W. Joseph Campbell

Invoking Murrow-McCarthy myth to assert the worthiness of TV

In Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth on June 11, 2011 at 6:58 am

Murrow

Media-driven myths have a variety of perverse applications — including value in scoring points in arguments.

Today’s Sydney Morning Herald does just that in turning to a particularly hardy media myth — that of Edward R. Murrow’s supposedly decisive televised report in 1954 about Senator Joseph R. McCarthy.

In a commentary titled “In defense of the idiot box,” the Morning Herald argues for the worthiness of television, asserting that the medium “has the power to shock, appeal, nauseate and, if everything comes together, inspire.”

The commentary further states:

“TV has made a difference before. In the early days, Edward R. Murrow took on Joe McCarthy, starting a tradition of fearless TV journalism exposing the corruption of government, the horrors of war and the dark side of society. The medium may have numbed the odd brain but it’s also done a lot of good ….”

Mind-numbing television generally is.

More doubtful is the commentary’s extravagant claim about the fearlessness of Murrow. His report about McCarthy, which aired on the See It Now show of March 9, 1954, scarcely can be termed “fearless” and shouldn’t be seen as inaugurating any sort of “tradition” of searching, intrepid broadcast journalism.

That’s because Murrow was very late in taking on McCarthy and the senator’s heavy-handed campaign against communists in government.

Pearson, muckraking columnist

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, my media mythbusting book that came out last year, the evidence “is overwhelming that Murrow’s famous program on McCarthy had no … decisive effect, 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.”

Notable among those journalists was Drew Pearson, who wrote the syndicated and widely read muckraking column, “Washington Merry-Go-Round.” Pearson was quick to call attention to the recklessness of McCarthy’s claims.

He took on McCarthy in February 1950, soon after the senator first raised his claims about communists in high places in the U.S. government.

Pearson wrote that month that “the alleged communists which [McCarthy] claims are sheltered in the State Department just aren’t.”

Far from being fearless, Murrow, it can be argued, waited till the risks had subsided before taking on McCarthy. By March 1954, McCarthy’s capacity to stir dread was in decided retreat.

I note in Getting It Wrong that Eric Sevareid, Murrow’s friend and colleague at CBS News, was among those who chafed at the interpretation of fearlessness attached to the Murrow program which, he noted, “came very late in the day.”

Sevareid said in the 1970s:

“The youngsters read back and they think only one person in broadcasting and the press stood up to McCarthy and this has made a lot of people feel very upset, including me, because that program came awfully late.”

I further note in Getting It Wrong how the media myth about Murrow took hold despite the protestations of its central figures.

“In the days and weeks after the See It Now program,” I write, “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, moreover, told Newsweek magazine: “It’s a sad state of affairs when people think I was courageous” in confronting McCarthy.

Fred W. Friendly, Murrow’s collaborator and co-producer, likewise rejected claims that the See It Now program on McCarthy was pivotal or decisive. As Friendly wrote in his 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.”

WJC

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