W. Joseph Campbell

Only Murrow had the bona fides? Nonsense

In Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, New York Times, Newspapers on December 30, 2010 at 11:31 am

The New York Times certainly was casual and superficial in likening TV comedian Jon Stewart to Edward R. Murrow. Not only that, but the discussion about the absurd comparison has been accompanied by the appearance of media-driven myth.

Notably, a post yesterday at the Atlantic online site invoked the dubious notion that Murrow stood up to Joseph R. McCarthy, the red-baiting senator from Wisconsin, when no one else could or would.

The Atlantic post said of Stewart and Murrow:

“Both men stuck their necks out. Both went first into a sort of no-man’s-land. It is probably true that only Murrow in his time had the bona fides to stand up to McCarthy (and don’t forget, Murrow waited years before doing so).” [Emphasis added in bold.]

That claim is just absurd.

While Murrow did take on McCarthy, in a much-celebrated half-hour television program in March 1954, he was scarcely alone in challenging the senator and his communists-in-government witch-hunt. And certainly not the first.

As I point out in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, other journalists in the early 1950s had the bona fides, and had the guts, to take on McCarthy when the risks of doing so were quite pronounced.

Pearson: Had the bona fides

Among these journalists with the bona fides was the Washington-based syndicated columnist Drew Pearson.

As I note in Getting It Wrong: “During the four years of his communists-in-government campaign, McCarthy had no more relentless, implacable, or scathing foe in the news media” than the muckraking Pearson, who wrote the widely published “Washington Merry-Go-Round” column and had a radio show.

Pearson was no saint. Jack Shafer of slate.com not long ago described Pearson as “one of the skuzziest journalists to ever write a story.” Pearson was intrusive and overbearing. He readily made enemies, and almost seemed to relish doing so.

But there’s no denying that he was quick off the dime, that he went after McCarthy hard and relentlessly, and that he immediately recognized the dubious quality of McCarthy’s claims about communists in high places in the U.S. government and military.

Pearson first wrote about McCarthy’s allegations on February 18, 1950, just days after McCarthy had begun raising them, notably in a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia. Pearson called McCarthy the “harum-scarum” senator and said that when he “finally was pinned down, he could produce … only four names of State Department officials whom he claimed were communists.”

Two of the four people named by McCarthy had resigned years earlier; another had been cleared, and the fourth had never worked for the State Department, Pearson wrote.

Pearson followed up with another column, writing that “the alleged communists which he claims are sheltered in the State Department just aren’t.”

Pearson also noted that he had covered the State Department for years, during which time he had been “the career boys’ severest critic. However, knowing something about State Department personnel, it is my opinion that Senator McCarthy is way off base.”

As he was.

Pearson leveled not just a few, scattered shots at McCarthy. His challenges in print became a near-barrage. Pearson scrutinized the senator’s tax troubles in Wisconsin, his accepting funds from a government contractor, and his taking suspicious campaign contributions back in Wisconsin.

The probing angered McCarthy, and in December 1950, the hulking senator physically assaulted Pearson after a dinner at the hush-hush Sulgrave Club on DuPont Circle in Washington, D.C.

McCarthy confronted Pearson in the Sulgrave’s coat check room and either slapped, kneed, or punched the columnist.

Richard Nixon, who recently had been sworn in as a U.S. Senator, intervened to break up the encounter. Nixon, in his memoir RN, said Pearson “grabbed his coat and ran from the room. McCarthy said, ‘You shouldn’t have stopped me, Dick.’”

So Pearson had the bona fides.

So did James A. Wechsler, editor of the New York Post.

In 1951, the Post published a 17-part, bare-knuckle series about McCarthy. The installments of the series addressed McCarthy’s tax troubles, his hypocrisy, and his recklessness in raising allegations about communists in government.

The closing installment likened McCarthy to “a drunk at a party who was funny half an hour ago but now won’t go home. McCarthy is camped in America’s front room trying to impress everybody by singing all the dirty songs and using all the four-letter words he knows. The jokes are pointless, the songs unfunny, the profanity a bore.”

The series was published 2½ years before Murrow’s television program on McCarthy.

And Wechsler paid a price for it, too. He was hauled before McCarthy’s investigative subcommittee and grilled about his dalliance years before in the Communist Youth League.

Wechsler characterized the closed-door hearing as “a reprisal against a newspaper and its editor for their opposition to the methods of this committee’s chairman.” But he complied, reluctantly, with the subcommittee’s demand to produce names of people he had known to be communists during his time in the Youth League.

By the time Murrow took on McCarthy in March 1954, the senator’s favorable ratings had crested and entered a terminal decline.

And Americans by then weren’t “waiting for a white knight like Murrow to tell them about the toxic threat the senator posed,” I write in Getting It Wrong.

Thanks to the work of Pearson and Wechsler and other journalists, they already knew.

WJC

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