Where’s Edward R. Murrow When We Need Him?

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Dr. Bruce W. Dearstyne is a historian in Albany, New York. His latest book is The Spirit of New York: Defining Events in the Empire State's History.

President Trump's controversial public statements and tweets keep him at the center of news media attention. At the same time, he calls the media the enemy of the people for reporting what he calls "fake news" critical of his actions. Of course, political leaders have exploited and criticized the media in the past. Media companies continually struggle to fulfill their obligations to investigative reporting, objectivity and accuracy. One useful historical example is media coverage of Senator Joseph McCarthy.

McCarthy rose to prominence in the early 1950's by making accusations of Communist infiltration and influence in the Federal government. His accusations struck a chord at the time when Americans were bewildered and apprehensive about the Communist takeover of China, Soviet domination of eastern Europe and threats to destroy the U.S, and other Cold War setbacks and tensions. In speeches, McCarthy claimed to have lists of "Reds" in government but did not produce actual evidence. He headed a Senate investigating subcommittee that held hearings, called witnesses, made accusations, and damaged reputations while turning up few actual Communists. In early 1954, he took his campaign to a new level when he accused General Ralph Zwicker, a World War II hero, of harboring Communists at Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, which he commanded.

McCarthy is regarded by most historians as a demagogue and fear- monger. But most politicians of the era kept silent about McCarthy's tactics either out of fear of being accused of being soft on Communism or worry that attacking McCarthy would just give him more visibility. Some newspapers criticized him, but most reported his accusations as news without commenting on their accuracy or his tactics. The “American media used McCarthy for its own purposes ... [and] for its own greater glory," notes historian Arthur Herman in his biography of McCarthy. "As a headline maker, McCarthy generated public attention and sold newspapers." McCarthy denigrated media critics as dupes of the Communists.

Journalist Edward R. Murrow was alarmed at McCarthy's accusatory tactics and concerned that the media reported but seldom questioned the validity of his allegations. Murrow's radio broadcasts from wartime London during World War II had made him famous. He initiated a news and documentary series called “See it Now” on CBS television in 1951. TV was a relatively new medium, growing in popularity. Murrow had a flair for the dramatic and the human aspects of stories. "There is a magic about Murrow," said CBS executive Fred Friendly, the producer of Murrow's broadcasts. "When he spoke in his deep and vibrant voice, listeners knew he believed every word he spoke and was certain it was so important that you had better listen carefully."

Early in 1954, with the support of CBS president William Paley, Murrow began planning a “See It Now” broadcast to challenge and expose McCarthy. "The thing to do is to let him damn himself out of his own mouth," said Murrow. He and his staff spent several weeks putting it together, meticulously selecting and editing film clips to demonstrate McCarthy's demagoguery and unsubstantiated accusations.

The result was a "See It Now" episode entitled simply "A Report on Senator Joseph R. McCarthy," broadcast on March 9, 1954.

Murrow began by telling the audience that the show would be "a report on Senator Joseph R. McCarthy told mainly in his own words and pictures." The carefully edited and organized series of clips showed McCarthy smirking and berating, interrupting and bullying witnesses who appeared before his committee. After each segment, Murrow explained the facts of the situation, rebutting McCarthy point by point and explaining his use of half truths, innuendo, statements taken out of context, and outright falsehoods. He read from several newspaper editorials that criticized McCarthy's tactics.

Murrow explained that the senator's "primary achievement has been in confusing the public mind, as between the internal and the external threats of Communism. We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law."

The senator has "caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies."

"We will not walk in fear, one of another," Murrow insisted,, staring intensely into the camera. "We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men -- not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular."

The dramatic broadcast demonstrated the power of television to convey a dramatic visual message and exposed McCarthy as a phony and bully. "This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy's methods to keep silent," Murrow said. The broadcast emboldened people who had long been uneasy about McCarthy to speak out. CBS logged in more than 75,000 letters, telegrams, and phone calls, 10 to 1 in favor of Murrow. ALCOA, the program's sponsor, received more than 4,000 letters and postcards favoring Murrow by 3 to 1.

"Murrow became a hero. At last someone was willing to expose Joe McCarthy for who he was, however crudely," said CBS executive David Schoenbrun, in his book On and Off the Air: An Informal History of CBS News. "The See It Now show did not immediately floor the senator but it certainly greased the skids for McCarthy, who lost his ability to terrorize the public." New York Times columnist Tom Wicker, in his 2006 study of McCarthy, asserted, "A half century later, probably no television program had a greater impact on a more receptive public." Murrow's biographer Joseph Persico noted that the show was actually "subjective polemicizing.... But to millions, it had been satisfying to see the bully thrashed at last."

Murrow and CBS offered McCarthy a chance to respond on their network and the senator accepted it. But instead of addressing the case Murrow had built against him, he pilloried Murrow as "a symbol, the leader, and the cleverest of the jackal pack which is always found at the throat of anyone who dares to expose individual Communists and traitors." Murrow responded in another broadcast.

Some media commentators decried the broadcast's unrelenting critical interpretations and selective use of video clips. McCarthy's biographer Arthur Herman calls it an assault rather than a report, using the same tactics of "partial truth and innuendo" that Murrow and other critics of McCarthy accused him of using.

But the show helped turn the tide against the senator.

His accusation that the Army was "coddling Communists" led to a Senate investigation from April to June 1954. The hearings, televised, gave millions of Americans a chance to see McCarthy as Murrow had portrayed him – overbearing, argumentative, lacking any real evidence, and exposed for using a fake document and a doctored photograph. The Senate committee’s report faulted Army officials for some of their actions but also criticized one of McCarthy's aides, Roy Cohn, for trying to secure preferential treatment for a friend in the Army.

But McCarthy was the main casualty. Television had exposed and discredited him. President Eisenhower and other government leaders spoke out against him. Newspaper editorials emphasized that McCarthy's campaign had been hollow and self-serving, exposing nothing of consequence. McCarthy's star began to fade.

On December 6, 1954, the Senate passed a resolution condemning McCarthy for his reckless tactics as being "contrary to Senatorial traditions." The wording was judicious but it was, in effect, a censure amounting to a shape rebuke. McCarthy, chastened, lost his support and power after that. He died in 1957.

Murrow was modest about his own role in McCarthy's demise, explaining that "the timing was right and the instrument powerful. We did it fairly well, with a degree of restraint and credibility. There was a great conspiracy of silence at the time. When there is such a conspiracy and somebody makes a loud noise, it attracts all the attention."

In a 1958 speech Murrow urged his media colleagues to continue and expand their investigative reporting even if that sometimes meant taking unpopular stands. Controversy should be welcomed, not feared. "When the evidence on a controversial subject is fairly and calmly presented, the public recognizes it for what it is – an effort to illuminate rather than to agitate."

"We are engaged in a great experiment to discover whether a free public opinion can devise and direct methods of managing the affairs of the nation," said Murrow. "Our history will be what we make it."

Those powerful words reverberate today.

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