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Why We Never Got a “Murrow Moment” With Trump

The days are long gone when a single journalist could fatally wound an American demagogue. But that’s not what actually happened with Murrow’s famous broadcast on Senator Joe McCarthy.

John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Getty Images
Edward R. Murrow in 1951

Back in 2016, as journalists grappled with the challenge of covering Donald Trump’s campaign, some turned for inspiration to legendary journalist Edward R. Murrow, whose televised report about Joseph McCarthy—broadcast 70 years ago this Saturday, on the CBS series See It Now—is often cited as the beginning of the end for the Wisconsin senator. If Murrow’s courageous truth-telling succeeded in taking down one infamous American demagogue, the thinking went, perhaps his successors today could do the same to Trump.

“Today’s media seems to be having a bit of its own Murrow moment, directly confronting presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump and his high-level supporters with charges of racism,” Ryan Grim, The Huffington Post’s D.C. bureau chief at the time, wrote in June 2016. A month later, professor David Mindich wrote at Columbia Journalism Review that “modern-day journalists are acting a lot like Murrow, pushing explicitly against Donald Trump.” After Trump won the White House nonetheless, calls for a “Murrow moment” grew more desperate. “Perhaps if … a Murrow arises with an ability to capture Trump’s indecency in a clear, coherent, resonant way,” former Congressman Steve Israel wrote in 2018, that “indecency will join the history books next to McCarthy’s, where it belongs. We’re waiting.”

Six years later, we are still waiting. Once again, our media must cover a presidential campaign with the highest possible stakes, but this time the race feels both unprecedented and painfully familiar. It remains tempting to hope for a Murrow moment, when a brave journalist—or, more realistically in this age, an overwhelming chorus of journalists—could change the course of history by exposing Trump once and for all. But a fresh look at the evidence reveals that our collective memory of Murrow’s famed McCarthy broadcast is false, or at least incomplete, thereby obscuring the lessons that we might learn from it.

Though it seems the only episode of See It Now remembered well today, the “Report on Senator McCarthy” was an unusual installment of the landmark television newsmagazine, which Murrow co-produced with Fred Friendly from 1951 to 1958. Using what Murrow and Friendly called the “little picture,” a human-sized narrative that illuminates a larger issue, See It Now in 1953 had explored the evils of McCarthyism without ever naming the senator, profiling an Air Force lieutenant who suffered “guilt by association” and dramatizing the public debate over whether to let the American Civil Liberties Union start a chapter in Indianapolis. But on March 9, 1954, Murrow and Friendly explicitly challenged McCarthy, stringing together clips of the senator to expose his lies and highlight his repulsive behavior. The technique they developed—indicting a mendacious politician with his own words—has become so commonplace that it’s difficult to appreciate how new and surprising it was seven decades ago.

But did it have the intended effect? Two days after the broadcast, CBS said it had been flooded with letters, telegrams, and phone calls from grateful viewers—“the largest spontaneous response we have ever known,” running 15-to-1 in support of Murrow. Later analyses, however, raised questions about whether the program actually changed a significant number of minds. See It Now had a relatively small audience; fewer than two-thirds of American homes with televisions could even tune in to CBS for the McCarthy broadcast. While opinion leaders such as The New York Times praised the program, a broader survey of newspaper coverage conducted by media historian Brian Thornton found no more than a handful of editorial responses to the show, suggesting it had a more limited impact on the American consciousness. Murrow himself consistently denied that See It Now brought down McCarthy—because, as the journalism scholar W. Joseph Campbell has noted, the senator had already started losing popular support before the broadcast.

McCarthy had set his own downfall in motion the year before by making the U.S. Army the target of his latest investigation. This put him on a collision course with the leader of his party, President Dwight Eisenhower, and eventually led to the Army-McCarthy hearings, which would prove the senator’s Waterloo. Ahead of those hearings, Murrow’s attack gave McCarthy what he needed: a platform. Before the March 9 episode of See It Now, the senator had tried and failed to pressure the Federal Communications Commission into forcing the television networks to give him free airtime. But the Murrow broadcast included an offer of what McCarthy wanted: “equal time” to respond on CBS. McCarthy used that half hour on April 6 not just to falsely accuse Murrow of aiding the Communist Party, but to claim the existence of a vast, anti-American conspiracy that, he implied, included J. Robert Oppenheimer.

The controversy surrounding Murrow’s program ensured McCarthy’s response enjoyed a larger audience—reaching more than 5.7 million homes, according to one estimate, which was at least 2.4 million more than the original show. In some retellings of the Murrow-McCarthy conflict, this was the moment when the senator destroyed himself, giving such a repulsive performance that viewers could only recoil. But a contemporary survey conducted by the Roper Organization suggests a different, more muddled reaction. Two-thirds of respondents said they’d either watched or learned of McCarthy’s broadcast. Of those, nearly half said McCarthy had either “Proved Murrow pro-Communist” (17 percent) or “Raised doubts” about him (32 percent). Another 26 percent said McCarthy had falsely accused Murrow; the rest couldn’t say one way or the other.

Of course, one would expect an unusually high number of McCarthy supporters to have tuned in to See It Now for his response, thus distorting the comparison with the more typical audience for Murrow’s March 9 show. Yet these results reveal the central problem with the myth of the “Murrow moment,” and the false expectations it creates. The idea that Murrow “tackled Senator McCarthy when he was his most powerful and exposed him as a fraud,” as the historian William Manchester put it, is appealing because it suggests that truth is powerful enough to topple a demagogue. But facts and rational argument can never adequately counter demagoguery; the public always responds more strongly to emotional truths than factual ones. McCarthy’s reply, like Murrow’s original report, had been a Rorschach test; viewers believed whom they were predisposed to believe. Even after the senator’s popularity cratered following the Army-McCarthy hearings, polls showed he still enjoyed the support of more than one-third of the public, which had been the stubborn core of his base all along.

Murrow understood that McCarthyism was bigger than the actions of a single senator, as he explained near the end of his March 9 broadcast. McCarthy, he said, “didn’t create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it—and rather successfully.” The roots of that fear, Murrow believed, could be traced to a public that had forgotten its democratic heritage. As he often did, he encouraged his audience to draw strength and inspiration from American history, reminding them they came from a nation built on the free and open exchange of ideas, before suggesting such fearless dialogue offered the only antidote to McCarthyism. “We can deny our heritage and our history,” Murrow warned, “but we cannot escape responsibility for the result.”

Murrow’s devotion to these principles came from experience; in covering World War II from the Blitz to Buchenwald, he saw what happens when democracy fails. His best work sought to involve the audience in the democratic process, and when he criticized a politician like McCarthy for betraying American ideals, he did so having first communicated why those ideals matter. In a 1961 speech, his last before leaving CBS, Murrow warned his colleagues that the future of American democracy depended on whether the public remained convinced that that system still worked. Journalists, he suggested, had a responsibility to show them it could.

“If a deceived or confused public is betrayed into creating … an America in which it loses its faith, democracy will not survive,” Murrow said. “Neither will it survive if the efforts to inform people, to enlighten them, to argue with them—finally convince them that the nation’s problems are beyond their grasp. If the people finally … believe either that they cannot … cope with America’s problems, or that those who inform, those who argue, and those who act are inept or malign or both, then distrust, dissatisfaction, fear and laziness can combine to turn them in desperation to that ‘strong man’ who can take them only to destruction.”

Seventy years after the McCarthy broadcast, we should remember Murrow not for the mythological notion that he single-handedly brought down a demagogue, but for understanding and combatting the conditions that empower all demagogues. We need journalism that holds dishonest leaders to account, but we also need true Murrow moments that show our democratic system when it works, and communicate how it can work better. If we expect the American people to resist the global lure of authoritarianism, we need to show them why our democracy is worth renewing. Murrow’s example teaches that in order to rebuild public trust in the news media and other American institutions, today’s journalists cannot simply be democracy’s chroniclers or watchdogs—they must also be its advocates and defenders.