service. The hearings were televised live, gavel to gavel, by the fledgling ABC and by the declining DuMont networks.

As Thomas Doherty pointed out in Cold War, Cool Medium, a fine study of television during the McCarthy period,the hearings “were not a saturation television event in the modern sense. The refusal of NBC and CBS [for commercial reasons] to telecast the hearings blacked out whole regions of the country from live coverage.”

He also wrote:

“With cable costs keeping ABC from relaying the hearings to Denver and points west, the coverage on the Pacific Coast was particularly sparse.”

Given such gaps in television’s coverage, it’s hard to see how the sudden and dramatic put down by Welch, a Boston lawyer who was the Army’s lead counsel at the hearings, could have “resonated” across the entire country.

Welch’s comment certainly attracted attention. But briefly.

The New York Times said the rebuke of McCarthy was greeted by a burst of applause in the Senate gallery and that Welch the next day reported having received 1,400 telegrams, most of them supportive.

Even so, a database review of the reporting in the Times and four other leading U.S. newspapers indicates the Welch-McCarthy encounter was at the time essentially a one-day story.

The database search for articles, editorials, transcriptions, and letters to the editor that contained “McCarthy,” “Welch,” and “sense of decency” returned 14 items in the period from June 9, 1954, to June 30, 1955.

Ten of the 14 items were published June 10, 1954, a day after Welch rebuked McCarthy.  The remarks were reported that day on the front pages of all five newspapers–the Times, Baltimore Sun, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post.

But none of the 14 items was published after June 25, 1954. In other words, none of the items was published during the time late in 1954 when the Senate voted to censure (“condemn” was the term) McCarthy’s conduct.

What’s more, lengthy excerpts of the hearing record published in the New York Times show that Welch’s “sense of decency” rebuke didn’t stun McCarthy into silence. The senator blundered on, insinuating that Welch had sought to include on his hearing staff a young lawyer with a dubious background.

The Welch-McCarthy encounter assumed “turning point” status in the years after 1954. But in the moment, in June 1954, it was recognized as dramatic but not “transformational.”

Bai’s “Week in Review” piece offered up this dubious point as well:

“A century ago, news traveled slowly enough for Americans to absorb and evaluate it; today’s events are almost instantaneously digested and debated, in a way that makes even the most cataclysmic event feel temporal.”

A century ago, news traveled rapidly by telegraph. It was scarcely  unusual then for large-circulation urban newspapers to publish multiple extra editions to report fresh elements of a major breaking story.

During the Spanish-American War in 1898, for example, William Randolph Hearst’s New York Evening Journal published as many as 40 extra editions a day. On such occasions, news surely wasn’t traveling slowly.

Indeed, at the end of the 19th century, it was not uncommon for Americans to claim they were living at “a time of rush and hurry.”


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