W. Joseph Campbell

57 years on: Was it really TV’s ‘finest half hour’?

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth on March 9, 2011 at 12:07 am


Today’s the 57th anniversary of what has been called the “finest half hour” in television history — when Edward R. Murrow took to the small screen to confront Joseph R. McCarthy and the senator’s red-baiting ways.

Murrow’s on-air analysis of McCarthy and his tactics was so powerful, so revealing, that it marked an abrupt end to the senator’s witch-hunt for communists in government.

Or so the media myth has it.

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

As I write in my mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the program supposedly affirmed the potential power of television and confirmed the courage of Murrow.

I also write:

“The never-ending accolades notwithstanding, the evidence is overwhelming that Murrow’s famous program on McCarthy had no such decisive effect, that Murrow in fact was very late in confronting McCarthy, that he did so only after other journalists had challenged the senator and his tactics for months, even years.”

Indeed, the legendary status accorded the Murrow program has effectively “obscured and diminished the contributions of journalists who took on McCarthy years earlier, at a time when doing so was quite risky,” I point out in Getting It Wrong.

These journalists deserve more credit than Murrow for courage in confronting the McCarthy menace when it was most virulent.

One of them was James A. Wechsler, editor of the New York Post, which in 1951 published a bare-knuckle, 17-part series about McCarthy.

The closing installment characterized McCarthy as “a drunk at a party who was funny half an hour ago but now won’t go home. McCarthy is camped in America’s front room trying to impress everybody by singing all the dirty songs and using all the four-letter words he knows. The jokes are pointless, the songs unfunny, the profanity a bore.”

The series appeared in the Post 2½ years before Murrow’s program on McCarthy.

Wechsler was called before McCarthy’s investigative subcommittee and grilled about having been a member before in the Communist Youth League.

Wechsler said his being summoned to the closed-door hearing was “a reprisal against a newspaper and its editor for their opposition to the methods of this committee’s chairman.”

He sparred effectively with McCarthy, telling the senator at one point that the New York Post “is as bitterly opposed to Joe Stalin as it is to Joe McCarthy, and we believe that a free society can combat both.”

But in the end, Wechsler complied, reluctantly, with the subcommittee’s demand for names of people he had known to be communists during his time in the Youth League.

During McCarthy’s communists-in-government campaign, which lasted from 1950 to 1954, the senator had no more relentless or scathing foe in the news media than muckraking columnist Drew Pearson.

He wrote the widely published “Washington Merry-Go-Round” column — and was quick off the dime, taking on McCarthy soon after the senator first raised his reckless claims about communists in high places in the U.S. government and military.

Pearson wrote in February 1950, in one of his first columns about McCarthy’s charges, that “the alleged communists which he claims are sheltered in the State Department just aren’t.”

Pearson noted that he had covered the State Department for years and had been “the career boys’ severest critic.

“However,” he added, “knowing something about State Department personnel, it is my opinion that Senator McCarthy is way off base.”

And he was.

Pearson’s frequent challenges angered McCarthy who in December 1950, physically assaulted the columnist after a dinner at the hush-hush Sulgrave Club on DuPont Circle in Washington, D.C.

McCarthy confronted Pearson in the Sulgrave’s coat check room and either slapped, kneed, or punched the columnist. Accounts vary.

Richard Nixon, who recently had been sworn in as a U.S. Senator, intervened to break up the encounter. In his memoir RN, Nixon wrote that Pearson “grabbed his coat and ran from the room” and “McCarthy said, ‘You shouldn’t have stopped me, Dick.’”

So by the time Murrow took on McCarthy 57 years ago tonight, Americans really weren’t “waiting for a white knight like Murrow to tell them about the toxic threat the senator posed,” I write in Getting It Wrong, adding:

“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. On the day the See It Now program aired, former president Harry Truman reacted to reports of an anonymous threat against McCarthy’s life by saying:

“‘We’d have no entertainment at all if they killed him.'”

The notion that Murrow and his television program brought down McCarthy is a delicious story of presumptive media power:  More accurately, it is a tenacious media-driven myth.


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