How Edward R. Murrow single-handedly ended the witch-hunting ways of Senator Joseph McCarthy, the most feared and loathsome political figure of the Cold War era, is the stuff of legend.
It’s one of the best-known, most cherished stories about American journalism, one that lives on as an example of media power at its finest and most effective–as a lesson about what courageous journalists can accomplish, even in the face of imposing odds.
It is also one of American journalism’s most tenacious myths.
As I write in my new book, Getting It Wrong, Murrow’s televised report on McCarthy on March 9, 1954–the 30-minute program that lies at the heart of the myth–did not have the outcome so often claimed for it.
Notably, I write, “McCarthy’s favorable ratings had begun to slide well before Murrow took to the air” with his report on McCarthy.
Moreover, Murrow’s program on McCarthy was aired months and even years after exposes of the senator and his tactics had been reported by other American journalists.
As Jay Nelson Turk, television critic for the New York Post wrote after Murrow’s program on McCarthy:
“Murrow said nothing, and his cameras showed nothing, that this and some other newspapers have not been saying—and saying more strongly—for three or four years.”
It asserted that before Murrow’s report on McCarthy, “Little substantive commentary was coming from the news media. No one with any power was willing to take on the popular McCarthy ….
“However, on March 9, 1954, Edward R. Murrow, the most-respected newsman on television at the time, broke the ice. He attacked McCarthy on his weekly show, See It Now. Murrow interspersed his own comments and clarifications into a damaging series of film clips from McCarthy’s speeches.”
The commentary added:
“Murrow had guts—something lacking in most of today’s television commentators who are more adept at reading teleprompters than tackling issues—and he spoke truth to power.”
Those paragraphs contain no small amount of error and misinterpretation.
For one, McCarthy was never especially “popular” among Americans.
As I note in Getting It Wrong, “Gallup Poll data show that McCarthy’s appeal crested in December 1953, when 53 percent of Americans said they had a favorable view of him.
“McCarthy’s favorable rating had slipped to 40 percent by early January 1954, and to 39 percent in February 1954, when an almost identical number of Americans viewed him unfavorably.”
The sharp drop, of course, preceded Murrow’s program.
More significant is the commentary’s erroneous claim that the news media had offered little substantive commentary about McCarthy and his communists-in-government witch-hunt.
As I note in Getting It Wrong:
“Long before the See It Now program, 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 wrote critically about McCarthy beginning in February 1950–just days after the senator first claimed that communists had infiltrated the U.S. State Department.
Pearson noted that he had covered the State Department for about twenty years, during which time he had been “the career boys’ severest critic. However, knowing something about State Department personnel, it is my opinion that Senator McCarthy is way off base.”
In subsequent columns, Pearson raised questions about McCarthy’s tax troubles, his accepting suspicious campaign contributions, and his taking a $10,000 payment from a U.S. government contractor for a 7,000 word article.
“Pearson’s inquiries embarrassed and angered McCarthy, who began entertaining thoughts of doing him harm,” I write in Getting It Wrong. And in December 1950, McCarthy physically assaulted Pearson in the cloakroom of the fashionable Sulgrave Club on DuPont Circle in Washington, D.C. (Accounts vary: McCarthy said he slapped Pearson, hard, with an open hand. Pearson said the senator kneed him, twice, in the groin. Then-Senator Richard M. Nixon pulled McCarthy away from Pearson.)
The encounter at the Sulgrave anticipated McCarthy’s vicious verbal attack on Pearson, declaring from the Senate floor that the columnist was the “diabolically” clever “voice of international communism” and the “sugar-coated voice of Russia.”
Pearson surely wasn’t the most enviable figure in American journalism. Media critic Jack Shafer in a column at Slate the other day called Pearson “one of the skuzziest journalists to ever write a story.”
But the historical record is clear that if anyone in the news media “broke the ice” about McCarthy, it was Pearson. In 1950.
He posed critical and persistent challenges to McCarthy’s red-baiting ways when doing so really did take guts.