Murrow’s report about McCarthy’s communists-in-government witchhunt aired March 9, 1954, on the CBS program See It Now. Since then, the show has been hailed as television’s “finest half-hour” and as a moment of exemplary courage in broadcast journalism.
In reality, as I discussed in my media-mythbusting book Getting It Wrong, 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.”
Critical contemporaneous reporting about McCarthy and his tactics included the New York Post’s 17-part exposé in 1951. The Post’s series was raw, aggressive, unflattering, and insulting, and made no bow to even-handedness.
The installments of the series were accompanied by a logo that said “Smear Inc.”
In the days immediately after his See It Now program about McCarthy, Murrow was “almost a little shame faced at being saluted for his courage in the McCarthy matter,” according to Jay Nelson Tuck, television critic for the New York Post.
“He said he had said nothing that … anyone might not have said without a raised eyebrow only a few years ago,” Turk wrote.
So it is imprecise to assert that Murrow took down McCarthy. Indeed, Fred W. Friendly, Murrow’s collaborator and co-producer, rejected the notion that the See It Now program was pivotal in McCarthy’s fall.
Friendly wrote in his memoir, Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control:
“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.”
But none of that figured in the tribute to Murrow that aired yesterday on CBS This Morning Saturday program.
In introducing the segment, co-host Anthony Mason flatly declared that Murrow’s See It Now report about McCarthy was “a turning point in the history of television — and of CBS News.”
How so was left unexplained.
The segment included comments by Douglas Brinkley, an historian and CBS consultant, who invoked a central media myth about the See It Now program, asserting that McCarthy was “a menace on the loose until he met head-on with Edward R. Murrow.” As if Murrow was the only journalist to stand up to McCarthy. Which he wasn’t.
McCarthy had no more implacable or persistent foe in journalism than Drew Pearson, a Washington-based syndicated columnist and radio commentator who began challenging the senator’s claims about communists in government almost as soon as he raised them in February 1950.
Pearson was aggressive in his reporting and in his commentary about McCarthy. On his radio program, Pearson likened the senator’s tactics to the witchcraft trials of the 17th century. Such characterizations angered McCarthy, who often presented himself as little more than an unrefined brute. In December 1950, McCarthy assaulted Pearson in the cloakroom of the upscale Sulgrave Club in Washington.
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.
A few days later, McCarthy took to the Senate floor to denounce Pearson as the “diabolically” clever “voice of international communism,” and as a “prostitute of journalism.”
McCarthy’s denunciation of Pearson came more than three years before Murrow’s television report about the senator.
On the CBS program yesterday, Brinkley offered other sweeping characterizations about Murrow’s report, saying it had “a devastating effect on Joe McCarthy” and that the senator “started crumbling” soon afterward.
“McCarthy ended up just drinking more and more, and dying not that long after the program aired,” Brinkley said.
In fact, McCarthy died more than three years later, in May 1957. By then, McCarthy’s conduct had been formally rebuked by his Senate colleagues and he had fallen decidedly out of the political limelight.
More from Media Myth Alert:
- On media myths and hallowed moments of exaggerated importance
- Excess praise for Edward R. Murrow
- America ‘was saved by Murrow’? No way
- Invoking Murrow-McCarthy myth to assert the worthiness of TV
- Murrow the brave? Not in McCarthy days
- Edward R. Murrow ‘had guts’ in taking on Joe McCarthy? Not really
- Suspect Murrow quote pulled at Murrow school
- 60 years on: Joe McCarthy assaults Drew Pearson
- Embracing media myths — and the ‘golden age’ fallacy
- Feeling like 1995
- Final thoughts on a flawed PBS commentary
- Getting It Wrong goes on Q-and-A