Murrow died April 27, 1965, at his farm near Pawling, N.Y., about 20 miles from Poughkeepsie. Murrow, a chainsmoker, fell victim to lung cancer. He had just turned 57.
Inevitably, the Poughkeepsie Journal tribute–which carried the headline, “Journalism hero Edward R. Murrow lives on”–recalled Murrow’s famous See It Now documentary program in March 1954. That was when he took on the red-baiting Republican senator from Wisconsin, Joseph R. McCarthy.
The newspaper’s article said Murrow’s program on McCarthy “is credited for exposing the senator’s tactics by using clips of his own words, and helped lead to the senator’s downfall.”
“See It Now that night was powerful television. More accurately, it was a hearty serving of advocacy journalism. … Murrow and his See It Now team assembled a series of film clips that was decidedly unflattering to McCarthy.”
I also write:
“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.”
But did the show expose McCarthy’s tactics?
Not at all.
McCarthy had burst upon the national scene four years earlier, claiming in a series of speeches that scores of communists, communist sympathizers, or persons of risk were embedded in the U.S. State Department.
His charges were almost immediately challenged by Drew Pearson, a nationally syndicated muckraking columnist based in Washington, D.C.
“The Senator from Wisconsin has been a healthy watchdog of some government activities, but the alleged communists which he claims are sheltered in the State Department just aren’t,” Pearson wrote in February 1950, more than four years before Murrow’s program on McCarthy.
So did the See It Now show “helped lead to the senator’s downfall,” as the Poughkeepsie Journal claims?
Not so much.
By the time Murrow took to the air to confront McCarthy, the senator’s favorability ratings had already hit the skids.
As I write in Getting It Wrong, “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.”
Thanks to Pearson, and other journalists, they knew.