What Would Ed Do?

Mar 4, 2020

Dan Shelley, executive director of the Radio Television Digital News Association – RTDNA – the world’s largest professional association devoted exclusively to excellence in broadcast and digital journalism.

This is Dan Shelley, executive director of the Radio Television Digital News Association – RTDNA – the world’s largest professional association devoted exclusively to excellence in broadcast and digital journalism.

A while back, prompted by today’s fired up ideological rhetoric, I wrote a column called “What Would Ed Do?” Here it is.

Of all the commentariat-class chatter about scandals in the Trump administration, and the resulting natural comparisons to Watergate more than 40 years ago, one emerging rhetorical question is really intriguing to me.

Would Richard Nixon have survived if there had been a Fox News Channel then?

By definition, rhetorical questions don’t compel answers. The fact is we’ll never know, because there wasn’t anything like Fox News Channel’s opinion hosts in the 1970s.

Still, it obliges this media and political junkie to make a different historical comparison, to the early 1950s, when Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisconsin) demagogued his way to prominence by using the senate committee he chaired to conduct a witch hunt that falsely accused dozens of patriotic Americans of being Communists.

McCarthy’s reign of terror went on unabated until March 9, 1954, when CBS News aired an installment of its weekly “See it Now” broadcast in which Murrow eviscerated “the junior senator from Wisconsin” by using solid capital-J journalism to expose his hypocrisies. That proved to be the beginning of the end for McCarthy.

Which begs another rhetorical question:

Would demagogues be able to thrive if Edward R. Murrow were around today?

It’s a question that’s also impossible to answer. Murrow died in 1965, long before 24-hour cable channels, the proliferation of talk radio, the internet and social media.

But what the heck. Let’s use Murrow’s journalistic takedown of McCarthy to muse about how he might have treated today’s corrosive political and ideological environment.

To do so you have to understand how frightened people in the government, the entertainment industry and the news media were when the landmark “See it Now” broadcast aired on that Tuesday night 66 years ago. If you became a target of McCarthy’s ire and got “listed,” the vernacular of the day for being named a Communist, your career was over; your freedom, health and even your life were imperiled.

You can get a really good sense of the palpable terror of those times by watching George Clooney’s 2005 film “Good Night, and Good Luck,” in which our association was prominently featured. By the way, Murrow himself was a member of RTDNA.

Murrow’s actual McCarthy exposé used film and audio clips featuring McCarthy himself, and employed responsible journalism, a/k/a facts, to point out the contradictions and half-truths the senator had uttered. The onus was then on viewers to reach their own conclusions.

Every single day all across America, responsible journalists are still working hard to hold the powerful accountable, to report stories that become catalysts for positive change, and to strive to live up to Murrow’s exalted standards, which he once described this way:

“To be persuasive we must be believable. To be believable, we must be credible. To be credible, we must be truthful.”

Thanks. I’m Dan Shelley, executive director of the Radio Television Digital News Association. To find out more about us, visit our website at www.rtdna.org