W. Joseph Campbell

America ‘was saved by Murrow’? No way

In Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth on February 5, 2011 at 10:14 am

He 'saved' America?

Edward R. Murrow’s legendary television report in 1954 about Senator Joseph R. McCarthy has stirred no small praise over the years.

The accolades for Murrow’s unflattering portrait of the senator and his communists-in-goverment witch-hunt have been many and often excessive.

Murrow’s show often is praised for putting an end to McCarthy’s blustering and erratic campaign that he had begun in 1950. But few bows to Murrow have been as deep as this characterization, which appeared yesterday in the Jerusalem Post:

“America under Joseph McCarthy’s influence was in danger of losing its right of dissent until it was saved by courageous men like Edward R. Murrow and Joseph Welch with his famous accusation, ‘Have you no shame?'” (Welch was a lawyer who famously confronted McCarthy at Senate hearing in June 1954.)

But what a minute: America “was in danger of losing its right of dissent” in 1954? How so?

And America was “saved by courageous men” like Murrow and Welch? “Saved“? Again, how so?

The article doesn’t say. So let’s examine, and debunk, both over-the-top assertions.

Simply put, America was in no danger in 1954 “of losing its right of dissent.” Notably, Americans had registered opposition to McCarthy and his hardball tactics well before Murrow’s program, which aired March 9, 1954.

McCarthy: Americans disapproved

A Gallup Poll published in mid-January 1954 reported that 47 percent of Americans disapproved of the methods McCarthy used in pressing his anti-communist campaign. Thirty-eight percent said they approved of the senator’s methods, and 15 percent said they had no opinion.

Disapproval rates were highest among what Gallup called the “professional and business” and “white-collar” occupations. A small plurality of “manual workers,” Gallup said, approved of McCarthy’s methods.

So Americans in early 1954 were well aware of McCarthy’s aggressive, often-bullying ways, and largely found them disagreeable. They didn’t need Murrow or Welch to demonstrate McCarthy’s offensiveness.

They knew.

Gallup also reported that objections to McCarthy’s tactics were many. Most frequently mentioned by Americans, Gallup said, was that “the senator is overly harsh in his methods, that ‘he goes too far,’ that ‘he is too rough,’ and ‘uses methods like the Gestapo.'”

Additionally, Gallup said, many Americans complained that “McCarthy ‘never has proof of what he claims’ in his investigations. ‘He should find out if they are Communists before exposing them to the public’ was the type of sentiment offered by many persons.”

So in their reactions to McCarthy, Americans were hardly cowed, hardly inclined to silence about the senator and his witch-hunting ways.

And as for the claim America was “saved” by the courage of Murrow and Welch?

As I write in my mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, which came out last summer, “the evidence is overwhelming that Murrow’s famous program on McCarthy had no such decisive effect, that Murrow in fact was very late in confronting McCarthy, that he did so only after other journalists had challenged the senator and his tactics for months, even years.”

Among those journalists was the Washington-based syndicated columnist Drew Pearson, who took to challenging — and even ridiculing — McCarthy soon after the senator launched his communists-in-government witch-hunt in 1950, years before the Murrow program.

Indeed, I write, “McCarthy had no more relentless, implacable, or scathing foe in the news media than Drew Pearson, the lead writer of the syndicated muckraking column, ‘Washington Merry-Go-Round.'”

I also write in Getting It Wrong that Murrow was loath to claim much significance for his televised report about McCarthy, saying he “recognized his accomplishments were modest, that at best he had reinforced what others had long said about McCarthy.”

I note, for example, that Jay Nelson Tuck, then the television critic for the New York Post, wrote 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.”

Indeed.

Murrow’s collaborator and co-producer, Fred W. Friendly, also rejected claims the 1954 program on McCarthy was pivotal or decisive. Friendly wrote in his memoir:

“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.”

Welch: 'No decency?'

As for Joseph Welch: He memorably upbraided McCarthy during a televised Senate hearing June  9, 1954, declaring:

“Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

Welch was counsel for the U.S. Army in the Senate’s Army-McCarthy hearings, which considered allegations that McCarthy and his top aide, Roy Cohn, sought favored treatment for a staff member who had been drafted into military service.

The New York Times reported that Welch’s rebuke of McCarthy was greeted by a burst of applause in the Senate gallery and that Welch the next day had reported having received 1,400 telegrams, most of them supportive.

However, a database review of coverage by the Times and four other leading U.S. newspapers indicates that the Welch-McCarthy encounter was, at the time, essentially a one-day story, to which lasting importance only later became attached.

WJC

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  1. [...] portion  of the passage – “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty” – was spoken by Murrow near the end of his 1954 See It Now program about the witch-hunting ways of Senator Joseph R. [...]

  2. [...] Murrow, moreover, told Newsweek magazine: “It’s a sad state of affairs when people think I was courageous” in confronting McCarthy. [...]

  3. [...] Pearson took on McCarthy years before Murrow — and long before it was safe. He certainly was “sneakily patriotic” in doing [...]

  4. [...] Journalists as saviors: Like most media-driven myths, the notion is simply too good to be true, too simplistic to be credible. [...]

  5. [...] program on CBS about Senator Joseph R. McCarthy in 1954 is often but erroneously credited with bringing down the Red-baiting senator, and to Walter Cronkite’s 30-minute report about Vietnam in 1968 [...]

  6. […] Murrow did take on McCarthy, but belatedly — many months and even years after other journalists had pointedly called attention to the senator’s abusive tactics in investigating communists in government. […]

  7. […] has it that Murrow’s See It Now program of March 9, 1954, was so powerful that it abruptly ended McCarthy’s communists-in-government witch-hunt, a campaign long on innuendo that the senator had launched four […]

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