On my recent trip to New York City, I visited The Paley Broadcasting Center for Media. As a journalism major, I was hoping to view the history of CBS news and some of the iconic journalists such as Edward R. Morrow, Mike Wallace, Walter Cronkite, and others that built the network. The Paley Center is not a museum as I hoped, but a research center. I was still able to find what I was looking for.
Created by Edward R. Murrow and producer Fred R. Friendly, See It Now was the first news magazine ever broadcast, a predecessor to 60 Minutes and others. I was searching for the March 9, 1954 episode in which Murrow exposed the Senator Joseph R. McCarthy as the architect of communist red-baiting. As chair of the Government Operations Committee and its Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the U.S. Senate, claiming to root out communism, McCarthy destroyed the lives of over two hundred government officials he accused of having ties to the Communist party.
Government workers took loyalty oaths. Journalists and politicians were terrified to attack McCarthy, fearing he would destroy them as well. Titled, “A Report On Senator Joseph R. McCarthy,” See It Now employed numerous audiotapes and newsreels to refute the outrageous half-truths and misstatements of the junior senator from Wisconsin. Early in the segment, Murrow sorts through two piles of newspapers, divided into pro and anti-McCarthy. In the news clips and audio, McCarthy can be heard and seen blasting the “liberal media” for its unfair portrayal of him.
If these events sound frighteningly familiar, they should. The country was bitterly divided, as it is now. Like McCarthy manipulating facts replaced with information that were often completely false, we have an administration castigating mainstream news outlets for producing “fake news” whenever it is portrayed in an unflattering light, while demanding loyalty and threatening dire consequences for those who don’t comply. Disagreement, as Morrow noted, is not the same as disloyalty.
In his closing, Murrow said, “But the line between persecuting and investigating is a fine one, and the junior senator from Wisconsin has stepped over it repeatedly . . . Accusation is not proof and conviction depends on evidence and due process of law.” He was right.
Murrow’s See It Now video can be found on YouTube, as well as Senator McCarthy’s response. There is also a documentary with Murrow’s CBS colleagues discussing the fear that was censoring freedom of the press and the risks Murrow took to protect both co-workers the First Amendment. Murrow opened American’s eyes to the militant anti-communist crusader McCarthy had become, and it would be the beginning of the end. In April 1954 came the televised Army/McCarthy Congressional hearings, where McCarthy turned his aggressive tactics to investigations of Army security. In the end, McCarthy’s fanaticism, unethical tactics, and mental unstability were his downfall.
In that See It Now broadcast, Murrow also observed, “We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape the responsibility for the result.” If we buy into the concept of “fake news” and view the press as an enemy, we as a nation are responsible for the damage caused when history repeats itself.