Though CBS legend Edward R. Murrow is given credit, he wasn’t the first muckraking journalist to question Joseph McCarthy’s communist witch hunts

W. Joseph Campbell, American University School of Communication, The Conversation on

Published in Political News

It has been 70 years since Edward R. Murrow’s withering broadcast report about Cold War demagogue Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy, a program that has been called television’s “finest half-hour.”

Legendary though it may be, it took more than a television show to take down McCarthy and short-circuit his relentless drive to rid the federal government of communist sympathizers.

The 70th anniversary of the program that aired March 9, 1954, is likely to be recalled by some historians in nostalgic terms – how Murrow, supposedly alone in American journalism, had the courage and national stature to confront McCarthy and expose him for the Red-baiting menace that he was.

McCarthy, an otherwise obscure Republican U.S. senator from Wisconsin, had unsettled 1950s America with thinly documented charges of communists infiltrating and subverting the State Department and other federal agencies. As chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations from 1953-54, McCarthy grilled and bullied witnesses in a relentless effort to root out Americans who supposedly sympathized with Soviet communism.

As the popular version of the story goes, McCarthy’s power was unchecked until Murrow aired his searching report on the CBS newsmagazine show “See It Now.”

As my research has demonstrated, however, that interpretation about the impact of Murrow’s report is a tenacious media myth — a well-known tale about the news media that is widely believed and often retold but which, under scrutiny, dissolves as apocryphal.


The Murrow-McCarthy myth overlooks the belated nature of Murrow’s report and minimizes the aggressive work of journalists who took on the senator long before the “See It Now” program in 1954.

Two of those journalists paid a steep price for doing so.

As I wrote in my media-mythbusting book, “Getting it Wrong”: “It wasn’t as if Americans in early 1954 were hoping for someone to step up and expose McCarthy, or waiting for a white knight like Murrow to tell them what a toxic threat the senator posed.”

They already knew.


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