W. Joseph Campbell

Murrow the brave? Not in McCarthy days

In Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth on January 29, 2010 at 7:22 pm

Legendary CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow is given credit in a blog post today for having shown “great courage” during the days of McCarthyism in the 1950s.

In fact, Murrow was quite late to challenge Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, only doing so years after syndicated columnist Drew Pearson, among others, had taken on the demagogue.

Joe McCarthy, 1954

Even so, the notion that Murrow took down McCarthy in a television exposé in March 1954 lives on as an especially tenacious media-driven myth.

It’s a strange one, too, because the myth took hold despite the protestations of Murrow and his producer, Fred Friendly.

As I note in my forthcoming book, Getting It Wrong:

“Murrow said he recognized his accomplishments were modest, that at best he had reinforced what others had long said about McCarthy.”

But a posting today at the Rutherford Institute‘s “Speak Truth to Power” blog indulges the media myth, stating:

“Amid the Red Scare of the 1950s and the Joseph McCarthy era, people were often afraid to speak out against the paranoia being propagated through the media and the government. Fear and paranoia had come to grip much of the American population, and there was a horrible chill in the air.

“But with great courage, Murrow spoke up” on March 9, 1954, on his television documentary television program, show See It Now.

Murrow certainly showed courage during his career in broadcasting. He became a household name in the United States for his coverage from London during Nazi air raids in World War II.

But in early 1954, as I write in Getting It Wrong, “it wasn’t as if Americans … 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 the senator had even “become a target of withering ridicule—a sign of diminished capacity to inspire dread.”

I further write in the book, which is due out in summer 2010:

“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.”

Pearson first challenged McCarthy in 1950, shortly after the senator began his communists-in-government campaign.

McCarthy's nemesis, Drew Pearson

As I say, Murrow and Friendly, his collaborator on See It Now, acknowledged the program on McCarthy was neither decisive nor necessarily brave.

Friendly wrote in his 1967 memoir, Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control:

“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.”

And Murrow told Newsweek a few weeks after the program:

“It’s a sad state of affairs when people think I was courageous.”

WJC

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