It’s commonplace in American journalism to argue that it took the power and resolve of none other than Edward R. Murrow to end the witch-hunting ways of Senator Joseph McCarthy.
The column, which discussed the on-air poise of CNN’s Rachel Madow, invoked Murrow in saying the newsman’s “takedown of Sen. Joe McCarthy, was not really news–everybody in Washington knew what was going on, how vile and stupid McCarthy was; the media was just too scared to print it, possibly because politicians were too scared to challenge McCarthy, the ruiner of lives.”
The news media were “too scared” to take on McCarthy?
That’s scarcely what the historical record shows.
That was years after the muckraking columnist Drew Pearson challenged McCarthy’s extreme charges that communists had infiltrated the U.S. government, the military, and the Democratic party.
Pearson ridiculed McCarthy as the “harum-scarum” senator and labeled his allegations “way off base.” Pearson’s characterizations came in February 1950, shortly after McCarthy began making little-documented charges about communists in government.
Pearson was unrelenting in his scrutiny of McCarthy, poking into the senator’s tax troubles in Wisconsin and his accepting questionable payments from a government contractor.
McCarthy was so annoyed by Pearson’s probing that he threatened the columnist at a Gridiron Club dinner in Washington, D.C., in May 1950. On that occasion, McCarthy placed a hand on Pearson’s arm and muttered:
“Someday I’m going to get a hold of you and really break your arm….”
As I write in Getting It Wrong, the verbal threat was a prelude to a brief but violent encounter between McCarthy and Pearson at the fashionable Sulgrave Club in Washington. The Sulgrave occupies a Beaux-Arts mansion at DuPont Circle and in the 1950s, I write, “it was a hush-hush meeting place for Washington socialites and powerbrokers.”
McCarthy and Pearson were guests at a dinner party at the Sulgrave in December 1950. They were seated at the same table and traded gibes and insults throughout the evening.
Time magazine wrote that Pearson and McCarthy were “the two biggest billygoats in the onion patch, and when they began butting, all present knew history was being made.”
After dinner, McCarthy cornered Pearson in the Sulgrave’s coat-check room.
“Accounts differ about what happened,” I write. “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.”
Then-Senator Richard Nixon, also a guest at the dinner party, intervened to break up the encounter.
Pearson was hardly alone in taking on McCarthy.
In September 1951, the New York Post published a bare-knuckled, 17-part series about McCarthy and his ways. The installments of the Post‘s unflattering and searching series appeared with the logo “Smear Inc.”
The first installment in the series said in part:
“McCarthy has raced to the fore with breakneck speed. In the course of his careening, reckless, headlong drive down the road to political power and personal fame, he has smashed the reputations of countless men, destroyed Senate careers, splattered mud on the pages of 20 years of national history, confused and distracted the public mind, bulldozed press and radio.”
That characterization was to echo 2½ years later, in the content of Murrow’s See It Now program about McCarthy.
So, no, the press wasn’t “too scared to print” what a menace McCarthy was. As I write in Getting It Wrong, by March 1954, Americans weren’t “waiting for a white knight like Murrow to tell them about the toxic threat the senator posed.”
They already knew, from sources other than Murrow.