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Murrow, McCarthy and the media

By Michael M. Bates
web posted November 21, 2005

Earlier this month Reporter Newspapers carried a column titled "Where is Edward R. Murrow when you need him?" Written by Donald Kaul, the piece extolled Good Night, and Good Luck, a film described by the columnist as "a stylish recreation of the time, 50 years ago, when the greatest of all broadcasters, Edward R. Murrow, played St. George to Joe McCarthy's dragon and saved the Republic, more or less."

Make that less. Much less.

Edward R. MurrowLiberals never tire of portraying McCarthy as a virulent threat to the American people and their freedoms. He's invariably depicted as an amoral brute who ran a national reign of terror.

We're told he ruthlessly ruined the lives of thousands of innocent people by falsely charging them with being Communists. Time and again he trampled on civil liberties.

Not only that, he cowed his critics into silence. People everywhere were afraid to speak out for fear of being wrongfully indicted by the senator.

According to Kaul, McCarthy found "Communists under every bed and in every government office." He then expands the absurdity by claiming that "more than a few (people) were driven to suicide."

All that simply isn't true. What is true is that Communists and their sympathizers had penetrated our government. If additional evidence of that espionage were needed, the Venona messages supplied it.

What also is true is that, current movies and selective memories notwithstanding, Edward R. Murrow did not almost single handedly vanquish McCarthy.

There was already massive media opposition to the Wisconsin senator. Edwin Bayley's 1981 book, Joe McCarthy and the Press, catalogs newspaper coverage after Joe launched his anti-Communism crusade in February, 1950. Within days, the Washington Post's editorial, "Sewer Politics," charged: "Rarely has a man in public life crawled and squirmed so abjectly." The New York Times condemned "the campaign of indiscriminate character-assassination."

Other newspapers hopped on the bandwagon and ran editorials with headings like "Irresponsible Senator McCarthy," "Utterly Irresponsible," and "Jumping Joe McCarthy." Editorial cartoons incessantly ridiculed Joe and his efforts.

The 1973 book When Even Angels Wept by Lately Thomas points out that the same press that constantly warned of McCarthyite intimidation called the senator a "spiteful and delinquent mental patient," "a primitive form of political obscenity," a "nauseating character assassin," and "our No. 1 Fascist." And this is merely a portion of what the author describes as "a sampling of choice billingsgate."

By the time Murrow produced his "See It Now" attack on McCarthy in 1954, the senator had been extensively pilloried for four long years. Yes, selectively editing thousands of feet of film to place McCarthy in the most unflattering light possible did have an impact.

It's grossly inaccurate, though, to claim Murrow slayed the McCarthyism dragon, if that's what you consider it. Renowned broadcaster Eric Sevareid said the Murrow assault "came very late in the day. 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."

Even Murrow admitted to less than a significant role in destroying Joe. As quoted in Bayley's book, the newsman told New York Times columnist Jack Gould:

"My God, I didn't do anything. (Times columnist) Scotty Reston and lot of guys have been writing like this, saying the same things, for months, for years. We're bringing up the rear."

Murrow didn't save the Republic. For one thing, it didn't need saving, at least not from Joe McCarthy. For another, the broadcaster clearly was more of a bit player than the lead in the senator's ruin.

But when did liberals ever let facts get in the way of what they view as a good story? That's why we're still waiting for the names of the many innocent people whose lives were destroyed by McCarthy's smears. And now, the names of the more than a few who were driven to suicide.

Mike Bates is the author of Right Angles and Other Obstinate Truths. This essay appeared in the November 17, 2005 Oak Lawn (IL) Reporter.

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