There has been a lot of reflection recently about the vulnerability of the news media to suppression by government powers. In the hum of it all, there have been numerous references to Senator Joseph McCarthy, who, in the early 1950's, abused the power of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which he headed, to conduct a number of de facto trials in which many were accused by McCarthy and his investigative staff of Soviet-backed subversion against the United States government. The shadow of wrongdoing haunted many of McCarthy's targets for years, and careers were ruined in McCarthy's self-described pursuit of justice.
This story is long and fascinating, and too involved to relate here. There are a number of good books and films on the subject. Emile de Antonio's POINT OF ORDER (1964) is an extraordinary work, consisting entirely of kinescopes of the television broadcast of the Army-McCarthy hearings, in which the vindictive Senator finally overextended his good-will with the American people. The showdown with the Army's attorney, the folksy but deadly effective Joseph Welch, provides a white-knuckled climax to the proceedings in response to an attack by McCarthy on a younger member of the lawyer's firm.
The media, too, played its role. Television news was young at the time, but many of the early television correspondents had played a similar role on radio or in print. Edward R. Murrow had been a radio and print war correspondent and, during the McCarthy-led "Red Scare", used his television show to rebut McCarthy in a powerful way, mainly through the Senator's own words. This program, and the subsequent ones that followed, helped weaken McCarthy's public support, which eventually led to his censure by the Senate. He became a pariah among his colleagues and died of alcohol-related liver disease before completing his term.
In 2005, George Clooney directed a good movie about this period, and specifically Murrow's role in it, called GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK.
Below is Murrow's historic broadcast of March 9. At the end of it, Murrow intones his famous words about the threat posed by such men as McCarthy. These words deserve to be repeated these many years later.
"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.
"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.'