On March 9, 1954, journalist Edward R. Murrow took down Senator Joseph McCarthy.
Murrow, the country’s most highly revered journalist at the time, devoted an entire episode of See it Now to the troubling accusations of Senator Joseph McCarthy. The Senator from Wisconsin was obsessed with finding Communist ties among American leaders.
At the end of the show, Murrow turned to the camera, saying:
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.
McCarthy replied to Murrow on on the same three weeks later, but his response was widely panned.
How much did Murrow ultimately contribute to McCarthy’s downfall? Some say the Senator’s popularity was already declining. And lawyer Joseph Welch had already famously asked McCarthy if he had “no sense of decency.”
But in our historical memory, it was a brave journalist who performed what we would today call a “takedown” of the Senator.
One thing is for sure: It could never happen today. Journalists in 2017 are seen as partisan, and any effort by a journalist to intervene on behalf of the public to stop a dangerous politician would be seen as “brave” only by those who already disagree with the politician.