Few lessons in American journalism are as inspiring — but, in the end, as misplaced — as the notion of Edward R. Murrow’s slaying the dragon of McCarthyism in a single television program in 1954.
It’s a great story, how Murrow, the legendary figure of American broadcasting, stood up to Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, when no one else would, or dared, and in so doing, brought an abrupt end to senator’s witchhunt for communists in the U.S. government.
It’s a tale that dates to the evening of March 9, 1954, and Murrow’s “Special Report on Joseph R. McCarthy,” which aired on the CBS television show, See It Now.
The epic confrontation of Murrow and McCarthy was recalled the other day in a commentary posted at the online edition of a Philipine newspaper, the News Today.
The commentary invoked the dragon metaphor, stating in part:
“Edward Murrow slew the dragon that was McCarthyism, ushering in the pure air of freedom enjoyed by his fellow Americans be they from the left, right, or center. Witch-hunting was thrashed to damnation, and Joseph McCarthy exited in ignominy.”
It is a great story; indeed, it’s one of the most treasured in American journalism.
But as I write in my forthcoming book, Getting It Wrong, the notion that Murrow took down McCarthy and ended the senator’s witchhunting ways is a tenacious media-driven myth, one that obscures the more important contributions of journalists other than Murrow in McCarthy’s demise.
As I also write in Getting It Wrong:
“Long before the See It Now program” in March 1954, “several prominent journalists—including the Washington-based syndicated columnist Drew Pearson—had become persistent and searching critics of McCarthy, his record, and his tactics.”
Pearson’s contributions to unraveling the scourge of McCarthyism are, however, little recalled these days.
Interestingly, the media myth of Murrow v. McCarthy took hold despite the protestations of its central figures.
In the days and weeks following the See It Now program on McCarthy, Murrow said he recognized his accomplishments were modest, that at best he had reinforced what others had long said about McCarthy.
Jay Nelson Tuck, 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.”
Murrow told Newsweek magazine: “It’s a sad state of affairs when people think I was courageous.”
Murrow’s collaborator and co-producer, Fred W. Friendly, also rejected claims the program was pivotal or decisive, writing in his 1967 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.”
So why has the Murrow-McCarthy myth become so tenacious?
There are several reasons. A particularly persuasive explanation, in my view, is that mythologizing Murrow’s See It Now program on McCarthy serves, as I write in Getting It Wrong, “to affirm television’s sometimes-tenuous claim to seriousness of purpose.
“Enveloping the program in heroic terms is a way to identify and celebrate the potential of broadcast journalism, which often has been criticized for superficiality and a taste for the trivial. As it became an inescapable presence in American living rooms in the 1950s, television needed a hero and a heroic moment. Murrow and his ‘Report on Joseph R. McCarthy’ were both ….”
This is a point that communications scholar Gary Edgerton has addressed notably well, having written in 1992:
“In a deep and heartfelt sense, Murrow is the electronic media’s hero for self-justification. Commemorating a ‘patron saint of American broadcasting’ is also an act of testimony to the tenets of fairness, commitment, conscience courage, and social responsibility which compose the Murrow tradition for broadcast journalism.”
Besides, it wasn’t as if Americans in early 1954 were hoping for someone to step up and expose McCarthy, or waiting for a white knight like Murrow to tell them about the toxic threat the senator posed. It was quite well-known by then.