W. Joseph Campbell

‘Television made all the difference’ in McCarthy’s fall, Watergate? Hardly

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Newspapers, Scandal, Television, Washington Post, Watergate myth on September 29, 2019 at 6:21 pm

The Washington Post’s media columnist, Margaret Sullivan, offered the facile observation in an essay yesterday that last week brought “a tectonic shift of media attention, [with] every major television network — broadcast and cable alike — focused on a deeply damaging story” about President Donald Trump, a story he “can’t control.”

Sullivan

As if Trump could “control” the frenzy over disclosures he encouraged Ukraine’s president to investigate shady dealings in that country by former Vice President Joe Biden and his son.

As if anyone could “control” such a bizarre frenzy.

We’ll see how long this latest frenzy lasts. For now, allegations of Trump’s misconduct seem too nebulous to support impeachment, let alone conviction after trial before the Republican-controlled Senate.

Of keener interest to Media Myth Alert were passages in Sullivan’s column that touted the presumptive power of television in the downfall of Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1954 and in the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s.

McCarthy at map; Welch, head in hand

“Television,” she wrote, “made all the difference in 1954, as it did again almost two decades later during the televised Watergate hearings, with their disastrous effect on Richard Nixon’s presidency.”

Television made all the difference?

That interpretation may of comfort or reassurance to journalists; media-driven myths tend to be that way. But it’s mediacentric claim that grants television far too much credit as a decisive force in national politics.

If anything, television was a lagging factor in challenging McCarthy and his communists-in-government witchhunt. As for the Watergate hearings, it wasn’t their televised character that had a “disastrous effect” on Nixon’s presidency; it was what the hearings uncovered that was decisive to the outcome of the Watergate scandal.

Let’s take first Sullivan’s claims about television and Joe McCarthy.

She wrote: “The moment of truth for McCarthy … came in televised hearings when a lawyer for the U.S. Army shut down the senator with his damning accusation: ‘Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?'”

That encounter took place June 9, 1954. It hardly “shut down the senator.”

The hearing transcript, excerpts of which the New York Times published the following day, show that McCarthy was quick to reply to the “no sense of decency” remark by the Army’s chief counsel, Joseph N. Welch.

“I know this hurts you, Mr. Welch,” McCarthy snapped.

“I’ll say it hurts,” Welch said.

McCarthy then launched into a riff about a communist-linked organization to which a young colleague of Welch once belonged.

What were known as the Army-McCarthy hearings were televised. But only then-fledgling ABC and the dying Dumont network carried the hearings in sustained fashion. Neither network reached a nationwide audience.

Besides, McCarthy was then falling from his peak influence. As I noted in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, opinion polls by the Gallup organization showed McCarthy’s approval ratings were ebbing by late 1953 and early 1954.

The other television moment often said to have been pivotal in the senator’s downfall came on March 9, 1954, when Edward R. Murrow devoted his half-hour See It Now program to a critical report about McCarthy. See It Now made devastating use of unflattering footage of the senator and closed with Murrow’s declaring:

“The actions of the junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn’t create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it — and rather successfully. Cassius was right: ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.'”

It wasn’t a decisive moment, though. More important were the Army’s allegations, raised the same week the Murrow program aired, that McCarthy and his top aide, Roy Cohn, tried to obtain special treatment for David Schine. He was a member of McCarthy’s investigative staff who had been drafted into the Army. The allegations led to the hearings that Sullivan mentioned in her column.

By the end of 1954, McCarthy had been censured by the Senate.

Television came belatedly to the McCarthy scourge. For months, even years before 1954, print journalists such as Drew Pearson, a nationally syndicated columnist and Richard Rovere, a writer for the New Yorker, had directed attention to the McCarthy’s exaggerated allegations.

In fact, Pearson’s challenges were so searching and aggressive that they prompted McCarthy to physically assault the columnist in the coat-check room after a dinner in December 1950 at the hush-hush Sulgrave Club in Washington, D.C. Richard Nixon, then a newly appointed U.S. Senator, broke up the one-sided encounter between the beefy senator and the smaller columnist.

In his memoir RN, Nixon recalled that Pearson “grabbed his overcoat and ran from the room” while McCarthy said, “‘You shouldn’t have stopped me, Dick.’”

Televised coverage of the extended Watergate hearings, convened in Spring 1973 by a Senate select committee, certainly was extensive andriveting. But the greatest contribution came from what the committee staff uncovered — the existence of audio tapes that Nixon secretly had made of his conversations in the Oval Office of the White House.

The tapes proved conclusively that Nixon knew about and approved a plan to divert the FBI’s investigation into the scandal’s signal crime — the break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters in June 1972.

Without the tapes, it’s not likely Nixon’s guilt in Watergate would have been conclusively demonstrated. That was the interpretation of, among others, Watergate’s preeminent historian, Stanley I. Kutler.

“Absent the tapes, Nixon walks,” he said in a presentation in 2011, almost four years before his death.

“You had to have that kind of corroborative evidence to nail the president of the United States.”

The tapes, not TV, “made all the difference” in Watergate.

WJC

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