Mediated: Edward Murrow, Joe McCarthy, and Bill O’Reilly

This week’s Mediated is dedicated to the life and memory of Professor Richard D. Heffner, an American broadcaster and public television pioneer.

Edward R. Murrow
Edward R. Murrow

This week is a throwback to the days when journalism was still journalism. Everybody who knows the name Edward R. Murrow knows that with it comes the notions of news with integrity and media prestige. Lately, though, I’ve been dwelling on an argument put forth by a guy named Gilbert Seldes. You see, usually when people look back at Murrow’s utter destruction of the crazed alcoholic, syphilitic Senator Joseph McCarthy they do so with fondness. It needed to be done; no self-respecting intellectual could stand by and watch him lead the HUAC crusade to eviscerate legions of folks over nothing more than suspicions of Communist leanings.

Senator Joseph McCarthy
Senator Joseph McCarthy

Especially not an intellectual with a stage like Murrow’s program See It Now. With the name of that program came credibility – people trusted it. So, when Murrow saw the authoritarian monster that McCarthy had become he decided to take action. The whole thing was dramatized in the movie Goodnight and Good Luck. It’s a good flick for those who haven’t seen it. After verbally tearing asunder all things McCarthy, Murrow offered the senator an equal half hour time period to rebut on a later evening. This was an offer which McCarthy naturally accepted. Unfortunately for the self-proclaimed Commie hunter, the damage was done and nothing McCarthy could say would ever combat the colossal newsman that was Murrow. Shortly after, McCarthy was censured by Congress, his power waned, he faded into the footnotes of history, and fucking died. Good for him, he was nothing short of slime.

But beyond the heroic veneer of Murrow’s actions lies a much more complex and disturbing legacy. This guy Seldes makes the compelling argument that Murrow opened a Pandora’s Box of sorts. Not that what he did was wrong (believe me, there are very few people out there who want McCarthy back) but that what he did marked the first time a major news program was used for pure political opinion. Not only that, but it was used to crush a senator who’s star was rapidly rising on the backdrop of anti-Communism. It was an eye-opener – the news can be used to effect politics! Who knew? Murrow himself expressed private reservations about the can of worms he was about to unleash on the world, but he ultimately reasoned that the danger of unabashed McCarthyism was more lethal than the idea of a politically charged media.

Murrow is rolling in his grave now.

Before he ran that broadcast the idea of a Bill O’Reilly would have been laughable. News analysis would probably have been ridiculed for what it is – opinionated garbage. At a time when editorial and objective reporting were staunchly separated, Murrow’s broadcast blurred the line between the two indefinitely. Now, every reporter is a pundit and we are all forced to listen to the unfiltered opinion of our own choosing when we turn on the news. Biased reports from private companies with proud agendas clog the airwaves, and those of us who are incapable or unwilling to look up the bare-boned facts settle in with whatever vicious “news” appeals to our opinions the most. You get to pick your poison, so at least ignorance really is bliss.  Murrow’s defeat of McCarthy sent us down a slippery slope, and waiting at the bottom was the bubbling puddle of noxious sludge that is modern mass media.

The bottom line is this: Journalism is not a weapon to wield but instead a vessel for factual information. “Spin” is a word used to simply dress up what is at heart a breach of journalistic ethics: distortion of the facts. In the instance of Murrow, no matter how popular or seemingly justified, his attack was just that; an attack is never a balanced or objective thing. While it is true that pure objectivity is a falsehood, as unachievable as perfection, a journalist (especially one with influence) should do his best to convey nothing but the basic facts. And where there is editorial it should be labeled as such. Nothing more and nothing less can satisfy the honor that comes with being called a journalist. For the right reasons, Murrow nudged the news onto the wrong trajectory. Today, media practices lie far from the straight and narrow path once traveled. However, as the ages of Yellow Journalism gave way to a sort of news enlightenment, perhaps we too can rectify the legacy of Murrow’s misguided well intentions. Perhaps, now that the media has been soiled, it is up to the viewer to determine the truth. The trouble is that there seems to be a lot of “truth” to choose from.

Choose wisely, friends.

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