W. Joseph Campbell

Murrow had McCarthy ‘on his show’? Not quite

In Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth on April 10, 2010 at 3:11 pm

The myth and misunderstanding associated with Edward R. Murrow’s famous broadcast on CBS about Senator Joseph R. McCarthy are many, and tenacious.

Murrow in 1954

Murrow in 1954

Notable among them is that Murrow’s documentary-style See It Now program of March 9, 1954, exposed McCarthy’s red-baiting ways and abruptly halted the senator’s communists-in-government witch-hunt.

Neither is true, for reasons I discuss in my forthcoming book about media-driven myths, Getting It Wrong.

Another misconception about the Murrow-McCarthy confrontation was raised yesterday, in an item titled “Yellow-bellied journalism” and posted at the Daily Caller online site.  The “yellow-bellied journalism” item stated:

“The problem with the mainstream media is not that they are liberals. It’s that they are cowards. They simply will not engage with any thought that threatens their worldview.

“It’s important to remember that it wasn’t always this way. There once was a time when liberal journalists had the guts to engage, and engage deeply, with the ideas of those who disagreed with them. Edward R. Murrow had Joseph McCarthy on his show.”

That’s an interesting comment about contemporary journalists lacking guts. But as for the point that Murrow had McCarthy “on his show”?

Well, not exactly.

Murrow’s See It Now program of March 9, 1954, was an unrelenting laceration of McCarthy. Murrow made devastatingly effective use of film footage of the senator in action in what was a bravado performance in advocacy journalism.

As I write in Getting It Wrong: “Through clever editing of film of McCarthy in action, Murrow and his See It Now team prepared a powerful indictment” of the senator and his crude investigative tactics.

I also note that  “McCarthy’s oddball appearance and mannerisms—his hulking, menacing presence, his nutty laugh, his five o’clock shadow, his careless grooming that allowed strands of thinning, greasy hair to creep down his forehead—were among the most revealing and most unforgettable moments of the program.”

And as the show neared its end that night, Murrow declared:

“The actions of the junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies.”

But McCarthy wasn’t “on the show” to offer counter-arguments. There were no question-answer exchange between the protagonists. Murrow didn’t really “engage” McCarthy, not in person anyway.

Instead, Murrow gave McCarthy a chance to respond at another time, stating at the outset of the program:

“If the Senator feels that we have done violence to his words or pictures and so desires to speak, to answer himself, an opportunity will be afforded him on this program.”

McCarthy took up the offer, and the See It Now program of April 6, 1954, was devoted to his response, in which McCarthy claimed Murrow was “a symbol, a leader and the cleverest of the jackal pack which is always found at the throat of anyone who dares to expose individual Communists and traitors.”

McCarthy’s rebuttal was rambling, awkward, and unpersuasive.  It was a tedious embarrassment that did McCarthy no good.

And it came nearly a month after Murrow’s memorable, indeed mythical, television program.


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