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Murrow, McCarthy and the media frontier analyzed

Experts emphasize the legacy of McCarthyism in the modern age

Published: Friday, April 16, 2010

Updated: Monday, April 19, 2010 17:04


Courtesy Library of Congress

Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunt is still relevant in a contemporary world with a plethora of media options, experts say.

While much social and technological advancement would suggest that America has progressed since the 1950s, there exist some contemporary parallels to a dark point in the nation's history that may suggest otherwise.

This was the focus of Wednesday night's annual Edward R. Murrow Forum on Issues in Journalism, during which panelists discussed the current implications of the blacklist and the culture of fear perpetuated by Sen. Joseph McCarthy's communist witch−hunt. Some of the panelists at the event had a chance to speak in depth to the Daily after the event about McCarthyism's implications in the modern world.

McCarthy rose to power by stoking the terror of a communist takeover, accusing everyone, from Hollywood actors to his fellow congressmen, of having communist sympathies.

While many of his conjectures soon proved false, most news outlets reported only his newest accusations, so that public hysteria only grew wilder. Many thousands of Americans were blacklisted, making it near impossible for them to find work and eroding their quality of life to the point that many who were blacklisted committed suicide.

The late CBS television anchor Edward R. Murrow was one of the first and only journalists to explicitly criticize McCarthy's actions, saying to the American people, "We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty."

Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy student David Viola, a co−producer of the documentary "Trumbo" (2007), said that while the United States was founded on principles of free speech and civil liberties, during periods of great social upheaval, these rights are often restricted in the interest of national defense. In a world after the events of Sept. 11, 2001, the federal government has instated many policies that have made "the trade−off between civil liberties and the perception of national security ripe again," Viola said.

"Trumbo" tells the life story of blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. The film was screened on Monday as part of the Murrow Forum. Trumbo himself called the House Un−American Activities Committee "barbarism parading as American virtue," which to some, including Murrow's son, Casey Murrow, is reminiscent of the institution of the Patriot Act in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. This might explain the recent burst of movies about the McCarthy era, such as "Trumbo" and the Murrow biopic "Good Night, and Good Luck" (2005).

"I think that the excesses of the Bush administration and the damage to our legal system and to the Bill of Rights certainly brought about a lot of pushback from the film industry," Casey Murrow said.

While many of the same political issues remain, the ways in which people assess them has evolved. Journalism in the time of Murrow and McCarthy was limited to regional newspapers and a few major television networks, as opposed to the multitudes of conduits through which Americans now receive information.

"Ed Murrow always thought the obligation of a journalist was to educate, to explain, and there's not much education or explanation these days," journalist Lynne Olson said. Olson cited the multitudes of cable news stations, as well as magazines, newspapers and blogs that cater to every possible ideology, essentially making it so that viewers can choose never to be "presented with different angles or ideas" than their own.

"This country had a much more homogenized view when there were only three networks," said Arnie Reisman, a screenwriter and producer who wrote the documentary "Hollywood on Trial" (1976) about Trumbo and his blacklisted colleagues. "We're all scattered now."

As the broad landscape of media outlets makes it easier for myriad ideologies to proliferate, the Internet makes it a much more difficult to silence alternative opinions. Before Murrow stood up to McCarthy, the only widely spread national news coverage of the hearings depicted them as essential in fighting the powerful spread of communism. With so many outlets, it's possible that a movement like McCarthy's could not have as wide an impact in today's world, experts say.

"[With the Internet,] I think dissent wouldn't have been as polarized," Viola said. "It was a lot easier to get people spun up because … all the news was coming from one place. I think there would have been a lot of people coming out more vocally in defense of constitutional rights, but it's really impossible to tell."

However, Casey Murrow added that the current media landscape is not entirely equitable. "Some outlets have more power than others," he said. "If there were to be a contemporary blacklist, a lot of people would still be shut down as communicators."

Assistant Professor of Sociology Sarah Sobieraj, who was not part of the Murrow Forum panel, agreed that the online medium has not reached its full potential as a level playing field. "User−generated content vehicles like Twitter[.com], Wordpress[.com], YouTube[.com] and the like have absolutely democratized publishing and create the space for many more voices than we had in times past," Sobieraj said in an e−mail to the Daily. "[However], it's important that we not over−romanticize the significance of these tools because being able to publish and being heard are not the same thing."

For these reasons, journalists have a responsibility to speak truth to power, and in that way, to follow Murrow's lead, according to Julie Dobrow, director of the Communications and Media Studies Program.

"For Murrow, journalism was a public service," Dobrow said.

"Despite the Internet and despite the lack of controls we witnessed, we as a country walked into the war in Iraq without the media doing its job," Crocker Snow, the director of the Edward R. Murrow Center for Public Diplomacy at the Fletcher School, said. "It may be official blacklisting or maybe not, but deception is just as possible today in different forms."

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