Political Education

McCarthyism and the Media

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Early news coverage of McCarthy’s charges worked in the Senator’s favor. Newsprint did not capture the wild man image that television did. One month before the Army hearings, CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow devoted an hour-long segment of his “See It Now” television program to McCarthy. The show used film clips of McCarthy on the attack, being aggressive and insulting. At the end of the show, Murrow called on the country to challenge McCarthy’s demagoguery.

Television reporting had, to that point, been neutral in its perspective when covering news. Murrow had a reputation for being fair, impartial, and independent. The McCarthy documentary blended coverage of news events with editorial comments.

News stations televised The Army-McCarthy hearings in their entirety. Polling indicated that the overwhelming majority of Americans had heard something about the issues and that most followed the hearings closely. The event allowed the country to see McCarthy in action, at length. McCarthy did not do well on television. In the film “Point of Order,” he seemed swarthy and hulking.

The McCarthy experience prompted the news media to shift from a detailed coverage of events to a more interpretive journalism style. Murrow’s attack on McCarthy may have been the first of a type of selective journalism that allowed the subject to hang themselves with their own words and actions.

The Army hearings overexposed McCarthy to the nation. In limited doses, McCarthy could have come off as a well-intentioned, unpolished country boy. Over the long haul of thirty-six hearings, his recklessness and boorishness had ample opportunity to surface.

Army attorney Joseph Welch counted on this. Welch had been called in from his prestigious Boston law firm to represent the Army. He had a reputation for his quick wit and a willingness to use histrionics in cross-examinations. Welch needled Roy Cohn on the stand for days, hoping to provoke an outburst. McCarthy inevitability walked right into the trap.

McCarthy’s attack on a Welch law partner allowed the crafty trial lawyer to expose McCarthy as reckless. Welch’s response, “Have you no dignity, sir?” is often repeated.

Welch understood from the start that the hearings were not an investigation to determine facts surrounding an event. He saw the hearings as a stage for the American people to watch a political and moral drama on television. The Army hearings were just the setting on which a struggle for public opinion was fought. Welch adjusted his strategy accordingly. Television had played a vital role in the demise of the McCarthy era.


Thanks and a tip of the hat to Wikipedia for the image of Edward R. Murrow.

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