On the evening of March 9th 1954, the American free press produced one of it’s finest hours. That night, from the now legendary Studio 41 in New York, esteemed World War II correspondent and acclaimed radio/television journalist, Edward R. Murrow dedicated the entirety of his evening news program, See It Now, on CBS, to addressing an infamous figure in American history. At the time, his infamy was not yet fully documented. In a little under an hour, Murrow changed that.
Senator Joseph McCarthy and his ongoing investigations of American citizens who were suspected of being members of the Communist Party had a grip on the nation’s hopes and fears. Over the previous four years, McCarthy had set off a national panic by persecuting members of government, the media, Hollywood, even the military. McCarthy’s activities as the Chairmen of Senate Operations Committee assumed guilt and publicized hearings in which the burden for closure was laid at the feet of the accused to prove they were not communists. McCarthy had taken advantage of the national anti-communist fervor to gain and wield personal power-accusing anyone that challenged of the same crime as those being challenged already-communism.
By 1954, McCarthy set his sites on Murrow, who responded with one of the most famous and important media broadcasts in our history. He concluded the broadcast that was filled mostly with McCarthy’s own recorded words with his own.
“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.”
Good night, and good luck.”
The broadcast hit its mark. McCarthy’s televised response in which he accused Murrow himself of communist activities was too obvious for the American public, even in their inflamed and fearful state, to ignore. By the end of the year, McCarthy was formally censured by the Senate and stripped of most of his power. Three years later, his chronic drinking killed him- cirrhosis of the liver.
Murrow’s coverage of Senator McCarthy showed the power and importance of the de facto “fourth branch” of American government-the free press. It was a clear and inarguable victory of the power the American people, armed with information and empowered by a government that actually still cared about public opinion. The river that ran underneath the event, carrying it to it’s historically fantastic conclusion, was trust. Specifically trust in Murrow. And more broadly, a trust in the press. How far we’ve come from then to now, is a problem that weighs heavily on our future and our ability to adjudicate the actions of our leaders, through the democratic process. If democracy is our vehicle, the free press is our fuel.
Sixty years later, we’ve found the tenets of our branches of government in dire straights. A congress so frozen by partisan motivation that we’ve ushered in two decades of executive directives as the sole way to accomplish anything-an incomplete Supreme Court, unable to provide decisive rulings-the Office of the President, likely to be turned over to flawed candidates. And as much as we would like to vilify all of them, I’ll take Murrow’s lead. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves”
In a democracy, it is always the fault-and the prerogative- of the people. But the root of the problem is not in our judgement or our collectively failing conscience. It lies somewhere else. Somewhere exposed by the silent response to the following question. Who could stand in front of a television camera today, and in less than an hour, deliver information in such a clear and trusted manner, that America as a whole, would uniformly join in a chorus of American will and effect immediate change? Who could do that, and have it be anything other than noise? The silence, is telling. Here’s why.
We’ve got intentionally partisan entertainment organizations masquerading as journalistic entities-groups like Breitbart, Huffington Post, Fox News, MSNBC and countless others that look and feel like they are giving us information so that we may better form our opinions. But they’re really just picking and choosing parts of reality to weave into the tapestry of a narrative that is their brand. True journalism is dictated by truth and relevance. Not brand.
Let’s be clear though. It isn’t the journalists at the core of the issue. There are talented, professional people everywhere, as many as there ever have been, laying it on the line to bring air and light to things that desperately need it. Most of these stories in a vacuum, are meaningful, worthwhile pieces. For the most part, in it’s molecular form, journalism is alive and healthy. The problem lies not in it’s production, but instead, in it’s distribution-a lopsided delivery, designed to meet the brand and voice criteria of an outlet. There are very few media outlets, where one can get both sides of a story, beyond a point-counterpoint of two talking heads yelling at each other on a panel. No matter what point is made, someone will jump on the ratings lift generated by a counter point. Even when there is no responsible counter point.
The only one left to argue against Murrow in favor of McCarthy, was McCarthy. And so he did. And so he went. Because he was that wrong. And when someone is that wrong, silence is not unbiased. It’s consent.
Which leads us to another troubling reality. Those stalwarts of objectivity, those happy few bands of brothers who refuse to be outlets who overtly slide one way or another seem to have lost their nerve. The major network news organizations, the lions of the free press, have confused objectivity, with passivity. One can still be objective and non-partisan, and slay a dragon that is in the wrong. The dragon is slain, not because of a given agenda. But because it is a dragon–that’s what we do with dragons.
Murrow was not partisan. He was trusted and objective. But he knew McCarthy was wrong. Dangerously wrong. So he acted. That’s not happening right now. And the outcomes, are the normalization of outrageous behavior an the ineffective execution of societal norms. There’s no counter argument, to serious people, that Donald Trump’s behavior, statements and track record should ever have be tolerated by the press. The press not tolerating a candidate is different than him not getting elected mind you. If the conservative base in our country wants to nominate him, fine. But that doesn’t make his statements and actions appropriate. And right now our serious press outlets, in an effort to remain objective, are tolerating things they should not.
This week, after being questioned by the press about the delay in payment to a veterans charity from a highly publicized charity event, Trump struck back with frightening rhetoric. And the press took it, allowing him to carry the narrative that there was an inherently dishonest press, one the American people could not trust. The tone, all of this will change when I’m president, hung silently behind each word. And the press, largely took it. And then took it when he called in to question the suitability of a federal judge and celebrated drug prosecutor because of his ethnicity-because he ruled against Trump. A few headlines. No hard questions. More silence.
But it did awake a lion from the past. From the days when powerful men feared the truth brought upon them by men of conviction-organizations of conviction. Dan Rather, 84 years old with 50 years of American accountability filed behind him since the days of Eisenhower, Vietnam, Kennedy the civil rights movement, the Cold War- answered.
I felt a shudder down my spine yesterday watching Donald Trump’s fusilade against the press. This is not a moment to be trifled with. It wasn’t his first tirade and it won’t be his last…
…I know what it is like to sit in those seats and feel the scorn and even wrath of politicians of all political persuasions. Attacking the press for unfair coverage has long been a bipartisan pursuit. Sometimes it works. I am happy to say that more often it doesn’t. But Trump’s brand of vituperation is particularly personal and vicious. It carries with it the drumbeats of threatening violence. It cannot be left unanswered.
This is not about politics or policy. It’s about protecting our most cherished principles. The relationship between the press and the powerful they cover is by its very definition confrontational. That is how the Founding Fathers envisioned it, with noble clauses of protection enshrined in our Constitution.
Good journalism–the kind that matters–requires reporters who won’t back up, back down, back away or turn around when faced with efforts to intimidate them. It also requires owners and other bosses with guts, who stand by and for their reporters when the heat is on.
I still believe the pen is mightier than the sword. And in these conflicted and troubled times, we should reward the bravery of the men and women not afraid to ask the hard questions of everyone in power. Our nation’s future depends on it.
The days of Woodward and Bernstein, of Murrow and Wallace and the voices of our past are far closer in time than they feel in our memories. Our nation’s future depends upon them continuing the call. The countless online presences may serve to dilute the dialogue. But we have to be more vigilant. We must not continue to be satisfied with equal treatment for unequal actions. And now more then ever, we must rely on that entity, whose creation separated us from all other ruled men before us. The Press, in its entirety, cannot be perceived to be dishonest. It is not. People are dishonest. Information, when vetted and delivered with the motivation of truth and relevance is omnipotent. Men with much to hide have but one recourse-discredit. We owe it to our society to not bite that hook. Too much is at stake.
Mr. Trump is correct. The press in this country is a real problem. For those with unclean hands, it always has been. And I hope it always is.