The “Murrow Moment” has become a fashionable phrase in American journalism, invoked to justify suspending impartiality in reporting on Donald Trump and his often-incendiary, gaffe-prone campaign for president.
Invoking the phrase also allows contemporary reporters to associate themselves with the presumed greatness and courage of Edward R. Murrow, a legendary journalist for CBS News in the 1940s and 1950s. “Murrow Moment” is an allusion to a half-hour television program in 1954 when Murrow took on Joseph R. McCarthy, a menacing, red-baiting U.S. senator from Wisconsin.
“Murrow Moment” has been in circulation for a couple of months, at least since an essay at Huffington Post invoked the phrase. It has picked up intensity in recent weeks, following a commentary published in Columbia Journalism Review under the headline, “For journalists covering Trump, a Murrow moment.”
“After months of holding back,” the commentary declared, “modern-day journalists are acting a lot like Murrow, pushing explicitly against Donald Trump, the … Republican presidential nominee.”
The commentary gave prominent reference to Murrow’s program about McCarthy, stating:
“As Edward R. Murrow wrapped up his now-famous special report condemning Joseph McCarthy in 1954, he looked into the camera and said words that could apply today. ‘He didn’t create this situation of fear—he merely exploited it, and rather successfully,’ Murrow said of McCarthy. Most of Murrow’s argument relied on McCarthy’s own words, but in the end Murrow shed his journalistic detachment to offer a prescription: ‘This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent—or for those who approve,’ he said. ‘We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.'”
In reality, Murrow’s half-hour report on McCarthy in 1954 wasn’t all that extraordinary.
Courageous, it was not.
Murrow’s program was a lacerating attack on McCarthy. But it was no “tipping point,” for reasons that include:
- Murrow took on McCarthy years after other journalists directed pointed and sustained attention to McCarthy’s brutish tactics — and in some instances paid a price for having done so. As I noted in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, McCarthy had no more implacable critic in journalism than Drew Pearson of the syndicated muckraking column, “Washington Merry-Go-Round.” Pearson first challenged McCarthy in February 1950, shortly after the senator began his communists-in-government campaign, and persisted in questioning the substance of McCarthy’s accusations. That was four years before Murrow’s program.
McCarthy became so unnerved by Pearson’s work that he physically assaulted the columnist in December 1950, in the cloakroom of the exclusive Sulgrave Club on DuPont Circle in Washington, D.C. Then-senator Richard M. Nixon broke up the confrontation.
- McCarthy’s favorability rating had hit the skids well before Murrow’s program, which aired March 9, 1954. As I discussed 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 dropped to 40 percent by early January 1954, and to 39 percent in February 1954, when an almost identical number of Americans viewed him unfavorably. By mid-March 1954, the proportion had shifted to 32 percent favorable and 47 percent unfavorable.
- Murrow’s program benefited from coincidental good timing, airing during the week when the senator’s fortunes took a prominent and decisive turn for the worse — for reasons unrelated to Murrow.
“The pivotal moment of the decisive week,” I wrote in Getting It Wrong, was “the disclosure … about the Army’s allegations that McCarthy and his subcommittee’s counsel, Roy Cohn. The Army charged they had exerted pressure in an attempt to gain favored treatment for G. David Schine, Cohn’s friend and assistant who had been drafted into military service.” The Army’s complaint became the subject of televised hearings in spring and summer 1954, which hastened McCarthy’s downfall. His conduct was condemned by the Senate in December 1954.
Interestingly, Murrow in 1954 downplayed the presumptive effects of his program about McCarthy. According to Jay Nelson Tuck, television critic for the then-liberal New York Post, Murrow was “almost a little shame faced at being saluted for his courage in the McCarthy matter.”
Tuck further wrote that Murrow “said he had said nothing that … anyone might not have said without a raised eyebrow only a few years ago.”
Fred Friendly, Murrow’s collaborator and co-producer, also rejected the notion that the program on McCarthy was dispositive to the senator’s decline. 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.”
The “Murrow moment” commentary in Columbia Journalism Review included a reference to Murrow’s having “shed his journalistic detachment” in calling out McCarthy in 1954.
The passage brought to mind an eye-opening discussion in A.M. Sperber’s biography of Murrow, in which she reported that Murrow had privately advised Adlai Stevenson during the 1956 presidential campaign on “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, was sure to win to reelection, Murrow agreed “to help the Democrats.” Sperber described Murrow’s decision as “a radical departure from his usual practice.”
The idea, Sperber wrote, was “to effect a liaison between the broadcaster and the candidate, to discuss the use of TV in the forthcoming campaign.”
She noted that the Murrow-Stevenson “connection was kept under wraps,” that the “understanding” between the broadcaster and Stevenson advisers was that Murrow “was acting as a private citizen” and that the matter was to be “kept quiet.”
So why did Murrow discreetly “shed his journalistic detachment” to advise Stevenson?
“He wouldn’t say,” Sperber wrote, adding that Murrow’s “friends, knowing his detestation of [John] Foster Dulles, were not surprised.” Dulles, a political conservative, was Eisenhower’s secretary of state and Time magazine’s “Man of the Year” in 1954.
Murrow’s coaching of Stevenson came to little, Sperber wrote. They met in a New York studio in June 1956 and Murrow “sweated over the candidate, trying to inculcate the finer points of speaking to the camera. Stevenson barely endured it, chiding campaign manager George Ball about the money this was costing the Democrats.”
Sperber also wrote that Murrow “dictated a few ideas for issue-oriented TV spots” but they were “never put to use.”
Additionally, according to a New Yorker article in 2006, Murrow thought “seriously about running for the Senate from New York as a Democrat” in 1958 and “consulted privately with both [CBS chief executive William] Paley and Harry Truman,” the Democratic former president, before deciding not to seek the office.
More from Media Myth Alert:
- Murrow: No white knight–and not above the political fray
- America ‘was saved by Murrow’? No way
- Suspect Murrow quote pulled at Murrow school
- 60 years on: Joe McCarthy assaults Drew Pearson
- On media myths and hallowed moments of exaggerated importance
- Excess praise for Edward R. Murrow
- 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
- The journos who saved us
- It would be mired in myth: Spielberg considering a ‘Cronkite Moment’ movie?
- Why is he bio-pic worthy? Movie planned about Watergate’s ‘Deep Throat’ source
- Check out The 1995 Blog
- Getting It Wrong goes on Q-and-A