W. Joseph Campbell

How late was Ed Murrow in taking on Joe McCarthy?

In Cinematic treatments, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth on September 28, 2010 at 4:25 pm

Murrow in 1954

Edward R. Murrow, the “white knight” of American broadcasting, is often credited with having ended the communists-in-government witch-hunt of Senator Joseph McCarthy at the height of the Cold War.

Murrow supposedly demolished the McCarthy scourge in a 30-minute television program, See It Now, that aired on CBS on March 9, 1954. The show made notably effective use of footage of the senator’s words, actions, and sometimes-bizarre conduct.

By doing that show, it is said, Murrow stood up to McCarthy when no one else would–or dared.

That, however, is a media-driven myth–a dubious tale about the news media that masquerades as factual.

As I write in my new myth-busting book, Getting It Wrong, Murrow was very late in confronting McCarthy, doing so long after other journalists–among them muckraking columnist Drew Pearson–had become persistent and searching critics of the senator, his record, and his tactics.

Pearson wrote critically about McCarthy as early as February 1950–just days after the senator first raised claims about communists having infiltrated the U.S. State Department.

Pearson also raised searching questions years before Murrow’s program about McCarthy’s tax troubles, his accepting suspicious campaign contributions, and his taking a $10,000 payment from a U.S. government contractor for a 7,000 word article.

McCarthy, I write, “had no more relentless, implacable, or scathing foe in the news media than Drew Pearson.”

And there were other journalists, too, who challenged McCarthy and his ways long before Murrow’s See It Now program in 1954.

So undeniably, Murrow’s on-air takedown of McCarthy was belated.

But it wasn’t quite as late as historian Alan Brinkley suggested in a post yesterday at the Speakeasy blog, sponsored by the Wall Street Journal.

Brinkley wrote:

“Anyone who saw the George Clooney film ‘Good Night, and Good Luck,’ about Edward R. Murrow’s decision to attack Joe McCarthy in 1954, will remember the pervasive fear, indeed terror, of employees of CBS who have hidden their leftist political views. (Even Murrow waited until after the Army-McCarthy hearings began before he took on McCarthy.)”

That last bit isn’t correct.

The Army-McCarthy hearings were convened in April 1954, six or so weeks after Murrow’s program, and ran until June 1954. The Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago has called the hearings “the first nationally televised congressional inquiry.” And they led to McCarthy’s censure by the Senate in late 1954.

“What made the real difference” in toppling McCarthy, Fred Friendly, Murrow’s producer, later wrote, “wasn’t the Murrow program but the fact that ABC decided to run the Army-McCarthy hearings. People saw the evil right there on the tube. ABC helped put the mirror up to Joe McCarthy.”

The Clooney film that Brinkley mentioned, Good Night, and Good Luck, was an imaginative and clever cinematic treatment of Murrow’s See It Now program about McCarthy. The film came out in 2005 and included archival footage from Murrow’s show.

“While the movie never explicitly said as much,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “it left an inescapable impression that Murrow courageously and single-handedly stopped McCarthy. Many reviewers saw it that way, too.”

For example, the film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert, said Good Night, and Good Luck was about “a group of professional newsmen who with surgical precision remove a cancer from the body politic. They believe in the fundamental American freedoms, and in Sen. Joseph McCarthy they see a man who would destroy those freedoms in the name of defending them. … The instrument of his destruction is Edward R. Murrow, a television journalist above reproach.”

But Murrow wasn’t such a “white knight.”

As I note in Getting It Wrong, Murrow claimed a master’s degree he never earned, added five years to his age in his employment application at CBS, and in 1956 privately counseled Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic presidential candidate, on techniques of speaking before a television camera.

Such lapses today, I write in Getting It Wrong, would “almost surely disqualify Murrow, or any journalist, from prominent positions in America’s mainstream news media.”


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