Hidden agendas, Edward R. Murrow, and Joseph McCarthy
Watching the second section of The Power Principle, we had a mentagasm.
That’s a term an old friend, the late Derald Langham, coined for what most of us would call an aha moment.
We like his term, because it perfectly captures the feelings that come at that moment of climax when we feel most fully alive and in the moment, when delightful effort comes together in exuberant insight.
What we discovered was a missing piece of the puzzle in the story of what’s been hailed as one of crowing moments of television journalism, Edward R. Murrow’s devastating interview of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the Wisconsin Republic that Murrow’s fellow CBS News journalist Walter Cronkite thought was about to precipitate a fascist coup [see the second video below].
Our insight came as we watched a segment featuring an interview with Christopher Simpson, Professor at American University’s School of Communication and author two admirable books that adorn our own library shelves, The Splendid Blond Beast: Money, Law & Genocide in the 20th Century and Blowback: America’s Recruitment of Nazis & its Effect on the Cold War.
Simpson note that back in the days when many of the major media firms were still run by their founding barons, many of the nation’s leading opinion-shapers spent time as spooks during the Second World War, including Henry Luce, founder of two of the nation’s leading news magazines [Time and Life] and coiner of the concept of “the American Century,” key editorial staff at Readers Digest, the nation’s largest circulation magazine during the 1950s before TV Guide took the top slot, and William S. Paley founder of CBS, among others.
Hearing Paley’s name gave me the metagasm.
A defining moment in TV news
What’s heralded as one of the great triumphs of early television is television journalist Edward R. Morrow’s devastating 1954 See It Now interview of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, a signal moment in McCarthy’s sudden fall from grace.
McCarthy had ruined many lives, like other before him, including many in television who found themselves blacklisted or worse.
CBS founder Paley tolerated the destruction of what media folk call “talent,” even one of his own executives. So why did he suddenly unleash Murrow to attack McCarthy?
George Clooney portrayed the traditional version in his 2005 film Good Night, and Good Luck, with David Straitharn in the Murrow role.
But Simpson’s information casts the drama in a different light.
Paley was a veteran of the Office of Strategic Services, the country’s first independent intelligence agency and direct forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency. Running the OSS was a Wall Street lawyer who’d won the Medal of Honor while commanding an Army regiment in France in World War I. William “Wild Bill” Donovan was an army man at heart, and Murrow’s show was aired when the war’s top general — a career Army man — was sitting in the White House.
Not only an OSS man, but a veteran of the psychological warfare staff.
One thing Dwight David Eisenhower wouldn’t tolerate was an attack on the Army, and McCarthy had done just that.
Having seen the process repeatedly from a journalist’s perch, it’s obvoious what happened: Word went out, nods were exchanged, hints were dropped, leaks happened, sources talked, and Murrow got a hell of a show.
But it served other agendas, including those of military, which was quite willing to see the lives of authors, actors, directors, civil servants, and others sacrificed, but not those of captains, colonels, and generals.
For some context, here’s an excerpt on Murrow’s broadcasts from Dawn of the Eye, a six-part 1996 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation documentary, in retired CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite says he thought the country was about to undergo a fascist takeover [his words]: