Waiting for Edward R. Murrow
Every morning we shuffle and stumble to our places in front of the TV, flipping from broadcast news channels to cable news channels and occasionally checking out the other entertainment, if that’s what they actually are, channels where he might surprisingly appear. We know he’s coming. He told us he was coming. OK, he didn’t actually tell us. We never really knew him. But we certainly have heard about him. He will sort this all out.
So, we keep waiting.
He did show up in black and white, on small screen television sets in 1954. He looked America in the eye, spoke clearly and firmly in simple but elegant prose. He took down the feared political scourge of his time. Edward R. Murrow was not afraid or intimidated, so neither did the rest of us have to be afraid or intimidated.
Senator Joseph McCarthy was running wild with allegations and accusations of Communists here, there, and everywhere. It was the great post-war red smear. It was reckless, random, and calculated to eliminate any impediment to McCarthy’s ego and ambition. He had an army of followers. He would save the nation from the threat. The scope of the threat, the real nature of the threat was not exactly clear, but there it was, ready to destroy our families, our jobs, our security, our religion. Any challenge, any question was answered with the smear. The questioner, the challenger was perhaps a Communist or a fellow traveler. Once smeared, it became hard to recover, to keep a job, to be accepted in the community.
The smear worked. The press reported the allegations, the accusations, and, in their repetition, the allegations, the accusations, accomplished their deadly political purpose: place a permanent question mark behind the target’s name. Forevermore, the individual was always mentioned as having charges against him/her of being a Communist. Doesn’t matter if charges were baseless or even definitively debunked. There was always the question mark. And the question mark was enough to end careers and ruin lives.
The press became McCarthy’s fellow traveler. He could not have gotten anywhere without them, and once he got there, the press couldn’t walk away from him without facing the same charges as the rest of his targets.
Comes Edward R. Murrow.
He was a popular, well-known broadcast journalist. His radio war reports in the 1940’s made his voice instantly recognizable. His 1950’s CBS television program made his face familiar to the entire country. McCarthyism was poisoning the political process, it distorted the public policy discourse, it destroyed the notion of free speech and open debate, it was undermining democracy. Nothing mattered in McCarthyism but McCarthy himself. Most in the press knew it. Most in the press were afraid to say it.
Murrow said it.
He did a television special on the lies and deceits of McCarthy and McCarthyism. McCarthy had his opportunity to respond in a subsequent broadcast, then Edward R. Murrow took him apart point by point. It changed the country.
Most importantly, it changed the press. Slowly but surely, the press found it did not have to cover every allegation and accusation out of McCarthy’s mouth. The smear lost its power. And McCarthy lost his. The nation recovered its capacity for democratic debate and change.
Everyday we show up in front of the TV, waiting for Edward R. Murrow.
Where in the media today is the voice challenging Trumpism? Where is the voice to bring perspective, context, and proportionality to the political debate?
The allegation, the accusation—the smear—operates the same way and has the same impact today. It is to place a question mark behind Hilary Clinton’s name. Trump says it, and the media repeats it—endlessly. Every charge carries all day on the chyron. Every mention of Clinton concludes with a question about her honesty, her truthfulness. Corrupt Hillary. The corrupt Clinton Foundation. On and on. It doesn’t matter that there are no actual substantiated charges or any legal actions. Nothing seems to matter except the media narrative that Hillary Clinton is dishonest. But the press seems intimidated by Trump—in best McCarthy fashion––Trump has a blacklist of media he doesn’t like, and so do his supporters. So they dutifully repeat what he says.
There is no proportionality. There is no context. Every misstatement of fact, every inaccuracy, every lie is not the same. Yet, fact checking the candidates treats everything as if it carries the same importance. It is not important to establish both candidates say things that are not accurate or true. It does matter what they lie about and how often they lie about it, and what impact it would have on us.
Example: Emails released showing contact between State Department staff and Clinton Foundation. Did Hillary Clinton take any exceptional action, or in anyway alter policy as a result? No. Were any laws broken? No. What did Chris Matthews say? It’s “murky.”
No, it isn’t murky.
But Matthews has to keep the question mark. And Trump and his followers charge that the Clinton Foundation is the most corrupt in history. No one bothers to mention what the Clinton Foundation actually does. And no one asks: “Did the email contact have any discernible impact on us at all?” It all leads to the question: “Why are we talking about this?”
The impact is not on Clinton. It is on the political process. It is on the rest of us. A wide swath of America believes that Hillary Clinton is criminally corrupt, is a traitor, and must be stopped regardless of means. It goes beyond, is more intense than the racial hatred of Obama. The media sees it at the Trump rallies and rarely reports on it. There is a hatred, a subsurface threat of potential violence, directed at Hillary Clinton—and at anyone who challenges or questions Trump.
And that intense hatred, the threat of potential violence is spilling over to discussions in sports bars, family restaurants, school events, and church parking lots. It is overwhelming our political debate.
Example: A sports bar in suburban area in a swing state. It’s Sunday in late afternoon. The restaurant is full of families filling up on chicken wings. The bar itself is also full with a friendly crew watching multiple sporting events on multiple TVs. No drunks. No dispossessed drug addicted whites struggling to find work in a global economy. Reasonably prosperous people with late model cars and trucks, family people who coach kids’ sports teams, mostly church-goers, etc. A Hillary Clinton ad appears on one screen. The bar lights up like a flare. Vulgarity after vulgarity follows. It feeds upon itself. We quickly get to “I want get her in my crosshairs!” That sentiment raises the level of enthusiasm. “I want to shoot that C-word. I want to shoot her in the C-word.” Only then does the manager ask the crew to be careful with their language. One lone patron, a vet, says he is voting for Clinton. He faces immediate rebuke from all sides of the bar. He is labeled a traitor. He should be denied vet benefits. What about Benghazi? He leaves. The episode comes to end when one of the louder mouths says he wants Obama to leave the White House in a body bag. There are more than a few African American patrons who sat silently, but wanting Obama dead was too much. Faced with some potential serious resistance the anti-Clinton crew quieted down. Some left. But the hatred did not go away.
This is fueled by the smear—the endless media repetition of allegations and charges. Just ask a Trump supporter. She or he will repeat exactly the words from the chyron. Ask a question that goes beyond the surface charge and there is no response except an attack. In this attack MSNBC and CNN are more often cited than other news sources. Going to enemy—the supposed liberal media—validates them in a way Fox News never could. “You even hear it on MSNBC. They’ll even tell you that (either the B-word or C-word, and the C-word is getting more frequent. Trump has liberated them.) is a liar, is corrupt, who took contributions for her foundation, who lied about her emails…” We need better journalism. There are no reporters. There are repeaters.
Please come Edward R. Murrow. We are waiting for you.