W. Joseph Campbell

Suspicious Murrow quote reemerges

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Newspapers on October 25, 2010 at 10:06 am

A comment of uncertain authenticity but attributed to legendary broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow resurfaced the other day, in an item posted at the online site of the Salem-News a news service in Oregon.

Witch-hunting senator

The item included this passage:

“As Edward R. Murrow noted, ‘We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it.'”

The first portion of the quote–“We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty”–is genuine. Murrow uttered the line during the closing portion of his myth-enveloped television report in March 1954 about Senator Joseph R. McCarthy (above) and his witch-hunting ways.

The second part– “When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it”–is highly suspect.

Murrow didn’t say it during his program about McCarthy, the mythical elements of which I address in my new book, Getting It Wrong.

Here’s what Murrow said on that occasion, immediately after his remark about not confusing “dissent with disloyalty”:

“We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law.”

That’s not  even remotely suggestive of “When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it.”

So it’s pretty certain that “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty” was not followed by “When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it.”

This dubious Murrow quotation has been the topic of a previous discussion at Media Myth Alert. I noted then that if the quotation were genuine–if Murrow really said it–then its derivation shouldn’t be too difficult to determine.

But its derivation remains unknown.

I’ve searched the “historical newspapers” database for the suspect quote. The database includes the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and Los Angeles Times; no articles quoting “the loyal opposition” passage were returned.

As I’ve noted previously, a search of the LexisNexis database produced a few returns–and none dated before 2001. And none stated when and where Murrow supposedly made the comment.

Among the LexisNexis returns was a book review published in 2003 in the Washington Post. The review invoked “the loyal opposition” passage and said Murrow made the remark “half a century ago, at the height of the McCarthy era.” But exactly when and where was left unsaid.

I couldn’t find “the loyal opposition” passage in A.M. Sperber’s hefty biography of Murrow; nor could I locate it in Bob Edwards’ more recent and much thinner treatment.

The 2005 movie Good Night and Good Luck, which revisited the Murrow-McCarthy encounter, didn’t invoke the quote, either. The line is not to be found in the film’s script.

So why bother running this down? What’s the point?

Several reasons offer themselves.

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, there is intrinsic value in correcting the historical record, in insisting on “a demarcation between fact and fiction.” As is the case with many media-driven myths, the suspect quotation seems too neat, too tidy to be authentic.

Falsely attributing quotations is unsavory, off-putting, and distorts the historical record. The Murrow-McCarthy encounter is myth-choked as it is, in that it’s widely believed that the Murrow show in 1954 stopped the senator’s witch-hunt in its tracks.

What’s more, the dubious Murrow quote seems to possess particular relevance and resonance today. But to invoke without knowing its derivation is an abuse of history.

WJC

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