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Kicking the Drunken, Prostrate Equine

Edward R. Murrow is victim of the trends he derided, and CBS wallows in shameful revisionism

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, June 15, 1994.

As CBS continues its decline from one of the great icons of journalism to one of the most embarrassing, no greater shame falls upon it than their elevation of Edward R. Murrow into a kind of God. They are shameless. They paid for a movie on his life that made Elvira Madigan seem a documentary. They barely have stopped short of having a musical score played whenever his name is mentioned. And, tonight, CBS is hawking a story implying that Murrow destroyed Tail gunner Joe McCarthy, the psychotic Senator who gave venal libel a bad name. It isn’t true, isn’t close to being true, and while Murrow did do more than the others, McCarthy had already peaked and was falling away. It was not so much as kicking a dead horse as in puncturing an already leaking gas bag while hiding behind the immense power of Bill Paley.

For those who don’t recall, the Wisconsin Senator was famous for inventing wholly fictitious numbers of communists, communist dupes, communist master-minds, assuring the public that being a communist was equivalent to being a traitor, and announcing their existence in key sections of Truman’s and Eisenhower’s administrations. This was just after the United States had fought a war in Korea quite badly, and when MacArthur had it won, lost it by sheer vanity and brought in China against us. Rather than admit that Douglas “I Shall Return” MacArthur had screwed up, the American right, fueled by the bitter crypto-fascists like Joseph Aesop and other brown-nosing journalists, tagged on the supposed loss of China to the nation’s ills and sought out scapegoats in a manner not less odious than France after the war of 1870, which produced the Dreyfuss scandal. In fact, the nailing of American prestige to a lout like Chaing Kai Chek might rank as the biggest bone headed move of the United States in a century of such horrors. McCarthy's eminence was a product, not a creator, of these events: the Rosenberg spy scandal, the loss of China, the threat of North Korea and loss of eastern Europe for which Britain had gone to war ten years previous.

Like the French, who grossly exaggerate the supposed French resistance in the Second World War which, in reality, was very small and just about all communist, the American left has been embarrassed by the utter lack of heroes in the McCarthy witch hunts. They were cowards then and cowards now, and no stronger revisionist streak runs through US academe than over this issue. It’s long past time that someone point out that being a communist in the 1930’s was logical and quite likely for elevated purpose and nothing to be ashamed of, given the information available. What were the heroes of the McCarthy affair? A dottering attorney whining about how cruel McCarthy was. Lillian Hellman refusing to name names...yet. Um. What else. This is not the Sons of Liberty or the ready sword Excalibur. This was pathetic.

And then comes Murrow, paid by CBS and protected by William Paley, who does what might be a heroic expose if McCarthy had not already self-destructed. A drunk, a loud mouth of uncertain sexual persuasion, a man of limited intellect and, like all bullies, one subject to collapse under any pressure, McCarthy did not wear well even to J. Edgar Hoover and the money bags of the American right. When he accused George Marshall of, well, treason, the utter stupidity and surrealism of the moment destroyed him. Marshall, a right wing paragon who ran the military during the second war and was a recent Secretary of State, hardly needed to reply. Nobody other than McCarthy would have conceived of such a charge.

Murrow hitched his well protected wagon to a trend and was just first off the block. Like most American journalists, he kept his digits damp to the thermals. He was no Mencken, who in the face of much worse pressure thirty years before defended Emma Goldman and other anarchists from an equally secure but different place. Murrow spoke from the peak of Black Rock power. Mencken from justice and a small office in Baltimore. CBS has become desperate in its inability to adjust to the present, and so it distorts the past, a fatal error in an institution dedicated, once, to truth.