The heroic tale of Edward R. Murrow’s taking on, and supposedly ending, Senator Joseph McCarthy’s communists-in-government witch-hunt is the stuff of legend.
It’s no surprise that the story–so rich and delicious in its assertion of media power–would resurface on the Fourth of July. A guest column yesterday in the Los Angeles Daily News, a regional newspaper in southern California, invoked the tale, stating:
“The 1950s were disgraced by Joseph McCarthy. The senator from Wisconsin bullied hundreds of witnesses with reckless charges of communism until CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow and a patrician lawyer from Boston, Joseph Welch, had the guts to say enough is enough.”
Welch was lead counsel for the Army during the Army-McCarthy hearings in Congress in 1954. In what perhaps was the most dramatic and memorable moment of the hearings, Welch confronted the red-baiting senator, telling him:
“You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”
The hearings were a disaster for the senator, who was censured by the Senate late in 1954 and fell into political eclipse.
There is little doubt, though, that Murrow’s contributions to McCarthy’s decline and fall have been dramatically overstated.
The claim that Murrow and his See It Now program on the senator in March 1954 “ended Joe McCarthy’s reign of terror is,” I write in my new book, Getting It Wrong, “a compelling story, one of the best-known in American journalism.
“It also is a media-driven myth.”
Interestingly, the media myth took hold despite Murrow’s protestations.
“In the days and weeks after the See It Now program,” I note in Getting It Wrong, “Murrow said he recognized his accomplishments were modest, that at best he had reinforced what others had long said about McCarthy.”
I also write that “the evidence is overwhelming 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.”
Notably, the muckraking journalist Drew Pearson had written critically of McCarthy and his reckless charges about communists in government years before Murrow took to the air with his show about McCarthy.
And in September 1951, the New York Post published a bare-knuckled, 17-part series about McCarthy and his ways. The installments of the Post‘s series appeared with the logo “Smear Inc.”
The first article in the series–which is little-remembered in the historiography of the media and McCarthy–said in part:
“McCarthy has raced to the fore with breakneck speed. In the course of his careening, reckless, headlong drive down the road to political power and personal fame, he has smashed the reputations of countless men, destroyed Senate careers, splattered mud on the pages of 20 years of national history, confused and distracted the public mind, bulldozed press and radio.”
That characterization was to echo 2½ years later, on Murrow’s See It Now program about McCarthy.
So, no, it’s not accurate to say Murrow had “the guts to say enough is enough” about McCarthy.
By March 1954, taking on McCarthy hardly was a gutsy thing to do.