W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Communists’

America ‘was saved by Murrow’? No way

In Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth on February 5, 2011 at 10:14 am

He 'saved' America?

Edward R. Murrow’s legendary television report in 1954 about Senator Joseph R. McCarthy has stirred no small praise over the years.

The accolades for Murrow’s unflattering portrait of the senator and his communists-in-goverment witch-hunt have been many and often excessive.

Murrow’s show often is praised for putting an end to McCarthy’s blustering and erratic campaign that he had begun in 1950. But few bows to Murrow have been as deep as this characterization, which appeared yesterday in the Jerusalem Post:

“America under Joseph McCarthy’s influence was in danger of losing its right of dissent until it was saved by courageous men like Edward R. Murrow and Joseph Welch with his famous accusation, ‘Have you no shame?'” (Welch was a lawyer who famously confronted McCarthy at Senate hearing in June 1954.)

But what a minute: America “was in danger of losing its right of dissent” in 1954? How so?

And America was “saved by courageous men” like Murrow and Welch? “Saved“? Again, how so?

The article doesn’t say. So let’s examine, and debunk, both over-the-top assertions.

Simply put, America was in no danger in 1954 “of losing its right of dissent.” Notably, Americans had registered opposition to McCarthy and his hardball tactics well before Murrow’s program, which aired March 9, 1954.

McCarthy: Americans disapproved

A Gallup Poll published in mid-January 1954 reported that 47 percent of Americans disapproved of the methods McCarthy used in pressing his anti-communist campaign. Thirty-eight percent said they approved of the senator’s methods, and 15 percent said they had no opinion.

Disapproval rates were highest among what Gallup called the “professional and business” and “white-collar” occupations. A small plurality of “manual workers,” Gallup said, approved of McCarthy’s methods.

So Americans in early 1954 were well aware of McCarthy’s aggressive, often-bullying ways, and largely found them disagreeable. They didn’t need Murrow or Welch to demonstrate McCarthy’s offensiveness.

They knew.

Gallup also reported that objections to McCarthy’s tactics were many. Most frequently mentioned by Americans, Gallup said, was that “the senator is overly harsh in his methods, that ‘he goes too far,’ that ‘he is too rough,’ and ‘uses methods like the Gestapo.'”

Additionally, Gallup said, many Americans complained that “McCarthy ‘never has proof of what he claims’ in his investigations. ‘He should find out if they are Communists before exposing them to the public’ was the type of sentiment offered by many persons.”

So in their reactions to McCarthy, Americans were hardly cowed, hardly inclined to silence about the senator and his witch-hunting ways.

And as for the claim America was “saved” by the courage of Murrow and Welch?

As I write in my mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, which came out last summer, “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.”

Among those journalists was the Washington-based syndicated columnist Drew Pearson, who took to challenging — and even ridiculing — McCarthy soon after the senator launched his communists-in-government witch-hunt in 1950, years before the Murrow program.

Indeed, I write, “McCarthy had no more relentless, implacable, or scathing foe in the news media than Drew Pearson, the lead writer of the syndicated muckraking column, ‘Washington Merry-Go-Round.'”

I also write in Getting It Wrong that Murrow was loath to claim much significance for his televised report about McCarthy, saying he “recognized his accomplishments were modest, that at best he had reinforced what others had long said about McCarthy.”

I note, for example, that Jay Nelson Tuck, then the television critic for the New York Post, wrote that Murrow felt “almost a little shame faced at being saluted for his courage in the McCarthy matter. He said he had said nothing that … anyone might not have said without a raised eyebrow only a few years ago.”


Murrow’s collaborator and co-producer, Fred W. Friendly, also rejected claims the 1954 program on McCarthy was pivotal or decisive. Friendly wrote in his memoir:

“To say that the Murrow broadcast of March 9, 1954, was the decisive blow against Senator McCarthy’s power is as inaccurate as it is to say that Joseph R. McCarthy … single-handedly gave birth to McCarthyism.”

Welch: 'No decency?'

As for Joseph Welch: He memorably upbraided McCarthy during a televised Senate hearing June  9, 1954, declaring:

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

Welch was counsel for the U.S. Army in the Senate’s Army-McCarthy hearings, which considered allegations that McCarthy and his top aide, Roy Cohn, sought favored treatment for a staff member who had been drafted into military service.

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

However, a database review of coverage by the Times and four other leading U.S. newspapers indicates that the Welch-McCarthy encounter was, at the time, essentially a one-day story, to which lasting importance only later became attached.


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NYTimes flubs the correction

In Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, New York Times, Newspapers on January 23, 2011 at 11:58 am

The New York Times today publishes a correction to last week’s “Week in Review” article about sudden “transformational moments” — and flubs the correction.

McCarthy: He testified

The article discussed among other topics the dramatic exchange at a Senate hearing on June 9, 1954, in which lawyer Joseph N. Welch supposedly deflated Senator Joseph McCarthy and his communists-in-government witch-hunt by declaring:

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

I raised doubts in a recent post at Media Myth Alert about whether the Welch-McCarthy encounter was as “transformational” as the Times suggested.

The correction in the Times today addresses the context of the encounter and states:

“Senator McCarthy was serving on the committee investigating suspected Communist infiltration of the Army; he was not at the hearings to testify.”

But McCarthy wasn’t serving on that Senate panel (which in fact was a subcommittee–a temporary subcommittee of the Senate permanent subcommittee on investigations) and he was there to testify.

(McCarthy and a top aide, Roy Cohn, were focal points of what were called the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954. At the time, McCarthy was chairman of the Senate’s permanent subcommittee on investigations. He removed himself from the temporary subcommittee which conducted the Army-McCarthy hearings and which was chaired by Senator Karl Mundt of South Dakota. McCarthy, however, was permitted to cross-examine witnesses during the hearings.)

Had the Times consulted its back issues, it would have found that not long after Welch’s pointed questions about McCarthy’s “sense of decency,” the senator was sworn in as a witness.

McCarthy, Cohn at 1954 hearings

According to hearing excerpts published in the Times, McCarthy said upon being sworn in:

“Well, I’ve got a good hog-calling voice, Mr. Chairman. I think I can speak loudly enough so that the mikes will pick it up.”

And he proceeded to discuss at length his views about the Communist Party U.S.A. and its leadership. “The orders flow, of course, from Moscow,” McCarthy declared.

In a front-page article published June 10, 1954, the Times focused on the Welch-McCarthy encounter of the day before, stating in its lead paragraph:

“The Army-McCarthy hearings reached a dramatic high point … in an angry, emotion-packed exchange between Senator Joseph R. McCarthy and Joseph N. Welch, special counsel for the Army.”

The four-column headline over the Times article read:


Interestingly, coverage in the Chicago Tribune on June 10, 1954, focused on McCarthy’s having taken the witness stand the day before, announcing in bold headlines stripped across the top of a cluttered front page:


The opening paragraphs in the Tribune read:

“Sen. McCarthy [R., Wis.] warned that a Red world would follow communist penetration of the United States government as he took the witness stand … in his battle with the Pentagon.

“The appearance under oath of McCarthy came on the 30th day of the senate inquiry ….

“McCarthy outlined the nature and size of the communist conspiracy in this nation, describing it as a militant organization of 25,000 trained spies and saboteurs.”

Not until the fifth paragraph did the Tribune mention the Welch-McCarthy encounter.

Quite clearly, then, McCarthy was “at the hearings to testify.” And testify he did, in rather typical fashion.

So why does all this matter? So what if the Times flubbed a correction about its reference to a long-ago moment that probably wasn’t  so “transformational”?

After all, as media critic Jack Shafer of slate.com has pointed out:

“Readers should recognize that in journalism as in life, some number of mistakes are unavoidable. And some of those mistakes, while deplorable, don’t matter all that much.”

But injecting fresh error into a correction goes beyond trivial, and may signal trouble in the newspaper’s internal fact-checking procedures.

There is, of course, inherent value in setting the record straight, as the Times recognized in publishing the correction in the first place.

Setting the record straight supposedly helps promote a newspaper’s credibility, too. As I note in Getting It Wrong, my book debunking prominent media-driven myths, “a central objective of newsgathering” is “that of seeking to get it right.”

I further note in Getting It Wrong that “journalism seldom is seriously introspective, or very mindful of its history. It usually proceeds with little more than a nod to its past.”

Flubbing the correction suggests a broader unfamiliarity at the Times with an important period in American history–and hints, too, at a reluctance to consult its electronic database of back issues.


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