W. Joseph Campbell

Excess praise for Edward R. Murrow

In Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, New York Times on January 2, 2011 at 10:59 am

Edward R. Murrow, the legendary CBS newsman who died in 1965, has been back in the news of late, owing to the facile suggestion by the New York Times that TV comedian Jon Stewart is Murrow’s “modern-day equivalent.”

Murrow the legendary

Absurd though it was, the comparison in the Times served to train attention anew on Murrow and on his famous 30-minute television program of March 9, 1954, which supposedly helped end the communists-in-government witch-hunt of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy.

The latest iteration of that theme find expression today in a commentary in South Bend Tribune in Indiana, which revisits the Times-Stewart-Murrow tempest and asserts that “in broadcast journalism history, Murrow was a giant of his time, honored for turning the spotlight in 1954 on the witch-hunt excesses of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, ‘McCarthyism,’ and helping to bring the demagogue’s downfall.”

Murrow certainly was a preeminent figure in American broadcast journalism, having won fame for his radio reports from London during World War II and for his weekly, documentary-style television program, See It Now, which was launched in 1951.

But to argue that Murrow turned the spotlight on the excesses of McCarthyism, and to claim Murrow helped bring about McCarthy’s downfall–well, that’s excess praise.

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, my mythbusting book published last year, the See It Now program on McCarthy in 1954 was neither pivotal nor decisive, in part because Murrow was following the spotlight when he turned attention to McCarthy and his excesses.

That is, Murrow was quite late in taking on 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.

As I write in Getting It Wrong,  Murrow’s friend and CBS colleague Eric Sevareid chafed at the misleading interpretation attached to the See It Now program on McCarthy which, he noted, “came very late in the day.”

Sevareid said in 1978:

“The youngsters read back and they think only one person in broadcasting and the press stood up to McCarthy and this has made a lot of people feel very upset, including me, because that program came awfully late.”

And in the days and weeks following the See It Now program on McCarthy, Murrow acknowledged the show’s contributions were modest, that it had at best reinforced what others had long said about McCarthy.

Jay Nelson Tuck, the television critic for the New York Post, wrote in April 1954 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.”

And Murrow’s collaborator and co-producer, Fred W. Friendly, rejected claims the See It Now program was decisive. Friendly wrote in his memoir, Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control:

“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.”

These were not assertions of false modesty. McCarthy’s tactics, after all, had become quite well-known by March 1954. As I write in Getting It Wrong, it wasn’t as if Americans then “were waiting for a white knight like Murrow to tell them about the toxic threat the senator posed.”

From the work of Pearson and other journalists, they already knew.

'Best of Person to Person'

While Murrow may have been a giant in American broadcasting, he did a fair share of puff-ball journalism, too. Besides the See It Now program, Murrow conducted mushy interviews with the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando, and other celebrities of the 1950s on his highly rated Person to Person show on CBS.

As Jack Shafer of slate.com has argued: “If we’re going to praise Murrow for producing fearless TV news, we should also be ready to damn him for paving the way for Barbara Walters, Oprah Winfrey, and all the celebrity bootlickers on red carpets.”

It should be noted that Murrow was no white knight, either. He privately tutored Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic presidential candidate in 1956, on speaking to the TV camera. In addition, Murrow claimed a master’s degree that he never earned, and inflated his speech major at Washington State University to a degree in international relations and political science.

I mention this not to dismiss Murrow’s contributions, but to argue for context about an important though flawed figure in American journalism–and to challenge as one-dimensional and misleading the mythic image of Murrow as “a giant of his time.”

WJC

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