W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘1954’

The journos who saved us

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 5, 2011 at 12:49 pm

Murrow: Savior?

At their extreme, media-driven myths are hero-worshipping devices, invoked to venerate journalists as saviors.

Thankfully, such treatment is rare, and typically reserved for such journalists the legendary CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow and the Watergate reporting duo, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

Brian Unger, host of a history program on cable television, indulged in a bit of journalists-idolatry in compiling for an Entertainment Weekly blog a list of a dozen heroic figures from TV shows and the movies.

On the list was Ed Murrow, whom Unger praised for “saving us from someone who pretended to be a great American patriot, Sen. Joseph McCarthy.”

Also selected were Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, the movie stars who played Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein in the film All the President’s Men. “Armed only with a pen,” Unger wrote, “they saved the country from itself.”

Journalists as saviors: Like most media-driven myths, the notion is simply too good to be true, too simplistic to be credible.

Murrow hardly took down Joe McCarthy in Murrow’s famous See It Now program on CBS in March 1954.

The show was aired four years after McCarthy began his communists-in-government witch-hunt, and four years after muckraking columnist Drew Pearson piercingly challenged and punctured many of McCarthy’s claims.

Pearson

The television critic for the New York Post, Jay Nelson Tuck, wrote that Murrow in the days after the show 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.”

Years later, Murrow’s CBS colleague, Eric Severaid, chafed at the misleading interpretation attached to the See It Now program on McCarthy which, he noted, “came very late in the day.”

Sevareid said: “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.”

As I write in my media myth-busting book, Getting It Wrong, Americans in early 1954 weren’t “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.”

By then they knew, thanks to the work of journalists such as Pearson.

Murrow no more ended McCarthy’s witch-hunt than Woodward and Bernstein brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in Watergate — and, as Unger wrote, “saved the country from itself.”

Whatever that means.

It is clear that Woodward and Bernstein’s contributions to unraveling the Watergate scandal of 1972-74 were modest, and pale in significance when compared to the work of such subpoena-wielding entities as special prosecutors, both houses of Congress, the Justice Department, the FBI.

“Even then,” I write in Getting It Wrong, Nixon “likely would have served out his term if not for the audiotape recordings he secretly made of most conversations in the Oval Office of the White House. Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting” to obstruct justice in the Watergate scandal.

Interestingly, principals at the Washington Post over the years have scoffed at the mythical and mediacentric interpretation that the newspaper brought down Nixon.

In 2005, for example, Michael Getler, then the newspaper’s ombudsman, wrote in a column:

“Ultimately, it was not The Post, but the FBI, a Congress acting in bipartisan fashion and the courts that brought down the Nixon administration. They saw Watergate and the attempt to cover it up as a vast abuse of power and attempted corruption of U.S. institutions.”

Woodward, himself, declared in 2004, in an interview with American Journalism Review:

To say the press brought down Nixon, that’s horseshit.”

But undoubtedly it’s the film All the President’s Men that’s largely responsible for the heroic-journalist trope that Woodward and Bernstein took down Nixon and saved the country.

All the President’s Men easily is the most-viewed movie made about Watergate. And as I note in Getting It Wrong, it places “Woodward and Bernstein at the center of Watergate’s unraveling while denigrating the efforts of investigative agencies such as the FBI.

“The effect was to solidify and elevate the heroic-journalist myth, giving it dramatic power, and sustaining it in the collective memory.”

WJC

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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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When we err, we correct: Still waiting, Bill Keller

In Debunking, Media myths, New York Times on March 27, 2011 at 7:06 am

Keller

Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, offers a smug and  sanctimonious commentary today, asserting that the newspaper strives “to be impartial” and corrects its errors “as quickly and forthrightly as possible.”

Whether the Times is impartial open to serious debate. What interests Media Myth Alert is Keller’s claim that the Times strives for promptness in correcting errors — even to the point of seeming a bit absurd in doing so.

Keller wrote that “when we get it wrong, we correct ourselves as quickly and forthrightly as possible. Connoisseurs of penitence find The Times a bottomless source of amusement. (An actual correction: ‘An article in The Times Magazine last Sunday about Ivana Trump and her spending habits misstated the number of bras she buys. It is two dozen black, two dozen beige and two dozen white, not two thousand of each.’)”

But the policy of publishing a prompt and forthright correction certainly hasn’t been followed in the matter of a correction the Times flubbed two months ago — a lapse that I brought to the attention of the newspaper and its public editor, or ombudsman.

Granted, correcting a correction can be complicated and muddy.

But still: If the policy is to “correct ourselves as quickly and forthrightly as possible,” then there’s no reason for the newspaper not to have addressed by now a correction that it so clearly flubbed.

Joseph Welch

The correction in question was published January 23, 2011; in it, the Times sought to set straight its mistake in a “Week in Review” article of the week before, which referred to the dramatic exchange at during a Senate hearing in 1954, in which the lawyer Joseph N. Welch skewered Senator Joseph McCarthy and his communists-in-government witch-hunt by declaring:

“Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

The Times sought to set straight the context and circumstances of Welch’s memorable remarks, which came during the so-called Army-McCarthy hearings. The Times stated in its correction:

“Senator McCarthy was serving on the committee investigating suspected Communist infiltration of the Army; he was not at the hearings to testify.”

Which was incorrect on two counts, as I pointed out.

McCarthy wasn’t serving on that Senate panel (which in fact was a subcommittee — a temporary subcommittee of the Senate permanent subcommittee on investigations). And McCarthy was at the hearing to testify.

As I wrote in calling attention to the flubbed correction:

“Had the Times consulted its back issues, it would have found that not long after Welch’s pointed questions about McCarthy’s ‘sense of decency,’ the senator was sworn in as a witness.”

According to hearing excerpts the Times published at the time, McCarthy said upon being sworn in:

“Well, I’ve got a good hog-calling voice, Mr. Chairman. I think I can speak loudly enough so that the mikes will pick it up.”

To date, the Times has not corrected its flubbed correction.

So why does it matter? After all, 1954 was a long time ago.

It matters because the Army-McCarthy hearings were an important moment in Cold War America. A newspaper as important — and self-important — as the Times should be expected to get straight the details about a memorable and dramatic occasion.

It also matters because of Keller’s smug assurance that the Times corrects its errors “as quickly and forthrightly as possible.”

Surely, if the Times deigns it important to set the record straight about Ivana Trump’s bras, it ought to fix its flawed correction about the Army-McCarthy hearings.

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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57 years on: Was it really TV’s ‘finest half hour’?

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth on March 9, 2011 at 12:07 am

Murrow

Today’s the 57th anniversary of what has been called the “finest half hour” in television history — when Edward R. Murrow took to the small screen to confront Joseph R. McCarthy and the senator’s red-baiting ways.

Murrow’s on-air analysis of McCarthy and his tactics was so powerful, so revealing, that it marked an abrupt end to the senator’s witch-hunt for communists in government.

Or so the media myth has it.

The occasion was Murrow’s 30-minute See It Now program that aired on CBS on March 9, 1954.

As I write in my mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the program supposedly affirmed the potential power of television and confirmed the courage of Murrow.

I also write:

“The never-ending accolades notwithstanding, the evidence is overwhelming that Murrow’s famous program on McCarthy had no such 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.”

Indeed, the legendary status accorded the Murrow program has effectively “obscured and diminished the contributions of journalists who took on McCarthy years earlier, at a time when doing so was quite risky,” I point out in Getting It Wrong.

These journalists deserve more credit than Murrow for courage in confronting the McCarthy menace when it was most virulent.

One of them was James A. Wechsler, editor of the New York Post, which in 1951 published a bare-knuckle, 17-part series about McCarthy.

The closing installment characterized McCarthy as “a drunk at a party who was funny half an hour ago but now won’t go home. McCarthy is camped in America’s front room trying to impress everybody by singing all the dirty songs and using all the four-letter words he knows. The jokes are pointless, the songs unfunny, the profanity a bore.”

The series appeared in the Post 2½ years before Murrow’s program on McCarthy.

Wechsler was called before McCarthy’s investigative subcommittee and grilled about having been a member before in the Communist Youth League.

Wechsler said his being summoned to the closed-door hearing was “a reprisal against a newspaper and its editor for their opposition to the methods of this committee’s chairman.”

He sparred effectively with McCarthy, telling the senator at one point that the New York Post “is as bitterly opposed to Joe Stalin as it is to Joe McCarthy, and we believe that a free society can combat both.”

But in the end, Wechsler complied, reluctantly, with the subcommittee’s demand for names of people he had known to be communists during his time in the Youth League.

During McCarthy’s communists-in-government campaign, which lasted from 1950 to 1954, the senator had no more relentless or scathing foe in the news media than muckraking columnist Drew Pearson.

He wrote the widely published “Washington Merry-Go-Round” column — and was quick off the dime, taking on McCarthy soon after the senator first raised his reckless claims about communists in high places in the U.S. government and military.

Pearson wrote in February 1950, in one of his first columns about McCarthy’s charges, that “the alleged communists which he claims are sheltered in the State Department just aren’t.”

Pearson noted that he had covered the State Department for years and had been “the career boys’ severest critic.

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

And he was.

Pearson’s frequent challenges angered McCarthy who in December 1950, physically assaulted the columnist after a dinner at the hush-hush Sulgrave Club on DuPont Circle in Washington, D.C.

McCarthy confronted Pearson in the Sulgrave’s coat check room and either slapped, kneed, or punched the columnist. Accounts vary.

Richard Nixon, who recently had been sworn in as a U.S. Senator, intervened to break up the encounter. In his memoir RN, Nixon wrote that Pearson “grabbed his coat and ran from the room” and “McCarthy said, ‘You shouldn’t have stopped me, Dick.’”

So by the time Murrow took on McCarthy 57 years ago tonight, Americans really weren’t “waiting for a white knight like Murrow to tell them about the toxic threat the senator posed,” I write in Getting It Wrong, adding:

“By then, McCarthy and his tactics were well-known and he had become a target of withering ridicule — a sign of diminished capacity to inspire dread. On the day the See It Now program aired, former president Harry Truman reacted to reports of an anonymous threat against McCarthy’s life by saying:

“‘We’d have no entertainment at all if they killed him.’”

The notion that Murrow and his television program brought down McCarthy is a delicious story of presumptive media power:  More accurately, it is a tenacious media-driven myth.

WJC

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Suspect Murrow quote pulled at Murrow school

In Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth on February 17, 2011 at 7:37 am

Did he say it?

I’ve written occasionally at Media Myth Alert about a suspect quotation attributed to broadcasting legend Edward R. Murrow.

Here’s the quotation:

“We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it.”

The quotation is half true. That is, the first part was indeed spoken by Murrow; the other part is just too good to be true.

I happened to find the full quotation posted at the welcome page of the dean of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University.

By email, I asked the dean, Lawrence Pintak, what he could tell me about the quote’s provenance.

I noted in my email that the first portion  of the passage – “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty” – was spoken by Murrow near the end of his 1954 See It Now program about the witch-hunting ways of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy.

“But the rest of quotation – ‘When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it’ – was not spoken during that program,” I noted in my email. I added that “I’ve not been able to determine where and when it was spoken or written.”

I further noted that I had consulted a database of historical newspapers — a full-text repository that includes the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and Los Angeles Times — but no articles quoting the “loyal opposition” passage were returned.

I also mentioned in my email that a search of the LexisNexis database “produced a few returns, but none dated before 2001.” None of them state where and when Murrow made the purported comment.

Pintak, who became the first dean of the Murrow College in 2009, stated in reply that the online site had been constructed before his arrival at Washington State. He added:

“My suspicion is that the site was built by the university marketing comm. people and they may well have just pulled it from the web, rather than original source. If it’s not correct, we certainly need to get it pulled.”

He referred my inquiry to an instructor on his faculty, Paul Mark Wadleigh, whom he asked to investigate.

A few hours later, Wadleigh sent an email to the dean and me, stating:

“While it seems to reflect the Murrow spirit, the lack of evidence that he phrased it that way is indeed suspicious.”

Wadleigh also wrote that the transcript of Murrow’s closing comments in the 1954 show about McCarthy “reveals a different language and tone than the ‘loyal opposition’ quote.”

Good point.

His bottom line?

“I feel the evidence says no, Murrow did not say this,” Wadleigh wrote.

By the end of the day, the suspect quote had been pulled from the dean’s welcome page. Just the authentic portion — “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty” — remains posted there.

The College’s move to pull the quote not only was commendable; it stands as further evidence that the “loyal opposition” line attributed to Murrow is dubious. It may have been made up well after Murrow’s death in 1965, perhaps to score points politically.

I’ve noted that if it were genuine, if Murrow had uttered the line, then its derivation shouldn’t be too difficult to determine.

Moreover, the quotation seems too neat and tidy to be authentic — which can be a marker of a media-driven myth.

As I write in my mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong:

“To thwart media myths, journalists can start by applying a measure of skepticism to pithy, telling quotes such as [William Randolph] Hearst’s vow to ‘furnish the war‘ and even to euphonic phrases such as ‘bra burning.’

“Turns of phrase that sound too neat and tidy,” I write, “often are too perfect to be true.”

WJC

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America ‘was saved by Murrow’? No way

In Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth on February 5, 2011 at 10:14 am

He 'saved' America?

Edward R. Murrow’s legendary television report in 1954 about Senator Joseph R. McCarthy has stirred no small praise over the years.

The accolades for Murrow’s unflattering portrait of the senator and his communists-in-goverment witch-hunt have been many and often excessive.

Murrow’s show often is praised for putting an end to McCarthy’s blustering and erratic campaign that he had begun in 1950. But few bows to Murrow have been as deep as this characterization, which appeared yesterday in the Jerusalem Post:

“America under Joseph McCarthy’s influence was in danger of losing its right of dissent until it was saved by courageous men like Edward R. Murrow and Joseph Welch with his famous accusation, ‘Have you no shame?’” (Welch was a lawyer who famously confronted McCarthy at Senate hearing in June 1954.)

But what a minute: America “was in danger of losing its right of dissent” in 1954? How so?

And America was “saved by courageous men” like Murrow and Welch? “Saved“? Again, how so?

The article doesn’t say. So let’s examine, and debunk, both over-the-top assertions.

Simply put, America was in no danger in 1954 “of losing its right of dissent.” Notably, Americans had registered opposition to McCarthy and his hardball tactics well before Murrow’s program, which aired March 9, 1954.

McCarthy: Americans disapproved

A Gallup Poll published in mid-January 1954 reported that 47 percent of Americans disapproved of the methods McCarthy used in pressing his anti-communist campaign. Thirty-eight percent said they approved of the senator’s methods, and 15 percent said they had no opinion.

Disapproval rates were highest among what Gallup called the “professional and business” and “white-collar” occupations. A small plurality of “manual workers,” Gallup said, approved of McCarthy’s methods.

So Americans in early 1954 were well aware of McCarthy’s aggressive, often-bullying ways, and largely found them disagreeable. They didn’t need Murrow or Welch to demonstrate McCarthy’s offensiveness.

They knew.

Gallup also reported that objections to McCarthy’s tactics were many. Most frequently mentioned by Americans, Gallup said, was that “the senator is overly harsh in his methods, that ‘he goes too far,’ that ‘he is too rough,’ and ‘uses methods like the Gestapo.’”

Additionally, Gallup said, many Americans complained that “McCarthy ‘never has proof of what he claims’ in his investigations. ‘He should find out if they are Communists before exposing them to the public’ was the type of sentiment offered by many persons.”

So in their reactions to McCarthy, Americans were hardly cowed, hardly inclined to silence about the senator and his witch-hunting ways.

And as for the claim America was “saved” by the courage of Murrow and Welch?

As I write in my mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, which came out last summer, “the evidence is overwhelming that Murrow’s famous program on McCarthy had no such 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.”

Among those journalists was the Washington-based syndicated columnist Drew Pearson, who took to challenging — and even ridiculing — McCarthy soon after the senator launched his communists-in-government witch-hunt in 1950, years before the Murrow program.

Indeed, I write, “McCarthy had no more relentless, implacable, or scathing foe in the news media than Drew Pearson, the lead writer of the syndicated muckraking column, ‘Washington Merry-Go-Round.’”

I also write in Getting It Wrong that Murrow was loath to claim much significance for his televised report about McCarthy, saying he “recognized his accomplishments were modest, that at best he had reinforced what others had long said about McCarthy.”

I note, for example, that Jay Nelson Tuck, then 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.”

Indeed.

Murrow’s collaborator and co-producer, Fred W. Friendly, also rejected claims the 1954 program on McCarthy was pivotal or decisive. 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.”

Welch: 'No decency?'

As for Joseph Welch: He memorably upbraided McCarthy during a televised Senate hearing June  9, 1954, declaring:

“Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

Welch was counsel for the U.S. Army in the Senate’s Army-McCarthy hearings, which considered allegations that McCarthy and his top aide, Roy Cohn, sought favored treatment for a staff member who had been drafted into military service.

The New York Times reported that Welch’s rebuke of McCarthy was greeted by a burst of applause in the Senate gallery and that Welch the next day had reported having received 1,400 telegrams, most of them supportive.

However, a database review of coverage by the Times and four other leading U.S. newspapers indicates that the Welch-McCarthy encounter was, at the time, essentially a one-day story, to which lasting importance only later became attached.

WJC

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