Television and McCarthy

Mar 2, 2020

"Have you no decency, sir?" (said in the Welch-McCarthy hearings in 1954).
Credit Wikimedia Commons

I’m PJ Pronger with the Radio Readers Book Club. So tell me if this sounds familiar: “We must remember always that accusation is not proof, and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law.”

That quotation wasn’t something from today’s headlines, it was Edward R. Murrow describing the activities of Senator Joe McCarthy in 1954, and it comes from our current book selection, Edward R Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism by Bob Edwards.

Murrow returned from a successful radio career in Europe to launch a new career in television when he was approached to host a new weekly tv program. Along with his CBS associate, Fred Friendly, Murrow had been producing a popular radio show called, “Hear It Now”. The proposed new television show was to be called “See It Now”. Joe Wershba, a reporter who worked closely with Murrow, later said,

“Neither (Murrow nor Friendly) knew anything about film making or television. All they knew was they wanted to do stories. Important stories.” Television was in its infancy and Murrow and Friendly had to learn the process of filmmaking and using television equipment on the job.

For his programming content, Murrow’s love of common America led him to seek out stories of ordinary people. He presented their stories in such a way that they often became powerful commentaries on political or social issues. “See It Now” consistently broke new ground in the growing field of television journalism and was a forerunning to programs like “60 Minutes”. In 1953, Murrow made the decision to investigate the case of Milo Radulovich. Radulovich had been discharged from the Air Force on the grounds that his mother and sister were communist sympathizers. The program outlined the elements of the case, casting doubt on the Air Force’s decision, and shortly after the program aired, Radulovich was reinstated. This one episode of See It Now marked a change in American journalism and in American politics.

Soon after that program aired, Senator Joseph McCarthy began preparing an attack on Murrow. As it happened, Murrow himself had been collecting material about McCarthy and his Senate Investigating Committee, and he began assembling a new program. Murrow relished the opportunity to report on controversial topics, and he despised the hysteria and paranoia that accompanied the hunt for communists. Broadcast on March 9, 1954, the program, composed almost entirely of McCarthy’s own words and pictures, was a damning portrait of a fanatic. Murrow presented the senator in his own words and exposed McCarthy contradicting himself, boasting of his power, and bullying witnesses in congressional hearings.

McCarthy was given the opportunity to respond, but his rebuttal only served to seal his own fate. The combination of the program’s timing and its persuasive power broke the Senator’s hold over the nation, and is considered by many to be one of the greatest journalistic take-downs every recorded. The character of the reporter played a large part in forming the public’s opinion of McCarthy. Had it been presented by any other journalist, it might have been dismissed as a partisan attack. But Murrow’s reputation for integrity carried the day. Americans admired his just-the-facts, no-hype style of reporting and his careful separation of opinion from facts.

When he decided to leave television, Murrow accepted an appointment from President Kennedy as the head of the United States Information Agency, a job he only had for three years before being diagnosed with lung cancer. In 1964 Murrow was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and in 1965 he died on his farm in New York. Perhaps more than any reporter before or since, Murrow captured the trust and belief of a nation and returned that trust with honesty and courage. His belief in journalism as an active part of the political process and a necessary tool within democracy altered both the politics and the everyday life of the American people.