W. Joseph Campbell

Murrow ‘risked his career to confront demagogic Joe McCarthy’? Hardly

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Washington Post on July 1, 2017 at 3:01 pm

The sentiments may be noble but the claims — one of them, at least — are dubious.

‘Demagogic’ Joe McCarthy

So it is with a Washington Post commentary this weekend that makes mention of “men and women who defended this country and its values in other ways [than taking up arms]: people like Edward R. Murrow, the broadcaster who risked his career to confront the demagogic Sen. Joe McCarthy; Harvey Milk, who helped pass gay rights legislation in San Francisco before he was assassinated; and Rosa Parks, whose courageous defiance was a spark for the civil rights movement, in which many were killed.”

What most interests Media Myth Alert is the reference to Murrow’s having risked his career in taking on McCarthy — a reference to the broadcaster’s half-hour television program, “See It Now,” in March 1954 that critically examined the senator’s communists-in-government witchhunt.

The show has long since become encrusted with media myth — namely that Murrow’s report exposed McCarthy’s demagoguery and abruptly ended his red-baiting ways.

The notion that Murrow’s career hung in the balance in taking on the bullying senator from Wisconsin was promoted in Good Night, and Good Luck, an overwrought cinematic account of the Murrow-McCarthy confrontation. But in reality, the risks to Murrow were scant by time he took on McCarthy in 1954.

By then, as I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong (a second edition of which is out now), Murrow was quite safe.

Murrow

That’s because, as I write, Murrow “was very late in confronting McCarthy” and “did so only after other journalists had challenged the senator and his tactics for months, even years.”

These journalists included the syndicated columnist Drew Pearson, who called out McCarthy’s exaggerations almost as soon as the senator began hurling accusations of communists infiltration of the State Department. That was in February 1950 — years before Murrow’s program on McCarthy.

Pearson certainly wasn’t a much-liked journalist; he was an aggressive, self-important muckraker whom media critic Jack Shafer once described as one of the skuzziest journalists to ever write a story. Pearson, I note, was always “eager to inject himself as a participant in Washington’s political scene.”

But he caught on quickly to McCarthy’s excesses.

Pearson: McCarthy nemesis

I note in Getting It Wrong that “Pearson first wrote about McCarthy’s wild allegations on February 18, 1950, just days after McCarthy had begun raising them. Pearson called McCarthy the ‘harum-scarum’ senator,” and described how the allegations had been discredited years earlier, after having been raised by a Republican congressman from Michigan.

Pearson wrote that “knowing something about State Department personnel, it is my opinion that Senator McCarthy is way off base.”

Pearson also went after McCarthy for his tax troubles in Wisconsin and for a suspicious $10,000 payment from a government contractor. And he likened McCarthy and his tactics to 17th century witchcraft trials in Massachusetts.

All of this angered the headstrong McCarthy who, at a Gridiron Club dinner in Washington in May 1950, approached Pearson, placed a hand on the columnist’s arm and muttered:

“Someday I’m going to get a hold of you and really break your arm.”

The thuggish threat, I write, was a prelude to a brief but violent encounter at the fashionable Sulgrave Club in Washington, D.C.

The Sulgrave, which occupies a late Gilded Age, Beaux-Arts mansion at DuPont Circle, was in the 1950s a hush-hush meeting place for Washington socialites and powerbrokers. “The club prided itself on insuring privacy and permitted no photographers to enter,” I note.

In December 1950, a young socialite named Louise Tinsley (“Tinnie”) Steinman invited both Pearson and McCarthy to join her guests at a dinner-dance at the Sulgrave.

She seated the men at the same table and they traded insults throughout the evening. Pearson and McCarthy “are the two biggest billygoats in the onion patch, and when they began butting, all present knew history was being made,” Time magazine said about their encounter.

“As the evening ended,” I write, “McCarthy confronted Pearson in the Sulgrave’s coat check room. Accounts differ about what happened. Pearson said McCarthy pinned his arms to one side and kneed him twice in the groin. McCarthy said he slapped Pearson, hard, with his open hand. A third account, offered by a radio broadcaster friendly to McCarthy, said the senator slugged Pearson, a blow so powerful that it lifted Pearson three feet into the air.

“Senator Richard Nixon, who also was a guest at Tinnie Steinman’s party, intervened to break up the encounter.”

In his memoir RN, Nixon quoted McCarthy as saying:

“You shouldn’t have stopped me, Dick.”

McCarthy took to the floor of the Senate not long afterward to assail Pearson in speeches that were unalloyed McCarthyism.

He denounced the columnist as the “diabolically” clever “voice of international communism,” a “prostitute of journalism,” and a “Moscow-directed character assassin.”

McCarthy also aimed a threat at Adam Hat Stores Inc., the principal sponsor of Pearson’s Sunday night radio program on NBC. McCarthy declared that “anyone who buys from a store that stocks an Adams [sic] hat is unknowingly contributing at least something to the cause of international communism by keeping this communist spokesman on the air.”

Adam Hat subsequently said it would not renew its sponsorship of Pearson’s radio show, citing “a planned change in advertising media for 1951.”

Pearson later claimed that losing the Adam Hat sponsorship cut his gross radio income to $100,000 from $250,000. “I suppose no one newspaperman suffered more economically than I did from Joe McCarthy,” he mused.

It’s tempting to suggest that the Post’s commentary would have been more apropos had it replaced Pearson for Murrow in saluting “men and women who defended this country and its values.” But, then, the memory of Drew Pearson projects none of the luster of the legendary Ed Murrow.

Also, it’s worth speculating that a keener risk to Murrow’s career and his reputation came in 1956, when he privately advised Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic presidential candidate, on what Murrow’s biographer, A.M. Sperber, called “the finer points of speaking to the camera.”

Sperber wrote in Murrow: His Life and Times that even though the Republican incumbent, Dwight D. Eisenhower, seemed sure to win to reelection,  Murrow agreed “to help the Democrats.”

The Murrow-Stevenson “connection was kept under wraps,” Sperber noted, adding that the “understanding” between the broadcaster and Stevenson’s advisers was that Murrow “was acting as a private citizen,” that his coaching was to be “kept quiet.”

WJC

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