W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Documentary’

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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William Randolph Hearst mostly elusive in new ‘Citizen Hearst’ documentary

In 1897, Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Error, Furnish the war, Reviews on March 15, 2013 at 10:26 am

Citizen Hearst was a mostly unsatisfactory biography published in 1961 about media baron William Randolph Hearst. It was more caricature than revealing portrait.

Citizen HearstThe title, Citizen Hearst, has been reprised for documentary that opened in several theaters this week. The documentary — commissioned by the media company that Hearst founded 126 years ago — is no revealing portrait, either.

Hearst was an innovative yet often-contradictory figure, and this complexity is largely elusive in Citizen Hearst, an 84-minute film that had its Washington, D.C., debut screening last night at the Newseum. The director, Leslie Iwerks, introduced the film by saying it told “the wonderful Hearst story.”

The opening third of Citizen Hearst delivers a fast-paced if mostly shallow look at Hearst’s long career in journalism. After that, the film turns mostly gushy about the diversified media company that is Hearst Corp.

To its credit, Citizen Hearst steers largely clear of the myths that distort understanding of Hearst and his early, most innovative years in journalism.

His affable grandson, Will Hearst, is shown in the film scoffing at what may be the best-known anecdote in American journalism — that William Randolph Hearst vowed in a telegram to the artist Frederic Remington to “furnish the war” with Spain.

The anecdote is undocumented and utterly dubious, but it was presented at face value in the biography Citizen Hearst. It is an irresistible tale often invoked in support of a broader and nastier media myth, that Hearst and his newspapers fomented the Spanish-American War in 1898.

Citizen Hearst the documentary doesn’t embrace the warmongering myth (although former CBS News anchor Dan Rather is shown saying he was taught in school that Hearst practically brought on the Spanish-American War).

The documentary, however, fails to consider the innovative character of Hearst’s newspapers of the late 19th century.

It notably avoids discussing Hearst’s eye-opening brand of participatory journalism — the “journalism of action” — which maintained that newspapers were obliged take a prominent and participatory roles in civic life, to swing into action when no other agency or entity was willing or able.

This ethos was a motivating force for one of the most exceptional and dramatic episodes in American journalism — the jailbreak and escape of Evangelina Cisneros, a 19-year-old political prisoner held without charge in Spanish-ruled Cuba.

Cisneros

Evangelina Cisneros

A reporter for Hearst’s New York Journal, supported by clandestine operatives in Havana and U.S. diplomatic personnel in Cuba, broke Cisneros from jail in early October 1897.

She was hidden for nearly three days at the home of an American-educated Cuban banker (whom she married several months later). Then, dressed as a boy, Cisneros was smuggled aboard a passenger steamer bound for New York City, where Hearst organized a thunderous welcome for her.

The Cisneros jailbreak was stunning manifestation of Hearst’s “journalism of action” and it offers rich material for a documentary. It was, as I wrote in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, the “greatest escape narrative” in U.S. media history.

It receives not a mention in Citizen Hearst.

The documentary presents only superficial consideration of Hearst’s mostly unfulfilled political ambitions — and avoids mentioning how he turned his newspapers into platforms to support those ambitions.

Hearst wanted to be president, and was a serious contender for the Democratic party’s nomination in 1904. He lost out to Alton Parker, a New York judge, who in turn was badly defeated by Republican Theodore Roosevelt.

Citizen Hearst presents the observations of no serious Hearst biographer: No David Nasaw, author of The Chief, an admirably even-handed biography published in 2000; no Kenneth Whyte, author of The Uncrowned King, an outstanding work published in 2009 about Hearst’s s early career.

Instead, Dan Rather is shown speaking vaguely about Hearst’s journalism (“he played big”). Movie critic Leonard Maltin makes several appearances, discussing such topics as headline size in Hearst’s fin de siècle newspapers.

The documentary treats Helen Gurley Brown, she of Cosmopolitan fame, much like a rock star. And Hearst company officials are quoted often and sometimes at length.

HuffingtonPost was quite right in noting in a review posted Wednesday that the film turns into “something you’d expect to see playing on a loop on the lobby TV screen at Hearst’s headquarters”  in New York.

It leaves you wondering how many people would pay to see it. Or why.

WJC

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