The Age of McCarthyism
|Bill Downs and Edward R. Murrow in Tokyo while covering the Korean War, 1950|
Soon after the debut of Murrow's television news series See It Now in 1951, Bill Downs urged Murrow to use his new platform to take on Senator Joseph McCarthy. At that time, the Second Red Scare was still going strong, and a direct challenge to McCarthy or the anticommunist crusaders in Washington meant risking one's career and being branded a Soviet sympathizer.
The CBS news staff agreed that McCarthy was a threat to American democratic institutions. Murrow himself believed that the Senator's populist demagoguery had taken the form of a "Nazi-like mass movement." But he was reluctant to launch any direct attack on McCarthyism, lest he abuse his role as a journalist.
Downs, however, was insistent. Others, including the show's producer Fred Friendly, maintained that it would be better to wait for the right time. The CBS news team was especially concerned about reprisal in an industry plagued by witch-hunts and blacklisting.
In 1950, CBS reporters Howard K. Smith and Alexander Kendrick—both of them Murrow Boys—were among the 151 news and entertainment figures named in the infamous Red Channels list of alleged "Red Fascists and their sympathizers" in the broadcast industry. Later that year, CBS management required its employees to sign a loyalty oath affirming that they were not and never had been communists. Downs protested at first, but Murrow, at that point careful to pick his battles, told him: "If you don't want to sign the oath, there is no way I can protect you."
Downs, for his part, did not keep silent. Cartoonist Walt Kelly later wrote: "Those of us who had reason to question the loyalty oath could not help but be cheered by a reverse side of the coin. Bill Downs made a blistering radio attack over CBS on the cloak-and-dagger activities on Capitol Hill. 'Things were just going too far,' he said to me. 'I couldn't take it anymore.'"
Downs also talked about the responsibility of journalists in the age of McCarthy in a 1953 editorial entitled "The Armor of Cynicism," saying:
A news reporter, which I've been for half of my life, is required to be a cynic. The attitude is, in a sense, a scientific technique of our craft, since the job requires close observation of men in every conceivable position, disposition, and indisposition. Among other things, we are supposed to spot the toes of clay splaying out from under the pearl-gray spats, or the cloven hoof encased in the jackboot, before anyone else.While Murrow was not the first to challenge McCarthy (Eric Sevareid noted Elmer Davis and Martin Agronsky as two who already had), he remains perhaps the most memorable. He covered the case of Milo Radulovich in October 1953 before finally addressing McCarthy directly.
Cynicism also is the touchstone of a reporter's alchemy through which he hopes to discover that nonexistent load called "objectivity." For as a set of philosophers, the only true objective reporter is the dead one.
On March 9, 1954, CBS aired the iconic episode of See It Now entitled "A Report on Senator Joseph R. McCarthy." Murrow said that:
On one thing the Senator has been consistent. Often operating as a one-man committee, he has traveled far; interviewed many; terrorized some; accused civilian and military leaders of the past administration of a great conspiracy to turn over the country to communism; investigated and substantially demoralized the present State Department; made varying charges of espionage at Fort Monmouth. The Army says it has been unable to find anything relating to espionage there. He has interrogated a varied assortment of what he calls "Fifth Amendment Communists."In his closing remarks Murrow stated:
We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men. Not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular.
This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy's methods to keep silent, or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities.
As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age. We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.
On April 6, 1954, CBS allotted McCarthy a full half hour on See It Now to respond. The Senator lashed out at Murrow:The actions of the Junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn't create this situation of fear. He merely exploited it, and rather successfully. Cassius was right. "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves."
Now, of course, neither Joe McCarthy nor Edward R. Murrow is of any great importance as individuals. We are only important in our relation to the great struggle to preserve our American liberties. The Senate Investigating Committee has forced out of government, and out of important defense plants, communists engaged in the Soviet conspiracy. And you know, it's interesting to note that the viciousness of Murrow's attacks is in direct ratio to our success in digging out communists.
Now, ordinarily I would not take time out from the important work at hand to answer Murrow. However, in this case I feel justified in doing so because Murrow is a symbol, the leader, and the cleverest of the jackal pack which is always found at the throat of anyone who dares to expose individual communists and traitors.
. . .
Now, Mr. Murrow said on this program—and I quote—he said: "The actions of the Junior Senator from Wisconsin have given considerable comfort to the enemy." That is the language of our statute of treason—rather strong language.
If I am giving comfort to our enemies, I ought not to be in the Senate. If, on the other hand, Mr. Murrow is giving comfort to our enemies, he ought not to be brought into the homes of millions of Americans by the Columbia Broadcasting System.
Downs' role in the affair is recounted in several books:
From "Murrow: His Life and Times" by A.M. Sperber, p. 403-404:
The atmosphere of Washington, between the hearings and the expanded loyalty review dragnet, was near manic. Bill Downs, reporting for CBS-TV, finding himself screaming and drinking too many martinis, begged for Murrow's help: "Ed, just get me out of here!"
"Nobody at the State Department would talk to him anymore," Roz Downs said later, "nobody in the Defense Department would talk to him anymore, nobody in government would talk to anybody—they weren't even talking to their own friends anymore, the things that were happening were so awful. It had just reached the point where everybody in Washington seemed stark, raving mad. Everybody was crazy—and frightened.
Downs, one of the media's angry men, kept after Murrow, one of the rising chorus intoning, Do something about McCarthy. Not one of these clever let-the-audience-decide numbers. Hit him head-on. Hard. Forget radio; everybody bitched about McCarthy on radio. It had to be TV, and only he, Murrow, had the access.
It was getting to be a leitmotif. Roz Downs later remembered an evening at the Murrow apartment, following their sitting in on the 7:45 news. Janet was out. Murrow was fixing drinks, fumbling unhappily with the ice bucket.
He said, "My God, don't we have any ice?"
I didn't know if he knew how to get the ice out of the refrigerator, so I said, "I'll get the ice," and Bill said, "Oh, for cryin' out loud, I'll get the ice."
So Bill starts out to the kitchen, and Murrow turns around to me and breathes this great sigh of relief because he could see Bill was just ready. "Make you a bet that it's gonna be two minutes before he mentions McCarthy to me and he's gonna say, 'Okay, Ed, when are you gonna take on McCarthy?'"
I looked at him and said "Ed, you are completely wrong. I'm surprised he went to get the ice out first. He's going to walk back through the door with the ice, and he's gonna say, 'Okay, Ed, when are you—'" and just then Bill walked back through the door.
Ed looked, said, "You won."
And Bill said, "Okay, Ed, now I've gotten the ice. When are you gonna stand up to McCarthy?"
They broke up. "It's not funny, goddammit! Do you know what that man is doing to the country?" Murrow grew serious. He knew Bill was covering this every day, he said, that he was close to the story. But Friendly just didn't feel it was time yet.
What did he mean, Friendly didn't think so? It was his, Murrow's, decision. Though obviously there were problems, they agreed, and yes, timing was important. Eisenhower had endorsed McCarthy only a few months ago. How did you attack McCarthy over something as powerful as nationwide TV when the President of the United States, the war hero, the landslide incumbent, had made him respectable?"
From "Edward R. Murrow: An American Original" by Joseph E. Persico:
In the immediate aftermath of Murrow's See It Now McCarthy broadcast on March 9, 1954:
To Ed Murrow, a man already inclined to pessimism and dark forebodings, the era of McCarthyism was a nightmare coming true. As a student leader in Europe, and later as a broadcaster, he had watched the Germans trade unruly Weimar democracy for Nazi order. He had witnessed home-grown Fascist movements in England, France, and Poland. He knew how the Fascists made their excesses palatable: anticommunism was the respectable cloak they wore. When Murrow and his wife, Janet, were flying home from England in 1946, as the American coast came into view, she recalled Ed saying, "We saw it happen in Europe. There's no reason to suppose it can't happen here."
He had taken stands. He had spoken out against the circus-style anticommunism of the House Un-American Activities Committee. McCarthy's victim, Owen Lattimore, thanked Murrow for defending him on the air "even when the hysteria was at its height." Murrow helped save the careers of CBS colleagues who had been blacklisted.From Key Readings in Journalism:
Still, some of Murrow's friends had been asking aloud why he was not doing more, not using his unrivaled position, that bully pulpit of microphone and camera with its audience of millions, to challenge McCarthy head-on. Bill Downs, a gruff, much valued friend came up from CBS's Washington bureau to have dinner with the Murrows at their Park Avenue apartment. Afterward, over drinks, Downs warned, "You'd better do something about that guy."
Murrow hedged. "Fred Friendly says it isn't time yet," he said, referring to the co-producer of See It Now.
"It is time," Downs insisted. "The effect that McCarthy is having is nothing short of devastating."
In the immediate aftermath of Murrow's See It Now McCarthy broadcast on March 9, 1954:
. . . The highest praise came generally from those who had been in the fight the longest, from I.F. Stone's Weekly to the editorial writers of the St. Louis Post Dispatch, to cartoonist Walt Kelly, to Joe Alsop, who had immediately sent a cable (ONE OF THE GREAT ACTS OF POLITICAL COURAGE OF OUR TIME).
The reaction abroad, after word of the program hit the news wires, was "phenomenal," as a correspondent put it. "The European newspapers went crazy, they were delighted; it was like America coming into its own again."
The BBC ran a kinescope. In Rome Bill Downs, now bureau chief for CBS, ran nightly screenings at his home to packed houses and standing ovations, mostly from Americans in Rome. (His own reaction: "About time!") Said Roz Downs: "We were getting calls from the embassy, from the USIA, saying, 'We are desperate, we want to see this thing.' The State Department was overjoyed; they were terrified of what was going on. And the military attaches—after all, the Army was being attacked."