W. Joseph Campbell

Flawed PBS ‘McCarthy’ doc notable for what it left out

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers on January 26, 2020 at 5:08 pm

The PBS “American Experience” documentary about Joseph R. McCarthy, the notorious red-baiting U.S. senator of the early Cold War, aired earlier this month. I have puzzled about the program since.

Timing was a source of puzzlement. Why now? Why revisit the McCarthy story in January 2020? Anniversaries can be a convenient peg for such programs. But nothing in early January was memorably associated with the McCarthy saga.

So why now? The producers no doubt wanted to suggest that President Donald Trump, in his bluster, exaggerations, and combative demeanor, is reminiscent of McCarthy.

If that were the implication, the allusion was muddled. And under-developed. Which could be because Trump is a much more complex character than Joe McCarthy, an obscure, hard-drinking Republican senator from Wisconsin who seized on his communists-in-government campaign as a ticket to prominence.

PBS ‘McCarthy’ doc: Notable for what was omitted

So the documentary was notable for what it insinuated — and for what it left out.

It embraced a conventional if misleading interpretation that the American press was unwilling to stand up to McCarthy, reluctant to challenge his thinly sourced charges about communist infiltration of the federal government.

Indeed, the press of the time depicted as complicit with McCarthy’s tactics. Sam Tanenhaus, one of the on-camera authorities presented by PBS, said as much:

“McCarthy brought out the complicity in American journalists, that we like the troublemaker and the rabble-rouser and the theatrical, spectacular figure who says the thing you’re not supposed to say, who breaks the rules, who disregards the facts. That makes for really good copy. And that’s what happened, that’s what kept McCarthy going for a long time until it all fell apart, and then he was just discarded.”

In reality, not all prominent journalists of the time were inclined to excuse McCarthy’s theatrics and allegations.

Notable among them — yet scarcely mentioned in the documentary — was Drew Pearson, an activsit, muckraking, Washington-based syndicated columnist. Pearson went after McCarthy just days after the senator launched his communists-in-government campaign, claiming in a speech in February 1950 to have names of 205 of communists in the State Department. (The number varied; McCarthy soon after claimed to have a list of 57 card-carrying communists in the agency.)

Pearson scoffed at McCarthy’s claims and wrote in a column in mid-February 1950:

“When the Senator from Wisconsin was finally pinned down, he could produce not 57 but only 4 names of State Department officials whom he claimed were Communists.” One of the four had long since been cleared, Pearson noted. Two of them had left the agency, and the fourth person had never worked for the State Department.

What’s more, Pearson wrote, McCarthy’s allegations were similar to disputed charges raised three years earlier by a Republican congressman from Michigan.

Drew Pearson

Pearson was intrusive, self-important, gossipy, and not an especially heroic figure; media critic Jack Shafer once described him “as one of the skuzziest journalists to ever write a story.” Even so, his persistent challenges to McCarthy deserved more recognition than PBS granted him.

The documentary’s lone reference to Pearson in the documentary was passing mention about his one-sided physical confrontation with McCarthy in December 1950 when the senator cornered him in the cloak room of the fashionable Sulgrave Club in Washington, D.C. McCarthy either kneed, slugged, or slapped Pearson: Contemporaneous accounts differed.

Pearson in his columns not only disputed the senator’s red-baiting claims. He called out McCarthy on other matters — including the senator’s tax troubles in Wisconsin and the suspicious financial contributions to his campaign for senate.

Pearson’s probing “embarrassed and angered McCarthy, who began entertaining thoughts of doing him harm,” I noted in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong. At a Gridiron Club dinner in Washington in May 1950, McCarthy approached Pearson, placed a hand on his arm, and muttered:

“Someday I’m going to get a hold of you and really break your arm.”

The threat was prelude to the brief but violent encounter at the Sulgrave.

The point here is that journalists were challenging McCarthy in the early days of his communists-in-government crusade. And Pearson was not alone.

Richard Rovere of the New Yorker also was an early critic of McCarthy.

Rovere was not mentioned in the documentary.

Nor was the New York Post’s 17-part series in 1951 about McCarthy and his tactics. The series carried the logo, “Smear, Inc.” and deplored what it termed McCarthy’s “careening, reckless, headlong drive down the road to political power and personal fame” in which he had “smashed the reputations of countless men.”

The documentary made only indirect reference to Post’s bare-knuckled series, noting that the newspaper’s editor, James Wechsler, was summoned before McCarthy’s subcommittee in 1953 in what Wechsler described as “a reprisal against a newspaper and its editor for their opposition to the methods of this committee’s chairman.”

Ignoring the journalists who stood up to and challenged McCarthy’s recklessness was a shortcoming of the documentary.

Another flaw was suggesting that Edward R. Murrow’s famous if myth-encrusted television report in March 1954 about McCarthy was timed to coincide with efforts by the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower to defang the senator.

It may have been, but PBS offered as support only the speculation of one of its on-camera authorities, Thomas Doherty.

“My thinking,” Doherty said, “is that Edward R. Murrow got some kind of informal signal from the Eisenhower administration, that this week in March [1954], is the week in which McCarthy’s career will basically be orchestrated to be over.”

Not until December 1954 was McCarthy censured by the Senate, a move that confirmed the disintegration of his political career.

McCarthy died of alcoholism-related illness in 1957. According to the documentary, senators accompanying McCarthy’s coffin on the flight from Washington to Wisconsin played poker on his flag-draped casket.

WJC

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