Friendly and Murrow were good, but not first

March 13, 1998|By Theo Lippman Jr.

IN the wake of the death of Fred Friendly this month, many commentators proudly recalled his and Edward R. Murrow's 1954 "See It Now" broadcast attacking Sen. Joseph McCarthy for his cruel demagogy on the Communists-in-government issue.

It was an influential program, but Murrow and Friendly were journalistic johnnies-come-lately to exposing McCarthy and his recklessness. First were those ink-stained wretches who wrote for daily newspapers. The two earliest and most relentlessly effective were Phil Potter of The Sun and Murrey Marder of the Washington Post.

Potter, then a reporter in the paper's Washington bureau, wrote one of the great leads in the history of political correspondence about a McCarthy hearing:

"Joseph R. McCarthy, the no good lying son of a bitch from Wisconsin ," it began.

The Sun's detailed coverage of McCarthy began four years before the Murrow broadcast. The Sun was one of the first newspapers to report McCarthy's wild and often downright false charges with extensive reaction from the senator's targets and other people qualified to refute them. Typically, newspapers would just quote McCarthy and bury or ignore rebuttal.

Among the other earliest critics of McCarthy and McCarthyism were brothers Joseph and Stewart Alsop, who wrote a syndicated column; Drew Pearson, also a syndicated columnist; Alan Barth, chief editorial writer of the Washington Post; Herblock, that paper's cartoonist; James Wechsler, editorial page editor of the New York Post; the editorial page staffs of two of the senator's homestate papers, the Madison Capital-Times and the Milwaukee Journal; and a few others. (The Sun and Evening Sun editorial pages were "restrained," as Harold Williams put it in his history of The Sun, describing McCarthy's drawn-out attack on a Johns Hopkins University professor.)

Exposing McCarthyism

A year or two before the Murrow broadcast, the New York Times was pretty fully into the exposure and criticism of McCarthyism. Time magazine, which had called him "loud-mouthed" as early as 1950 but often tempered its criticism of him until 1952, fearful of costing the Republican Party the presidency, became a fiercer critic that year. And numerous smaller newspapers and magazines (the Nation, the New Republic, the Christian Century, for example) also took on McCarthy no-holds-barred by 1952.

VTC And McCarthy fought back.

He always referred to the Alsops as "the All-Slop brothers." The Washington Post was the "Washington Pink Post." And so on.

Sometimes he fought back literally.

Just before Christmas 1950, more than three years before the "See It Now" broadcast, he got into an argument with Pearson in the dining room of a private club in Washington. It carried over into the coatroom. McCarthy began slapping Pearson viciously. Richard M. Nixon happened in and broke it up.

Phil Potter's great lead never got into The Sun. He never sent it. Pounding out things like that on his typewriter helped him let off steam at some outrageous, unfair, cruel speech or act of McCarthy's. When he had gotten his rage out of his system, he would rewrite the story (and they were often very long stories) in more acceptable and more objective reportage.

Murrow and Friendly's show was remarkable for the timid television industry of the 1950s, but far behind what the print press was capable of and engaged in.

Theo Lippman Jr., a former Sun editorial writer, edited "A Gang of Pecksniffs," a collection of H. L. Mencken's commentaries on journalism.

Pub Date: 3/13/98

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