What would Murrow do?

February 12, 2018 11:00

Of all the commentariat-class chatter about special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of alleged ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, and the resulting natural comparisons to Watergate more than 40 years ago, one rhetorical question that has surfaced is really intriguing to me.
Would Richard Nixon have survived if there had been a Fox News Channel back then?
By definition, rhetorical questions don’t compel answers. But that hasn’t stopped the punditocracy from opining either yes or no, depending on the repliers’ ideological bents. The fact is we’ll never know, because there wasn’t a right-wing media behemoth with the influence of Fox News Channel’s opinion show hosts (as distinguished from the hard-working responsible journalists at Fox News who provide traditional fact-based reporting) in the 1970s.
One thing we do know, however, is that because of the Mueller investigation and other factors, we now live in a new golden age of demagoguery. It spans the political spectrum, to be sure. On one end of that continuum, we hear progressives scream about a looming “constitutional crisis” and issue screeds denouncing a “post-truth era.” On the other end, we see a president and many of his supporters routinely denouncing journalists as the “enemy of the American people” who are purveyors of “fake news.”
It all obliges this media and political junkie to make a different historical comparison, to the McCarthy era of the 1950s, in which Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisconsin) demagoged his way to tremendous prominence and influence by using the senate committee he chaired to conduct a witch hunt that falsely accused dozens of patriotic Americans of being Communists, ruining the careers and even the lives of many who found themselves in his crosshairs.
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 Edward R. 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. After all, Murrow died in 1965, long before 24-hour cable channels, the proliferation of talk radio, the internet and social media, all of which make it easy for some members of the public to engage in a serious problem I recently wrote about, the conflation of opinion media with responsible journalism.
But what the heck. Let’s use Murrow’s journalistic takedown of McCarthy to muse about how he might have treated today’s caustic, divisive political and ideological environment.
To do so you have to understand how frightened and intimidated people in the government, the entertainment industry and even the news media were when the landmark “See it Now” broadcast aired on that Tuesday night nearly 64 years ago. If you became a target of McCarthy’s ire and got “listed,” the vernacular of the day for being named a Communist or Communist sympathizer, 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, then known as RTNDA, was prominently featured. In fact, we helped Clooney, who directed the film and co-wrote the screenplay, research Murrow and provided props for the film. Former RTNDA elected president Sig Mickelson is a central character (played by Jeff Daniels). In the film, Clooney played Murrow’s producer, Fred Friendly.
Murrow himself was a member of our association:
You can also draw an accurate inference by reading a 1979 New York Times piece written by someone who was on the inside at CBS News in 1954, Joseph Wershba (played by Robert Downey, Jr., in “Good Night, and Good Luck”). He wrote to mark the 25th anniversary of the broadcast, which he played an important role in producing.
Armed with that context and perspective, when you watch the entire March 9, 1954, edition of “See it Now,” you can almost experience the profound tension that was present in the studio that night. (Or read a full transcript here.) And you can feel the power of Murrow’s final words on that broadcast.
No one familiar with the history of this country can deny that congressional committees are useful. It is necessary to investigate before legislating. But the line between investigation and persecuting is a very fine one, and the junior Senator from Wisconsin has stepped over it repeatedly. His primary achievement has been in confusing the public mind as between the internal and the external threat of Communism. 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.”
Nearly a month later, on April 6, 1954, at the invitation of CBS News McCarthy received “equal time” on the air to respond to Murrow’s report. He said, in part,
Murrow is the symbol, the leader, and the cleverest of the jackal pack which is always found at the throat of anyone who dares to expose individual Communists and traitors. … Mr. Murrow said on this program, and I quote – he said, “The actions of the junior senator from Wisconsin have given considerable comfort to the enemy.” That is the language of our statute of treason, rather strong language. If I am giving comfort to our enemies, I ought not to be in the senate. If, on the other hand, Mr. Murrow is giving comfort to our enemies, he ought not to be brought into the homes of millions of Americans by the Columbia Broadcasting System. This is a question which can be resolved with very little difficulty. What do the Communists think of me and what do the Communists think of Mr. Murrow? One of us is on the side of the Communists. The other is against the Communists.
One week later, on April 13, 1954, Murrow rebutted McCarthy’s accusations.
His proposition is very simple: Anyone who criticizes or opposes McCarthy’s methods must be a Communist, and if that be true, there are an awful lot of Communists in this country. … I have worked for CBS for more than 19 years. The company has subscribed fully to my integrity and responsibility as a broadcaster – and as a loyal American. I require no lectures from the junior senator from Wisconsin as to the dangers or terrors of Communism. … Having searched my conscience and my files, I cannot contend that I have always been right or wise, but I have attempted to pursue the truth with some diligence and to report it even though, as in this case, I had been warned in advance that I would be subjected to the attentions of Senator McCarthy. We shall hope to deal with matters of more vital interest to the country next week. Good night, and good luck.
Do any of Senator McCarthy’s pronouncements from more than six decades ago ring familiar today? Do any of Murrow’s?
Instead of calling Murrow an “enemy of the American people,” McCarthy called him “the cleverest of the jackal pack” and implied not very obliquely that he was a Communist. But the message, and the intent, were the same.
Murrow’s McCarthy exposé used film and audio clips featuring McCarthy himself, and then used responsible journalism, a/k/a facts, to point out the contradictions and half-truths the senator had uttered. He then put the onus on his viewers to examine the facts and reach their own conclusions, consistent with a statement he made on another occasion, under a wholly different set of circumstances, “A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves.”
To be absolutely clear, my intention here is not to draw any equivalency between Senator McCarthy and President Trump. Rather, it is to wonder whether – or even if – having Edward R. Murrow around would have an impact on resolving the near complete breakdown of civil public discourse through which we suffer today.
The question, as Donald Rumsfeld would say, is a “known unknown;” that is, it is something we don’t know and we know we don’t know it. The exercise is perhaps nothing but folly.
But a Rumsfeldian “known known” is that every single day, in Washington, D.C., and every other city in America, there are responsible journalists working hard to hold the powerful accountable, to serve the public by reporting stories that often serve as catalysts for positive change, and who strive to live up to the exalted Murrow’s standards:
“To be persuasive we must be believable. To be believable, we must be credible. To be credible, we must be truthful.”

The Radio Television Digital News Association has been honoring outstanding achievements in broadcast and digital journalism with the Edward R. Murrow Awards since 1971.  Murrow’s pursuit of excellence in journalism embodies the spirit of the awards that carry his name. Murrow Award recipients demonstrate the excellence that Edward R. Murrow made a standard for the broadcast news profession.