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Thursday, June 7, 2018

June 7, 2018: McCarthyism Contexts: Edward R. Murrow

[On June 9th, 1954 laywer Joseph Welch famously asked Senator Joseph McCarthy, “Have you no sense of decency?” So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of contexts for McCarthyism, leading up to a weekend post on that moment and historical turning points!]
On the special report that helped begin McCarthy’s fall, and the response that only hastened it further.
In this piece for the Saturday Evening Post, on the 50th anniversary of Walter Cronkite’s famous February 27th, 1967 special report on the Vietnam War, I argued that Cronkite, along with his contemporary investigative reporter David Halberstam, helped provide models of adversarial journalism that changed the journalistic landscape and have endured into our own moment. But in so doing, CBS Evening News anchor Cronkite was also following in the footsteps of his equally influential predecessor at CBS (both in radio and television), Edward R. Murrow. Murrow had been delivering radio reports for CBS since the late 1930s, and by the early 1950s was one of the nation’s most prominent journalists in multiple media. His longstanding radio program Hear It Now transitioned to television on November 18th, 1951 as See It Now, and at the same time Murrow began contributing both reporting and opinion pieces to the CBS Evening News.
One of Murrow’s most important and influential See It Now pieces aired on March 9th, 1954. Entitled “A Report on Senator Joseph McCarthy,” the half-hour episode used McCarthy’s own statements and speeches to highlight his contradictions and hypocrisies (foreshadowing what media commentary shows like The Daily Show would do half a century later). CBS was extremely wary of running the show, and did not allow Murrow and his longtime producer Fred W. Friendly to use the CBS logo or to take advantage of CBS resources to publicize the episode. So Murrow and Friendly paid themselves to advertise the show in newspaper across the country, clearly believing that they were doing meaningful work that should reach as broad an audience as possible. I would agree, and would emphasize that in the era before either cable news networks or the internet, it’s quite possible (if not very likely) that most Americans had not had the chance to hear the majority of the McCarthy statements and speeches used in the episode. They certainly would not have been able to hear them in close succession, and thus to understand the kinds of deceptions, falsehoods, and half-truths that (as I traced in yesterday’s post) McCarthy had been relying on throughout his life and career.
The episode’s very first statement emphasized that McCarthy would have the chance to respond on a subsequent episode of See It Now if he chose. He did, and joined Murrow for another half-hour episode on April 6th, 1954. Unsurprisingly, given the history of ad hominem and inaccurate personal attacks that I also traced yesterday, McCarthy mostly used his TV time to take on Murrow, calling him a communist sympathizer and then adding, “Ordinarily, I would not take time out from the important work at hand to answer Murrow. However, in this case I feel justified in doing so because Murrow is a symbol, a leader, and the cleverest of the jackal pack which is always found at the throat of anyone who dares to expose individual communists and traitors.” Not only were these accusations entirely unfounded, but they reflected McCarthy’s unwillingness (or, more exactly, inability) to respond to the specific factual charges that the original episode had leveled against him. The audience and nationwide responses to the rebuttal show were just as fully in favor of Murrow and critical of McCarthy as had been those to the original episode, and taken together these two episodes illustrate the possibility for quality adversarial journalism to truly help shift collective conversations and debates.
Last context tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?

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