Sunday, March 9, 2014

Standing Up to Joe McCarthy

"If none of us ever read a book that was 'dangerous,' had a friend who was 'different' or joined an organization that advocated 'change,' we would all be just the kind of people Joe McCarthy wants."

Edward R. Murrow
Speech to staff before March 9, 1954 broadcast of See It Now

Most of my life has been devoted to the printed word — supported by a steadfast faith in freedom of the press and freedom of speech.

Even when I disagreed with what was said.

That is what led me into journalism — along with the examples of great journalists like Edward R. Murrow, who was before my time but whose legacy lives on. He wasn't a print journalist, though. He was a pioneer of broadcasting.

I often heard his name mentioned in my journalism classes in college. I had already heard my grandparents speak of listening to his wartime radio broadcasts from London:
"He was on top of the BBC building, a major German target, a place so dangerous that Winston Churchill's personal intervention was required before broadcasts could be permitted. Night after night Murrow went up there and elsewhere to describe the havoc around St. Paul's, the Abbey, Trafalgar Square. Buildings collapsed around him, his CBS office was destroyed three times, yet his measured, authoritative tones continued to bring the war ever closer to American homes. His effectiveness owed much to understatement. There were never any heroics in his newscasts. At the end he would simply sign off with the current London phrase: 'So long — and good luck.' "

William Manchester
"The Glory and the Dream"

He was among the first reporters at the Buchenwald concentration camp in 1945.

After the war, the emphasis was on the emerging technology of television. Murrow had misgivings about television, and some of his concerns have proven to be justified, but he persevered, in his pioneering way, transferring his popular radio program Hear It Now to television, where it became See It Now. On the night that See It Now debuted, Murrow reminded the audience, "This is an old team, trying to learn a new trade."

Sixty years ago tonight, See It Now had learned its new trade well enough to take on Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin"when he was his most powerful," wrote historian William Manchester, "and exposed him as a fraud."

Murrow used clips from McCarthy's speeches to criticize him and point out contradictions.

(I always thought it was interesting that early audiences of "Good Night and Good Luck," the 2005 movie that told the story to a 21st–century audience, thought that the McCarthy sequences were too mean–spirited when, in fact, they were actual clips of McCarthy, not an actor hamming it up.

(Not really funny — because it makes me wonder if we learned anything from that experience. Of course, much of what happens today makes me wonder the same thing. It is interesting, though.)

In hindsight, the program was an important turning point — for broadcast journalism and for McCarthy's influence. Broadcast journalism was on its way up, headed for a rendezvous with destiny in which it would bring all the most important events of the next half century into America's living rooms. McCarthy's influence, ascendant for the previous four years, began to wane.

Initially, McCarthy insisted he hadn't watched the program and attempted to smear it with the same brush: "I never listen to the extreme left–wing, bleeding–heart elements of radio and TV," he said.

But that was a false characterization. Do not confuse the left–wing slant of modern broadcasters with Murrow, who asserted, "We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home." Murrow was anti–communist; he was also an advocate of civil and political liberties and a defender of free speech and freedom of the press.
"We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine and remember that we are not descended from fearful men — not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular. This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy's methods to keep silent or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities. As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age. We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home. The actions of the junior senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn't create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it — and rather successfully. Cassius was right. 'The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.' Good night, and good luck."

Edward R. Murrow
March 9, 1954

I sometimes wonder what Murrow would think of digital journalism. I suspect he would have his misgivings about that, too, just as he had his misgivings about television.

But I also suspect he would have embraced it as he did television, acknowledging as he did so that he was "trying to learn a new trade."

"I have reported what I saw and heard," he simply told his listeners after witnessing the atrocities of Buchenwald.

He could have said the same thing after exposing Joe McCarthy on national TV 60 years ago tonight.

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