W. Joseph Campbell

Suspect Murrow quote pulled at Murrow school

In Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth on February 17, 2011 at 7:37 am

Did he say it?

I’ve written occasionally at Media Myth Alert about a suspect quotation attributed to broadcasting legend Edward R. Murrow.

Here’s the quotation:

“We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it.”

The quotation is half true. That is, the first part was indeed spoken by Murrow; the other part is just too good to be true.

I happened to find the full quotation posted at the welcome page of the dean of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University.

By email, I asked the dean, Lawrence Pintak, what he could tell me about the quote’s provenance.

I noted in my email that the first 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. McCarthy.

“But the rest of quotation – ‘When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it’ – was not spoken during that program,” I noted in my email. I added that “I’ve not been able to determine where and when it was spoken or written.”

I further noted that I had consulted a database of historical newspapers — a full-text repository that includes the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and Los Angeles Times — but no articles quoting the “loyal opposition” passage were returned.

I also mentioned in my email that a search of the LexisNexis database “produced a few returns, but none dated before 2001.” None of them state where and when Murrow made the purported comment.

Pintak, who became the first dean of the Murrow College in 2009, stated in reply that the online site had been constructed before his arrival at Washington State. He added:

“My suspicion is that the site was built by the university marketing comm. people and they may well have just pulled it from the web, rather than original source. If it’s not correct, we certainly need to get it pulled.”

He referred my inquiry to an instructor on his faculty, Paul Mark Wadleigh, whom he asked to investigate.

A few hours later, Wadleigh sent an email to the dean and me, stating:

“While it seems to reflect the Murrow spirit, the lack of evidence that he phrased it that way is indeed suspicious.”

Wadleigh also wrote that the transcript of Murrow’s closing comments in the 1954 show about McCarthy “reveals a different language and tone than the ‘loyal opposition’ quote.”

Good point.

His bottom line?

“I feel the evidence says no, Murrow did not say this,” Wadleigh wrote.

By the end of the day, the suspect quote had been pulled from the dean’s welcome page. Just the authentic portion — “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty” — remains posted there.

The College’s move to pull the quote not only was commendable; it stands as further evidence that the “loyal opposition” line attributed to Murrow is dubious. It may have been made up well after Murrow’s death in 1965, perhaps to score points politically.

I’ve noted that if it were genuine, if Murrow had uttered the line, then its derivation shouldn’t be too difficult to determine.

Moreover, the quotation seems too neat and tidy to be authentic — which can be a marker of a media-driven myth.

As I write in my mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong:

“To thwart media myths, journalists can start by applying a measure of skepticism to pithy, telling quotes such as [William Randolph] Hearst’s vow to ‘furnish the war‘ and even to euphonic phrases such as ‘bra burning.’

“Turns of phrase that sound too neat and tidy,” I write, “often are too perfect to be true.”

WJC

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