W. Joseph Campbell

Murrow-McCarthy, 65 years on: Tenacious media myth and a telling reminder

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Television on March 6, 2019 at 12:02 pm

The 65th anniversary of Edward R. Murrow’s report about Joseph R. McCarthy — extravagantly called “television’s finest half-hour” — falls this week. Over the intervening years, the program has become infused with a tenacious media myth.

Murrow

And yet the program resonates still, particularly in Murrow’s comments about dissent and false allegations.

The program about McCarthy, the senator from Wisconsin who had unsettled the country with allegations about communist infiltration of U.S. government agencies, aired on the CBS “See It Now” newsmagazine show on March 9, 1954.

The myth has it that Murrow, alone in American journalism, had the courage, will, and stature to stand up to McCarthy and expose him as the demagogue he was.

That makes for an appealing trope about media power and the agency of a committed, high-profile journalist. But neither Murrow nor his producer, Fred Friendly, embraced the myth that “See It Now” took down McCarthy, or stopped him in his tracks.

As I wrote in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, “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 what a toxic threat the senator posed.” By then, McCarthy and his tactics were quite well-known.

Indeed, the senator’s troubles had been building for months. By the time Murrow’s program aired — a show that journalism educator Loren Ghiglione has termed “television’s finest half-hour” — McCarthy’s favorability ratings had crested and were in terminal decline.

During the week when Murrow’s show was broadcast, the Army accused McCarthy and a top aide, Roy Cohn, of exerting pressure to win favorable treatment for Cohn’s friend and assistant, David Schine, who had been drafted into military service.

The charges were a centerpiece of the Army-McCarthy hearings of the Spring of 1954, which led to the senator’s censure later that year.

Murrow’s program about McCarthy was nothing if not belated. Referring to Murrow, the CBS News commentator Eric Sevareid observed in an interview in 1978:

“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.”

Indeed, Murrow’s show came more than four years after McCarthy launched his communists-in-government attacks — and more than four years after muckraking journalist Drew Pearson began challenging the senator’s claims in his syndicated column, “Washington Merry Go Round.”

Pearson wasn’t a very likable or popular journalist. The media critic Jack Shafer described him several years ago as “one of the skuzziest journalists to ever write a story.”

Pearson was self-important, overbearing, and readily made enemies. But he recognized the suspect quality of McCarthy’s charges and went after the senator hard and relentlessly — and paid a price for doing so.

Pearson dismissed McCarthy’s claims that communists had infiltrated the State Department, writing that when the senator “finally was pinned down, he could produce … only four names of State Department officials whom he claimed were communists.”

Two of the four people named by McCarthy had resigned years earlier; another had been cleared, and the fourth had never worked for the State Department, Pearson wrote.

He followed up with another column, writing that “the alleged communists which he claims are sheltered in the State Department just aren’t.”

Pearson also scrutinized the senator’s tax troubles and his accepting suspicious campaign contributions back in Wisconsin.

The probing angered McCarthy. In December 1950, the hulking senator physically assaulted Pearson after a private dinner at the hush-hush Sulgrave Club on DuPont Circle in Washington.

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

Richard Nixon, who had been sworn in a U.S. Senator just days before, intervened to break up the assault. Nixon in his memoir RN recalled that Pearson “grabbed his overcoat and ran from the room” while McCarthy said, “‘You shouldn’t have stopped me, Dick.’”

Not long afterward, McCarthy took to the floor of the Senate to denounce Pearson as the “diabolically” clever “voice of international communism,” a “fake,” and a “Moscow-directed character assassin.”

Pearson: hat-wearing columnist

McCarthy also aimed a threat at the sponsor of Pearson’s Sunday night radio program, Adam Hat Stores Inc., declaring that “anyone who buys from a store that stocks an Adams hat is unknowingly contributing at least something to the cause of international communism by keeping this communist spokesman on the air.”

A week later, Adam Hat said it would not renew its sponsorship of Pearson’s program, citing “a planned change in advertising media.”

So Murrow was hardly the first prominent journalist to confront McCarthy. Others besides Pearson were Richard Rovere of the New Yorker and James Weschler of the New York Post.

Despite the myth that distorts it, the “See It Now” program of 65 years ago reverberates in our times. Murrow’s concluding peroration that night stands as an abiding reminder about the primacy of evidence and the importance of dissent.

“We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty,” Murrow said in a two-minute commentary to close the program. “We must remember always that accusation is not proof, and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law.

“We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason. … And remember, we are not descended from fearful men. Not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend the causes that were for the moment unpopular.”

In a time of fake news and sham allegations, a time that can resemble “an age of unreason,” Murrow’s sentiments stand as pointed and enduring reminders.

WJC

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