W. Joseph Campbell

Journalists changing history: A double dose of media myth

In Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Washington Post, Watergate myth on February 19, 2010 at 9:06 am

The Buffalo News today offers readers a double dose of media myth, in a column ruminating about the journalism of Diane Sawyer, the anchor of “ABC World News Tonight.”

The myths invoked have nothing to do with Sawyer (who used to work at the Nixon White House and was mentioned a few times as perhaps the elusive “Deep Throat” source who figured in the Washington Post‘s Watergate reporting; “Deep Throat” turned out to be Mark Felt of the FBI).

A double dose of myth in a single column is striking in that it’s fairly uncommon. In this case, the myths invoked are about Watergate and about Edward R. Murrow, the legendary CBS News journalist.

Both are myths addressed, and dismantled, in my forthcoming book, Getting It Wrong.

About Watergate, the column says “it was, to use the current expression, a total ‘game-changer’ in newsrooms, journalism schools, etc., and not entirely to the good. It established journalism as an effective force in—essentially— removing a sitting president.”

And about Murrow, the column declares: “he helped change history by denouncing Sen. Joseph McCarthy.”

Watergate, first: That the press, and specifically the Washington Post, unraveled the intricate scandal that ended Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency is one of the most self-reverential stories American journalism tells about itself.

But it is a dubious and misleading claim.

As I write in Getting It Wrong:

“To roll up a scandal of such dimension required the collective if not always the coordinated forces of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.

“Even then, Nixon likely would have served out his term if not for the audiotape recordings he secretly made of most conversations in the Oval Office of the White House. Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting the cover-up and authorizing payments of thousands of dollars in hush money.”

Amid the tableau of prosecutors, courts, federal investigations, and bipartisan congressional panels, the contributions of the American press were modest, and certainly not decisive to Watergate’s outcome.

The Murrow-McCarthy myth is another self-reverential tale of the power of journalism to alter history through reportorial exposé, in this case through the steady eye of television.

As I further write in Getting It Wrong, Murrow supposedly “confronted and took down the most feared and loathsome American political figure of the Cold War, Joseph R. McCarthy, the Red-baiting Republican senator from Wisconsin,” when no one else dared to take him on.

The myth revolves around Murrow’s See It Now television program about McCarthy, which aired March 9, 1954. Interestingly Murrow and his co-producer, Fred Friendly, were resisted claims that the show was pivotal.

Jay Nelson Tuck, the television critic for the New York Post, wrote not long after the program aired 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,” Tuck wrote.

And Friendly wrote in his memoir, published in 1967:

“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.”

I note in Getting It Wrong that the legendary status associated with the See It Now program has “obscured and diminished the contributions of journalists who took on McCarthy years earlier, at a time when doing so was quite risky.”

Notable among them was Drew Pearson who wrote the muckraking “Washington Merry Go Round” column.

Pearson’s columns began addressing, dissecting, and dismissing McCarthy’s claims as early as February 1950–more than four years before Murrow’s famous program.

WJC

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