Trial by Television

My first reaction on reading about recent attempts to rehabilitate Senator Joseph McCarthy by the likes of M. Stanton Evans in his new book Blacklisted by History, and right-wing pundit Ann Coulter, was to echo the words of the senator’s nemesis, Joseph N. Welch, “Have you no sense of decency?”

McCarthy’s wild accusations of twenty years of treason during the Democratic administrations of the 1930s and 1940s, his claims that the US State Department, and later the Army and the CIA, were full of communists, polluted public debate in America, and to an extent here, for over ten years. Certainly communism had to be debated and its tactics exposed; but not with lies, false accusation and innuendo.

What makes McCarthy fascinating to media scholars is that much of the rise and fall of the senator was observed by film and television cameras and broadcast on television sets throughout the USA; and in 1950–54 when McCarthy and McCarthyism were at their peak television was a new and immensely popular medium. It is now relatively easy to examine much of this visual evidence.

The most important news program devoted to McCarthy was Edward R. Murrow and Fred W. Friendly’s March 9, 1954, edition of their top-rating See It Now, recently released on DVD by CBS as part of The Murrow Years. The broadcast had a powerful impact. Until then the networks had remained carefully impartial, and so largely had See It Now. Nevertheless from the outset the program had been riveting television. Murrow and Friendly’s team covered everything from Christmas in Korea to an injustice to a sergeant in the Air Force—the only previous occasion Murrow had expressed an opinion on camera. Much of their success was due to Murrow himself. Six foot tall, darkly handsome, with a deep resonant voice and a distinctive delivery that was emulated by almost everyone who worked with him, Murrow had a credibility that was unique amongst the broadcasters of the era. In addition Murrow and Friendly were expert at the new art of assembling film clips to create a story.

These were the “weapons” See It Now directed at McCarthy. The idea was to collect a series of clips that were representative of his activities and destroy him in his own words. When they first ran the assembly of the material that had been collected, Murrow is reported to have said, “The terror is right here in the room,” before disappearing into his office to write the commentary.

Viewed sixty years later, the techniques of See It Now’s McCarthy report seem quite standard: you can find them in any episode of Media Watch. The clips, however, run much longer than would be put to air now and Murrow—a great radio man—relies much more on the spoken word than would any modern television reporter. What’s more, he requests the viewers’ permission to read from a script so he and Friendly can say exactly what they mean.

Described like this, the program sounds rather archaic. For me, at least, it is nothing of a sort. Murrow had a magnificent voice and when he looks up from his notes and fixes the camera with a piercing glare it is far more impressive than the blank stare of so many modern reporters reading off a teleprompter. He begins by showing a series of statements—contradictions really. McCarthy is seen stating that the fight against communism cannot be a fight between America’s two political parties. Then Murrow plays a sound tape of the senator’s notorious accusation of twenty years of “Democratic treason” and “historic betrayal”. A series of clips follow providing “background”. One shows McCarthy’s nervous giggle, where he seems not quite sane; another is a sentimental response to a maudlin tribute at a testimonial dinner after, in his own words, he had been “smeared, bullwhipped and kicked around”. McCarthy can’t reply because, he says, “my heart is too full”. Murrow and Friendly juxtapose this with shots of McCarthy viciously denouncing Brigadier-General Zwicker.

To counter McCarthy’s claim that only the left-wing press criticised him for attacking the General, Murrow turns to two piles of newspapers—a small pile of the papers that supported McCarthy and a much larger pile of the mainstream papers that opposed him—and quotes choice excerpts from the most trenchant denunciations. Murrow then moves to two of the “staples of his [McCarthy’s] diet, the investigation … and the half truth”. There follows a clip in which McCarthy makes a series of “links” between a picture of a barn, Alger Hiss, described inaccurately as a “convicted traitor”, and Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson. Hiss, who had since been convicted of perjury, in rather dubious circumstances, had as a State Department official recommended Stevenson as a representative to the Mont Tremblant conference on Asia. Murrow corrects this innuendo by quoting the full text of the McCarran hearings in which Stevenson’s name is one of several suggested because of their jobs. “We read from this documented record not in defence of Mr Stevenson but in defence of truth.”

Most damaging of all is film of the investigation of United States Information Service official Reed Harris. McCarthy as chairman of the sub-committee of the House Un-American Activities Committee questions Harris about a book he wrote in 1932, then asks him if he had been expelled from Columbia University and whether at that time the Civil Liberties Union supplied him with a lawyer. When Harris replies, “The answer is yes”, McCarthy responds, “Do you know the Civil Liberties Union has been listed as a front for, and doing the work of the Communist Party?”

Murrow’s comment on this is scathing. “The Attorney General does not and has never listed the ACLU as subversive, nor does the FBI or any other federal government agency.” The final summation is even more devastating:

Earlier the senator asked, “Upon what meat does this our Caesar feed?” Had he looked three lines earlier in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar he would have found this line which is not altogether inappropriate. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”

No one familiar with the history of this country can deny that congressional committees are useful. It is necessary to investigate before legislating, but the line between investigating and persecuting is a very fine one and the junior senator from Wisconsin has stepped over it repeatedly. His primary achievement has been in confusing the public mind as between internal and the external threats of communism. 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 of one 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 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.”

Good night and good luck.

Even sixty years later, seeing Murrow deliver these words to camera is profoundly moving. Nevertheless the great broadcaster agonised whether he should do the program at all. The issue is still with us. Is a television producer entitled to use all the resources of the medium to attack an individual, however loathsome? Even a major figure such as McCarthy might not have access to the resources to reply effectively to such expert media practitioners as Murrow and Friendly. Nevertheless they made a powerful case. McCarthy’s lies and innuendo were exposed far more vividly on television than they were by his other adversaries. The Reed Harris footage was particularly telling, as he was so eloquent. Still, a month after his confrontation with McCarthy he had been forced to resign. However, at the first staff meeting after Murrow had been appointed head of the United States Information Service he introduced Reed Harris, “who has returned after an eight-year leave of absence”.

As it happened, McCarthy did have access to media resources. For the equal time he’d been offered by CBS, the Hearst press supplied a scriptwriter, and Fox Movietone provided a studio. The film is included in the Edward R. Murrow collection, and viewed now it demonstrates why Murrow and Friendly believed they had to make the original program. McCarthy ignores all See It Now’s charges and attacks Murrow for supposed communist connections at the time he was working at the Institute for National Education in the 1930s. Then McCarthy produces a book dedicated to Murrow by Harold Laski. It was the usual guilt by association. The senator then goes into a diatribe about the worldwide communist conspiracy that includes an aside about treachery in the hydrogen bomb program. No names are mentioned, but it seems to be one of the first public indications of the moves to remove the security clearance of atomic scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Murrow had been an accomplished debater at university and so had little difficulty disposing of McCarthy’s allegations at the press conference he called at the conclusion of the broadcast and on See It Now a week later. “Laski was a friend of mine,” Murrow said simply. “He was a socialist, I am not.” Murrow then pointed out that during his time at the Institute for National Education they had been attacked by the communists. The collection includes a clip from the press conference of Murrow’s best line, suggested by CBS boss Bill Paley:

When the record is finally written … it will answer the question, who has helped the communist cause and who has served his country better, Senator McCarthy or I? I would like to be remembered by the answer to that question.

The See It Now “film” is a pioneering television documentary. It is also an important historical document. The DVD is based on a kinescope of the live television broadcast that played a vital part in the fall of Senator McCarthy.

Point of Order by Emile de Antonio, which portryas the Army–McCarthy hearings by the Senate Sub-committee on Investigations that began a few weeks after the CBS broadcasts, is very different. Certainly it includes vital source material: selections from the 200 hours of kinescopes recording the hearings. But Point of Order was a retrospect. According to de Antonio, he bought the kinescopes of the live broadcasts that had gone out daily on the American ABC network. Then he cut some 200 hours of footage to make an eighty-eight-minute film. Point of Order was released in 1963 as part of the re-evaluation of McCarthyism that took place in the media of the late 1950s and early 1960s. (The Manchurian Candidate, which included a brilliant caricature of McCarthy, had appeared the year before.)

De Antonio’s selections make their own incisive commentary. The charges by McCarthy and his counsel Roy Cohen that the Army was holding David  Schine hostage after he had been drafted seem here even more absurd from the selections included in the film than they would have at the time. Schine had been an investigator for McCarthy’s sub-committee. When he was drafted, Cohen and McCarthy had sought a whole range of special privileges for their former employee. When the Army finally called a halt, McCarthy claimed this was in retaliation for his aggressive investigations of subversion. Point of Order’s selections emphasise how far the Army went to appease McCarthy; while his behaviour during the hearing tended to confirm the testimony about his and Cohen’s intimidation.

The hero in most accounts of the hearings is Army Counsel Joseph N. Welch. A Boston lawyer in his early sixties, with his three-piece suits, formal courtesy and bow-ties, he seems delightfully old-fashioned in the film, a gentleman of the old school. His famous rebuke, when McCarthy named one of his colleagues in the law firm Hale and Dorr as a member of a communist front organisation, is generally accepted as having destroyed McCarthy. De Antonio’s arrangement of these sequences shows how Welch provoked that blunder. From the outset he doesn’t take McCarthy, Cohen or their claims seriously. McCarthy produces a letter supposedly from J. Edgar Hoover. Welch won’t read the letter until it is properly identified, then when McCarthy gives evidence Welch has him behaving like a witness before his own committee, sullenly refusing to answer questions. “Are you taking the Fifth Amendment?” Welch inquires, using a tactic McCarthy had employed repeatedly. Finally they come to the 130 communists in the defence plants. In a series of questions, Welch demands that Cohen “before the sun goes down” give their names to the FBI or the Justice Department so they can at least be placed under surveillance. When Cohen prevaricates it becomes obvious the names are not important.

In fairness, there were Russian spies working in the USA in the fifties. There was a former Soviet agent reporting the hearings a few feet from them all in the committee room. It was Michael Straight, the only American among the Cambridge spies of the 1930s, who was to write Trial by Television, an excellent account of the hearings and from whom I have borrowed the title of this article. It was just that McCarthy’s committee had no idea how to identify real spies.

The famous exchange when McCarthy names the young lawyer Fred Fisher, who was to have been the Boston lawyer’s co-counsel, as a member of a communist front organisation does not seem like a trap Welch set for the senator as some revisionists have argued. McCarthy appears sneering and malicious, Welch genuinely upset, but also deadly: “I think I have never really gauged your cruelty or recklessness.” The injury was “needlessly inflicted”, and finally comes the bitter question, “Have you no sense of decency?” Recently M. Stanton Evans has said Welch gave Fisher’s name to the New York Times himself. But the clipping he reproduces states Fisher told the paper he had been dumped from the defence team and Welch simply confirmed the story they already had. In the light of de Antonio’s selection of the Welch–Cohen–McCarthy material it all makes sense.

These two films demonstrate that the United States was well served by the new medium of television in 1954. A great reporter was prepared to risk his career to expose a vicious demagogue. The ABC network broadcast the Army-McCarthy hearings in the national interest. Historians would naturally like to see all the footage of the hearings. But when we do, Emile de Antonio’s fine documentary will still be of permanent value.

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