W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Drew Pearson’

Only Murrow had the bona fides? Nonsense

In Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, New York Times, Newspapers on December 30, 2010 at 11:31 am

The New York Times certainly was casual and superficial in likening TV comedian Jon Stewart to Edward R. Murrow. Not only that, but the discussion about the absurd comparison has been accompanied by the appearance of media-driven myth.

Notably, a post yesterday at the Atlantic online site invoked the dubious notion that Murrow stood up to Joseph R. McCarthy, the red-baiting senator from Wisconsin, when no one else could or would.

The Atlantic post said of Stewart and Murrow:

“Both men stuck their necks out. Both went first into a sort of no-man’s-land. It is probably true that only Murrow in his time had the bona fides to stand up to McCarthy (and don’t forget, Murrow waited years before doing so).” [Emphasis added in bold.]

That claim is just absurd.

While Murrow did take on McCarthy, in a much-celebrated half-hour television program in March 1954, he was scarcely alone in challenging the senator and his communists-in-government witch-hunt. And certainly not the first.

As I point out in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, other journalists in the early 1950s had the bona fides, and had the guts, to take on McCarthy when the risks of doing so were quite pronounced.

Pearson: Had the bona fides

Among these journalists with the bona fides was the Washington-based syndicated columnist Drew Pearson.

As I note in Getting It Wrong: “During the four years of his communists-in-government campaign, McCarthy had no more relentless, implacable, or scathing foe in the news media” than the muckraking Pearson, who wrote the widely published “Washington Merry-Go-Round” column and had a radio show.

Pearson was no saint. Jack Shafer of slate.com not long ago described Pearson as “one of the skuzziest journalists to ever write a story.” Pearson was intrusive and overbearing. He readily made enemies, and almost seemed to relish doing so.

But there’s no denying that he was quick off the dime, that he went after McCarthy hard and relentlessly, and that he immediately recognized the dubious quality of McCarthy’s claims about communists in high places in the U.S. government and military.

Pearson first wrote about McCarthy’s allegations on February 18, 1950, just days after McCarthy had begun raising them, notably in a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia. Pearson called McCarthy the “harum-scarum” senator and said that when he “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.

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

Pearson also noted that he had covered the State Department for years, during which time he had been “the career boys’ severest critic. However, knowing something about State Department personnel, it is my opinion that Senator McCarthy is way off base.”

As he was.

Pearson leveled not just a few, scattered shots at McCarthy. His challenges in print became a near-barrage. Pearson scrutinized the senator’s tax troubles in Wisconsin, his accepting funds from a government contractor, and his taking suspicious campaign contributions back in Wisconsin.

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

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

Richard Nixon, who recently had been sworn in as a U.S. Senator, intervened to break up the encounter. Nixon, in his memoir RN, said Pearson “grabbed his coat and ran from the room. McCarthy said, ‘You shouldn’t have stopped me, Dick.’”

So Pearson had the bona fides.

So did James A. Wechsler, editor of the New York Post.

In 1951, the Post published a 17-part, bare-knuckle series about McCarthy. The installments of the series addressed McCarthy’s tax troubles, his hypocrisy, and his recklessness in raising allegations about communists in government.

The closing installment likened McCarthy to “a drunk at a party who was funny half an hour ago but now won’t go home. McCarthy is camped in America’s front room trying to impress everybody by singing all the dirty songs and using all the four-letter words he knows. The jokes are pointless, the songs unfunny, the profanity a bore.”

The series was published 2½ years before Murrow’s television program on McCarthy.

And Wechsler paid a price for it, too. He was hauled before McCarthy’s investigative subcommittee and grilled about his dalliance years before in the Communist Youth League.

Wechsler characterized the closed-door hearing as “a reprisal against a newspaper and its editor for their opposition to the methods of this committee’s chairman.” But he complied, reluctantly, with the subcommittee’s demand to produce names of people he had known to be communists during his time in the Youth League.

By the time Murrow took on McCarthy in March 1954, the senator’s favorable ratings had crested and entered a terminal decline.

And Americans by then weren’t “waiting for a white knight like Murrow to tell them about the toxic threat the senator posed,” I write in Getting It Wrong.

Thanks to the work of Pearson and Wechsler and other journalists, they already knew.


Recent and related:

Unpacking errors in a ‘history lesson in media freedom’

In Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth on August 29, 2010 at 11:11 am

Confirming anew that prominent myths of American journalism travel far and all too well, a columnist for a South African newspaper recently offered “a brief history lesson in media freedom” that thoroughly mangled the legendary encounter between Edward R. Murrow and Senator Joseph McCarthy.

In offering her “lesson,” the columnist for the online Mail & Guardian wrote:

McCarthy in 1954

“You’ll remember Senator Joseph McCarthy as the one who made America scared of those nasty Communists ….

“He was so scary that the media, although not legally required to do so, practiced extreme self-censorship, and did not criticise McCarthy in an attempt to avoid accusations of trying to bring down the government.

“Thankfully,” she added, “a radio presenter called Edward Murrow, who famously ended his broadcasts with ‘goodnight, and good luck’, came along and said: ‘We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty … We are not descended from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular.’ At which point everyone realised just how unpopular McCarthy was, and he didn’t last long after that.”

There’s just an astonishing amount of error to unpack in those paragraphs.

Prominent among them is the discussion of Murrow, who was more than just a “radio presenter.” His searing assessment of McCarthy and his communists-in-government witch-hunt was shown on television, on the CBS show See It Now that aired March 9, 1954.

By then, as I write in Getting It Wrong, my new book debunking media-driven myths, McCarthy’s “favorability ratings had been sliding for three months,” from a high of 53 percent in December 1953.

So Americans were turning against McCarthy well before Murrow’s show.

I note in Getting It Wrong, that “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 about the toxic threat the senator posed. By then, McCarthy and his tactics were well-known and he had become a target of withering ridicule—a sign of diminished capacity to inspire dread.”

I further write:

“Long before the See It Now program, several prominent journalists—including the Washington-based syndicated columnist Drew Pearson—had become persistent and searching critics of McCarthy, his record, and his tactics.”

Hardly did Pearson (not to mention several other American journalists) practice “extreme self-censorship” as McCarthy pressed flimsy claims that communists had infiltrated high into the U.S. government, the military, and the Democratic party.

Pearson in the 1950s was Washington’s most-feared muckraking columnist and he challenged and criticized McCarthy years before Murrow’s program.

In February 1950, just after McCarthy began making extreme charges about communists in government, Pearson ridiculed McCarthy as the “harum-scarum” senator and wrote that his allegations were “way off base.”

Pearson also reported in 1950 about McCarthy’s tax troubles in Wisconsin, the senator’s questionable campaign contributions, and the suspicious payment he accepted from Lustron Corporation, a manufacturer of prefabricated housing that had received millions in federal  government support.

Pearson was unrelenting in his scrutiny of McCarthy, who in typical fashion took to the Senate floor in mid-December 1950 to denounce  the columnist as the “diabolically” clever “voice of international communism.”

A few days before the speech, McCarthy had physically assaulted Pearson in the cloakroom of the exclusive Sulgrave Club on DuPont Circle in Washington.

I write in Getting It Wrong that accounts differed as to what happened at the Sulgrave, noting:

“Pearson said McCarthy pinned his arms to one side and kneed him twice in the groin. McCarthy said he slapped Pearson, hard, with his open hand. A third account, offered by a radio broadcaster friendly to McCarthy, said the senator slugged Pearson, a blow so powerful that it lifted Pearson three feet into the air.”

Richard Nixon, then a U.S. senator, intervened to break up McCarthy’s attack.

So as I note in Getting It Wrong, “the legendary status that came to be associated with the [Murrow] program obscured and diminished the contributions of journalists who took on McCarthy years earlier, at a time when doing so was quite risky.”

And that is the real lesson here.



%d bloggers like this: