Sixty years ago today, the CBS News program “See It Now,” hosted by Edward R. Murrow, devoted its 30 minutes of air time to Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin.
I’ve been reading A. M. Sperber’s biography of Murrow, in particular the chapters on Murrow’s life during the McCarthy years. It’s shameful to even refer to a period of American history as dominated by a vicious liar and bully who inflicted such damage on our democracy, but the fact remains Joseph McCarthy was a great evil. However, he was home-grown evil, which America allowed to flourish, and even encouraged. As Murrow himself puts it in his closing commentary to this broadcast, McCarthy did not create red-baiting, he merely exploited it, and the country let him get away with it.
McCarthy dominated American politics and political thought for the better part of a decade, damaging or destroying the lives of many Americans, including some of our best thinkers, public servants, and artists. His career was launched with a Lincoln Day speech in Wheeling, West Virginia in 1950, where he famously claimed to hold in his hand a list of 20 That was, in one view a piece of theater, but it was also a lie.
Nearly 60 years after his demise, after a long spell of alcoholism, McCarthy continues to cast a dark shadow across our nation. Look no further than the media coverage of the CPAC meeting. Figures like Richard Nixon, Barry Goldwater, and Ronald Reagan rode McCarthy’s ideological coattails to fame and power. Countless figures in civil rights, the peace movement, environmentalism, the union movement, and beyond, from Martin Luther King to Rachel Carson on up to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, have been called socialists and communists in an effort to destroy them politically. With the demise of the Fairness Doctrine under President Reagan – a rabid anti-communist who sold out his union sisters and brothers during a struggle among unions in the movie industry in the 1950s in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee – broadcasters were no longer required to air multiple points of view, giving rise to talk radio’s being dominated by the far Right.
Murrow, criticized in some quarters for waiting too long to take on McCarthy, agonized over the program, but he was determined to go ahead. He used McCarthy’s own words to expose the Senator, and when McCarthy demanded – and got – equal time on CBS’ air, he made the situation worse for himself, merely confirming the image “See It Now” had presented.
Murrow paid a dear price for this broadcast. His position at CBS became slowly less tenable, and the program, “See It Now,” was eventually cancelled. Murrow’s high standards have largely vanished from journalism, particularly broadcast journalism, and we are the poorer for it. But he did democracy a great service, and for that we should be grateful.