With all the political venom in the air, we decided to recall what many journalists feel was the high water mark of American television, an event that would sink the political career of a would-be tyrant who played to paranoia and fears of an enemy within.
For Sen. Joseph McCarthy, a Republican from Wisconsin, the opportunity came because of genuine fears of communist infiltration of American institutions. High officials lowly soldiers had indeed supplied Soviet agents with state secrets, including critical information on nuclear weapons during World War II.
But McCarthy, liked Donald Trump and others today, took real fears transformed their objects into immediate threats to everyone, threats requiring radical action and curtailment of previously granted rights.
And to accomplish that agenda, anyone who dared voice opposition to their excesses was subject to naming and shaming, to identifying with that object of fear.
It took one man, Edward R. Murrow, to catalyze the growing doubts and concerns about McCarthy methods.
Murrow was a journalist, and one trusted by millions of Americans for his radio broadcasts from Europe before and during World War II. In those pre-television days, radio journalists had to paint the scene with words, and Murrow’s incisive, matter-of-fact reports brought listeners a compelling sense of what it was like “over there.”
Perhaps his most famous broadcasts were made in the summer and fall of 1940, when he covered the Blitz, the brutal but ultimately failed German aerial warfare on Britain.
All the following videos are from vlogger KD:
Edward R. Murrow from a London rooftop during the Blitz – 22 Sept. 1940
So it was Murrow who had the credibility and the courage to take a stand against man whose resentment-fueling attacks seemed all to familiar to a journalist who had covered the fascist leaders of Europe during the run-up to World War II.
Murrow hosted See It Now, a weekly half-hour program on CBS featuring interviews with the prominent and not-so-prominent.
In those pre-cable, four- and soon three-network days, CBS was considered the Tiffany network, the examplar for what a commercial network ought to be, with news carried as a public service [usually] and a loss leader supported by proceeds from entertainment shows.
And so it was that on 9 March 1954 that Murrow deviated from his usual interview format and produced a landmark in the history of the American electronic media.
See it Now: “A Report on Senator Joseph R. McCarthy”
The response, another full segment produced by McCarthy himself, was a classic example of distorted thought and guilt by [non-existent] association, damning Murrow by implication as a vulture flapping his wings to a tune written by Moscow.
Joseph McCarthy responds to Murrow – full See It Now episode
April 6, 1954, “See It Now” on CBS. This is Senator Joseph McCarthy’s televised response to Edward R. Murrow’s famous See It Now broadcast, which aired a month earlier. Murrow offered McCarthy a chance to respond in the original broadcast. Video located by Noah C. Cline.
Leaving Murrow with the last word:
Edward R. Murrow’s response to Senator McCarthy’s accusations
April 13, 1954. Source and full text.
Finally, from vlogger dabell43, an excerpt from third installment of the landmark 1997 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation series Dawn of the Eye, “Inventing Television News, 1946-1959,” featuring some of Murrow’s colleagues at CBS News, most notably Walter Cronkite, a journalist who was once the “most trusted man in America,” recalling the McCarthy era:
Murrow vs. McCarthy