John E. O'Connor "The Moving Image as Historical Document: Analysing Edward R. Murrow's Report on Senator McCarthy"e; In T. O'Regan & B. Shoesmith eds. History on/and/in Film. Perth: History & Film Association of Australia, 1987. 5-16.


John E. O'Connor

Why have traditional historians been slow to appreciate the importance of films and TV programs in their research and teaching?[1] There are a number of reasons but one important one has to do with methodology available to them. It is not unusual to find historical scholars who can debate for hours on the vagaries of seventeeth-century handwriting, but for whom the tools of analysis common to cinema studies - drawn as they are from the fields of literary criticism, anthropology, linguistics, and psychology - seem to be so much mumbo-jumbo. The challenge at hand is to draw the connections between historical methodology and the study of film and TV - including a recognition that semiotics and other communications-oriented means of analysis can and should play an important part. The results should include both a new recognition among historians of the importance of visual sources, and a refinement of the approaches of communications studies based upon the longstanding methodology of historical research.

There are three basic types of questions historians ask of any document before them.[2] First, they ask about the content of the document - what information does it contain? The full analysis of any document demands a fluency in the language in which it is written, including a sensitivity to patterns of useage and idiom, and a close content analysis of what the document has to say (the order in which points are made and the tone in which they are delivered). Secondly, they ask about the conditions under which the document was written. Was the document written with a specific purpose in mind and how might this have coloured its content? Was there information about which the author was unaware? Might the author have had a reason to withhold information from a correspondent, or to stress one or another point to elicit a desired response. Finally, they are concerned with the influence that the document or the information it contained may have had on subsequent events. Regardless of what is known with the benefit of hindsight, how did the document impact upon the people of the times for whom it was written?

The clearest way to impress upon traditional historians the value of moving-image materials is to demonstrate the ways in which the solid historical analysis of film and TV sources can be compared to their tried and true methods for studying manuscripts or other common forms of evidence. There are differences, of course, the most important being the need for historians to begin to come to grips with "visual language." But the similarities are more striking than the differences.

I am involved in two efforts in the United States which seek to establish this connection; one is a project of the American Historical Association funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The other, based at New Jersey Institute of Technology, is supported by the New Jersey Department of Higher Education. Between them, the two projects involve the close analysis of a series of moving-image documents as demonstrations for historians and history teachers.

One focus of this work has been on Edward R. Murrow's famous See it Now: Report on Senator McCarthy. Edward R. Murrow's place in the history of journalism was already well secure before March 9, 1954 when his See it Now broadcast confronted Senator Joseph R. McCarthy and laid bare for viewers some of the most troubling aspects of McCarthyism. Still, it is the McCarthy broadcast that jumps first into many people's minds when they seek to describe the Murrow legend.

Although on some level every film (like any product of a culture) can be thought of as an historical document or artifact, the ones which fit that bill most obviously are those films which are either based upon an era of history as their subject matter, or become forces in history themselves, by impinging on the development of historical issues, or events. The McCarthy broadcast meets both of these criteria, making it particularly valuable for historical analysis. As it turns out, this "moving-image document" was also of particular interest at the conference in Perth because several participants reported that the film had not been screened in Australia for a very long time.

The analysis to follow is structured around the three basic types of questions the historian must ask of any film/or TV production as an historical document: questions about its content (what does it say?), about its production (how may the forces at work in producing it have influenced what it says?), and about its reception (what did it mean to the people who saw it at the time?).


The See it Now: Report on Senator McCarthy is 25 minutes in length, the typical running time for any program produced to fill (with commercials) one half-hour of TV. The setting is a newsroom, where Murrow sits at the control console with several video screens and numerous knobs and buttons before him. As the program opens, Murrow explains that this will be a report on Senator McCarthy using his own words and pictures and that the producers will allow the Senator an opportunity to rebut what they have to say. Murrow also indicates that, to be sure that he says exactly what he and his co-producer Fred Friendly mean to say, he intends to read his comments about McCarthy from script. Then, Murrow launches into a series of critiques of McCarthy in six major sequences (see the more detailed descriptive outline of scenes attached).

In the first sequence following Murrow's introduction (scenes 2 and 3 in the attached outline), the broadcast contrasts two statements made by McCarthy. The first film clip, identified as recorded in October 1952, shows McCarthy saying that America's fight against communism should not be made a partisan battle between Democrats and Republicans. This is followed immediately by a second statement recorded later (on audiotape) where McCarthy directly contradicts his own statement, charging the Democratic Party with "twenty years of treason."

In the second sequence (scenes 4-6 in the attached outline) McCarthy's relationship with President Eisenhower is brought into focus. The choice of clips seems to fault McCarthy for arrogance in the way he coyly hesitated to offer his political support to Eisenhower, eventually did offer it, and then withdrew it months later, as it suited his own political purpose. This is also the sequence in which we see McCarthy's insane little laugh. It might be argued that the broadcast image and sound of that laugh was more damaging to McCarthy than the intellectual substance of what Murrow had to say. When they see that laugh, many students today are amazed that the nation took this man seriously.

In the third sequence (scene 7) McCarthy is shown being honoured at a testimonial dinner where, after receiving the most sickeningly sweet praise, he spends two minutes explaining to the audience that he is so emotionally choked up that he can't speak to them.

The fourth sequence (scenes 9-12) illustrates in matter-of-fact fashion the background of McCarthy's growing confrontation with the Army - a confrontation which was to lead - six weeks after the Murrow broadcast - to the Army McCarthy hearings. The sequence includes shots of McCarthy standing under a mural of "Washington Crossing the Delaware", as he surveys testimony given before his congressional committee.

The fifth sequence illustrates McCarthy's use of the "half truth" in a clip from a speech made one week before the 1952 presidential election. Murrow follows McCarthy's statement with a point by point explanation of the way in which McCarthy's statement misrepresented the truth.

The sixth sequence (scene 16 and the first part of 17) illustrates several of the tactics McCarthy utilised in his congressional investigations. Reed Harris was denied counsel, was unable to meet his accusers face to face, and was damned through "guilt by association" with (of all groups) the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). This sequence is especially powerful, because McCarthy seems so arrogant and unfair in pressing his questions and because Harris defends himself so ably against McCarthy's verbal assaults. Viewers have a graphic illustration that there is an alternative to meekly submitting.

The seventh and closing sequence (scene 17) represents the intellectual high point of the broadcast - I would say one of the intellectual high points of the history of TV. Murrow's statement on the responsibility of citizens in a democracy is important enough to reread to students several times and to devote some considerable discussion time to.

In chronological terms, the film deals with only two years in the career of Senator McCarthy. It opens with his somewhat hesitant involvement in the 1952 Eisenhower/Nixon campaign and deals with his activities leading up to his confrontation with the US Army in the Spring of 1954. The film does not make specific reference to either the background of growing anti-communism and Cold War attitudes since 1945, nor does it deal with McCarthy's career leading up to 1952. Of course, these were current events with which viewers would have been presumed to be familiar in 1954 when the film was produced.

In addition to introducing images of McCarthy himself, the film includes specific (if sometimes rather oblique) references to other well-known and not so well-known figures at the time. We see pictured in congressional hearings such luminaries of the Senate as Henry Jackson (later Democratic Presidential hopeful) and John McClellan, long-term Democratic Senator from Arkanas. On the same panel sit the young Counsel of McCarthy's sub-committee, Robert F. Kennedy, and McCarthy's personal aide Roy Cohn (up until his recent death an attorney and influential conservative spokesman in New York City). Dwight Eisenhower appears on film, speaking from the rear of a railroad car in the 1952 presidential campaign and from a White House press conference, and Secretary of the Army Robert Stevens is shown defending his staff against McCarthy's charges. Although he does not actually appear on the screen, there is reference to Adlai Stevenson, Governor of Illinois and Eisenhower's Democratic opposition in 1952 (and again in 1956), and reference is made to Alger Hiss, convicted for perjury after being pressed for several years by Richard Nixon and other anti-communists, (for denying under oath that he had belonged to the communist party in the 1930s). Finally, there is an indirect reference to Major Irving Peress, a dentist who had been forced to accept a discharge from the army for refusing to discuss his possible leftist political associations (in the film McCarthy is shown referring to Peress as a "pink army dentist"); and to General Ralph Zwicker, commanding officer at Fort Kilmer, who had come under attack by McCarthy for not being more forthcoming with information about the handling of the Peress case.

The intellectual content of the program is effective in pointing up some of the worst of McCarthy's tactics. It illustrates quite clearly the very "unAmerican" approach he took to criticise those who he charged with being unAmerican (the use of the "half truth", guilt by association, etc.). Murrow's closing analysis is very cogent - concentrating on the climate of fear which McCarthy was able to capitalise upon and showing that McCarthy had in fact used that fear in two ways. The fear of communism led people to listen to his charges, and the fear of being named by McCarthy or blacklisted in some other way intimidated people from speaking out against him. The fear had done more than make people silent; it had driven them to allow people's constitutional rights to be abrogated with little broad outcry of protest.

The pervasiveness of the fear is evident in other less obvious ways in the film as well. For example, Reed Harris responds to McCarthy on the stand with the comment that he has come to the realisation that American communists are "nothing more than a plain-clothes auxiliary of the Red Army." We can wonder whether Harris really did believe that the activities of American communists were ordered directly from Moscow, but it seems clear that, even if he did believe so, his willingness to express that judgment in such exaggerated and hyperbolic terms was influenced by the atmosphere of unreasoning fear. It is also interesting to note that, while Murrow was surely acting courageously in the production of the program, and he did speak out in defense of such organisations as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Institute for Pacific Relations, and individuals such as Reed Harris and others, there was at least one mistatement in the footage shown of McCarthy that Murrow did not correct. McCarthy was allowed to mistakenly identify Alger Hiss as a convicted traitor without Murrow pointing out that Hiss had been convicted of perjury, not of treason. Was it oversight? Was it, perhaps, a judgment made by Murrow not to carry his "correcting" of the Senator's statements too far? Certainly a defense of a person convicted of any crime associated with the communist issue would have provided ammunition that critics might use to lend credence to the charges McCarthy was sure to bring against Murrow. Was there some fear for at least prudence) at work in Murrow himself?

A close content analysis of the film shows how, in addition to mounting a sound intellectual argument, the producers deftly applied all of the creative visual tools at their command to heighten the effectiveness of what they wanted to say. The structure of the film created the impression that the producers were not stating a position, but allowing McCarthy to speak for himself through film clips. What could be more fair?

Yet this structure for the program provided an artificial environment in which McCarthy's statements could be easily taken out of context and used to their worst effect. As noted below, some See it Now staff thought that the images themselves, even as edited for desired effect, needed Murrow's narration to avoid misinterpretation. Consider how easy it would be for a TV producer to find footage of any major political leader contradicting himself on some subject over the period of two or three years. The point was accentuated (in scene 13 in the attached breakdown of the program) when the producers used the clip of McCarthy asking a rhetorical question: "On what meat doth this our Caesar feed?" Only to have Murrow turn it back on him with an analysis of his tactics in the 1952 campaign and in the cross examination of Reed Harris. The rhetorical format of the program allowed the producers to significantly increase the impact of their criticism of McCarthy.

There is one sequence in the film which appears on the surface to be sympathetic to McCarthy. It may be argued that the coverage (in the third sequence) of McCarthy being praised at a testimonial dinner in his honour, serves as some kind of balance for all of the criticism to follow. But it is a subtle point which loses much of its effectiveness because the praise is so sickeningly sweet as to seem invariably insincere. Moreover, there is irony here, in that the man who had never hesitated to say the most outlandish things and brandish the most unsubstantiated charges is shown in the uncomfortable position of being unable to find words with which to express himself.

Repeated viewing and close analysis of the film suggests that, in addition to designing the rhetorical structure of the program to create an atmosphere in which they could be particularly critical of McCarthy, the visual images themselves seem to have been manipulated to influence the audience to react unconsciously against him. Consider the embarrassing footage such as McCarthy's insane little laugh (in scene 5) and the terribly saccarine testimonial dinner (in scene 6). Neither of these short pieces of footage added significantly to the information content of the program, yet each was another nail (perhaps even a larger nail when the subtle and unconscious impact of the image is considered) in the coffin of McCarthy's public reputation.

In the scene in which McCarthy is shown reviewing the General Zwicker testimony (scene 8 in the enclosed breakdown) besides showing McCarthy in a particularly emotional state where he must stop and wipe the perspiration from his brow, and where he is seen again with his nervous little laugh, the images have been given added impact through careful shot composition, camera movement and editing.

It is clear from the footage that was shot in the first place that the cameraman included at least one shot in which he panned down to the Senator from the mural of Washington crossing the Delaware on the wall above and behind. To what extent was he aware of the comparisons such a camera movement might suggest? It is arguable that for a supporter of McCarthy the Washington comparison might serve as an idolisation of his champion (or a heightened criticism of General Zwicker); but for the senator's critics, the images of him charged with emotion as he slurs the reputation of a respected career officer, looked all the worse in the shadow of the heroic Washington. There are nine individual shots in this scene as outlined below:

Shot 1: Before we even realise that McCarthy is standing below, the camera holds still on a shot of the Washington mural as Murrowexplains that McCarthy had commented on his questioning of General Zwicker. Cut to ...

Shot 2: Mid shot of McCarthy at podium with two people on dais on either side of him. The tops of the heads of several people in the audience can be seen. Cut to ...

Shot 3: Close-up of McCarthy. "Are you enjoying this abuse of the general?" Cut to ...

Shot 4: Mid shot of Washington in mural. Camera pans down to McCarthy holding papers and gesturing. "Here is the real meat of the abuse ..." Cut to ...

Shot 5: Slightly closer shot of McCarthy. " ... does not deserve to be a general." APPLAUSE. Cut to ...

Shot 6: Reaction shot. Cut to ...

Shot 7: Close-up of McCarthy looking to his right. "Wait till you hear the bleeding hearts ..." Cut to ...

Shot 8: Reaction shot. Cut to ...

Shot 9: Close-up of McCarthy. "Oh you can get tough ..." McCarthy smoothes hair. As he finishes statement, McCarthy continues to look into the camera silently as he swirls his tongue in his mouth.

In shot 4 it was the cameraman's decision to relate the senator with the mural behind him, but the accentuation of that comparison in shot 1 was the decision of the producers who supervised the editing of the footage.

The nine shots take several minutes to run, and the effect is that of watching and listening to McCarthy speak for that length of time. But each of the cuts between the shots in fact represents a seam in what otherwise appears to be a seamless presentation. These are observations that would be immediately evident to anyone with the slightest experience in documentary film production, but they demand explanation for those otherwise untrained in the production process. If the footage was shot with a single camera (as was and is often the case with such reporting), each one of the eight cuts would necessarily represent a gap of time. There is no reason in this case to suspect so, but it would be possible for the statements seen and heard to have been rearranged in the editing room so that they appeared in an order different from the original speech.

The reaction shots of people supposedly listening to McCarthy, seem to have been photographed in the same room on the same occasion, but ordinary practice would have been to photograph them either before McCarthy started to speak or after he finished. The facial expressions should not be considered as reactions to the specific words spoken on the soundtrack at that moment. (Productions today which are photographed with several cameras and which are edited "live" by a director switching from one camera to another are an exception to this rule - but it is difficult to be sure.)

The very end of the sequence is interesting as well. Shot 9 stays on the screen longer than one might think appropriate. For more than a few seconds after McCarthy has finished his statement, the camera remains on his face. The effect on the viewer is described by the technical term "centripetal decay." Depending on the complexity of an image, it takes a viewer a greater or lesser time to take in the details of the visual information. To leave the image on the screen after that saturation point is reached is to invite the viewer to think more deeply about what is being seen. For example, the image of a person who has just finished speaking, if left on the screen, invites the viewer to imagine which must be going on inside that person's mind at the moment. This is precisely what Murrow and Friendly wanted to happen. In addition to using very pointed (and valid) intellectual arguments to encourage viewers to question what McCarthy was doing, they were also using the technical tools of visual communication to work on people unconsciously.

I must stress here that I am not calling for sympathy for McCarthy. He deserved everything he got, and then some. What students should be made aware of, however, was that to some extent the effectiveness of Murrow's attack was based upon the cinematic form of the program and the subtle emotional (and unconsciously communicated) messages of certain of the images. This may serve to heighten Murrow's reputation as an altruistic political David effectively slaying (or at least doing considerable damage) to the Goliath of the 1950s anti-communist Right, but it should lead us to question the extent to which the program is a model piece of journalism. Indeed, as suggested below, it might appropriately lead us to a consideration of what the elements of good journalism might be. Is it justifiable for journalists to use such techniques as seem to have been used in the McCarthy program to manipulate an audience's unconscious response? Can good journalism share any of the characteristics of effective propaganda or are the two, by nature, antithetical? This is less intended to challenge Murrow and Friendly than it is to focus the attention of educators on the important task before them.


The most logical place to start in outlining the production background for the McCarthy broadcast is with the background and reputation of Murrow's career up to that time. After graduating from college in 1930 and working for several years for student and educational organizations, he went to work for the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) in a capacity where he made the arrangements for important people to appear on the air. He was doing that work in Europe when World War 2 broke out, opening the opportunity for him to become a broadcaster in his own right. Murrow's reports from Britain suffering under the Nazi Blitz provide some of the most memorable moments in the history of radio. Soon after his return to the United States, Murrow began his long and productive association with Fred Friendly, a developer of ideas for radio shows. Their first project was a series of phonograph albums, I Can Hear it Now, which had Murrow introducing segments from the recorded speeches of people who had made world history during the dramatic years of the jazz age, the depression and the war. By 1950, Hear it Now had become a weekly radio series with Murrow (on microphone) and both Murrow and Friendly behind the scenes, reporting on the news issues of the day. A year later CBS premiered See it Now in a half-hour slot on Sunday afternoons.[3]

From the outset, viewers were encouraged to think of See it Now in a special way. Besides the personal magnetism and journalistic reputation that Murrow brought to the enterprise, the design of the show had much of the action take place with Murrow seated at the video control panel with several monitors visible. This gave viewers something of a sense of being insiders; they were part of a program themselves - privy to the sort of technological marvels that could allow Murrow and Friendly on their first program to televise, for the first time ever, simultaneous live pictures of the east and west coasts of the United States.

While Murrow was the first TV spokesman to take such a strong public stand against McCarthy, print journalists had done so for a long time - as noted indirectly in the program by Murrow's quoting from several stacks of major papers - the majority of which had come out against the senator. In fact, TV has usually followed the print media in editorial trends rather than leading the way. Part of what makes them more cautious is the special opportunity for making money in broadcasting - an opportunity that was just becoming evident in 1954.

Statistics of the time provide a startling indication of how the early TV audience grew so quickly. The 3,875,000 TV families in America as of 1950 had increased to 26,000,000 by 1954 when the McCarthy broadcast was aired. By 1956 it would rise to 34,000,000, representing 67% of the population; and by 1960 that percentage rose to 88%.[4] The overnight burgeoning of the audience had vastly increased the commercial value of TV time. As air time became so much more valuable, the company became less willing to sacrifice time to less lucrative public-interest programming or to special news programming which might bring in no revenue at all. Although Murrow's program was very popular, the station came to realise over the year or two to follow that they could make more money from that time slot by running entertainment programming instead, so that See it Now was first relegated to a Sunday afternoon slot, and then cancelled altogether. It was only in the 1970s that TV production companies came to realise that, rather than a commercially untenable enterprise necessitated by federal license requirements that they provide "public service", news could become a profit centre in its own right. It was at that point that news production consultants began their popularity and the paychecks of anchor men and women began to soar.

The significance of the McCarthy broadcast should also be understood in the context of other See it Now program topics. Murrow and Friendly were not afraid to take on such controversial topics as the connection between smoking and lung cancer (ironic because of Murrow's ever present cigarette), and they were moved to speak out against the injustice which they perceived in the stories of victims of the anti-communist hysteria of the period. As early as 1953 the See it Now staff had been collecting and updating film material for a program on Senator McCarthy. But the first related issue that they addressed fortnightly was the case of Milo Radulovich, an Air Force Reserve lieutenant whose loyalty was being questioned because of what the government judged to be his father's and his sister's left-wing political associations. The Radulovich episode (the program aired in October, 1953) is fully described by Daniel Leab. Leab describes the filming of the interviews for this program as follows: "Most of the scenes, whether interviews or not, were shot several times from different angles and in different ways (close-ups, medium shot, long views, etc)."[5] Although viewers might presume differently, the production process for many of See it Now programs involved more than simply the collecting and stringing together of clips of impromptu interviews or unstaged actuality footage. The most important aspect of the Radulovich episode, however, was the government's response to it. As Leab explains, six weeks after the broadcast the Secretary of the Air Force appeared on the program to announce that they had changed their minds in the Radulovich case and would allow him to retain his commission.

A month after the Radulovich program, and several weeks before the Air Force announced its reaction, See it Now took on another hot topic. In a report they called An Argument in Indianapolis Murrow and Friendly focused on the controversy surrounding the American Legion in that Indiana city using its influence to have the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) denied access to a meeting hall. Eventually the ACLU was offered space in a Roman Catholic church for its meeting, but the controversy raged on. As Murrow's biographer described their program: "Murrow and Friendly used their cameras to cut back and forth between American Legion and ACLU meetings held the same evening, in separate halls, thus providing a running debate on a question of constitutional rights. It was a highly effective use of the TV medium. Not only the antagonists but the juxtaposition of their arguments spoke for themselves."[6] Again, Murrow and Friendly had used the unique abilities of the medium and its visual language (creative editing in this case) to give their points added weight.

Certain newspapers and columnists had spoken out against McCarthy since the beginning of his crusade, and the senator had responded with charges of pro-communists (or anti-communist) bias, but special pressures were felt in the broadcast media. Red Channels and Counterattack were publications which blacklisted individuals in radio and TV for their often loosely defined political associations. CBS went so far as to require its employees, including Murrow and Friendly, to sign loyalty oaths, but as Leab points out there were still those who dubbed it the "Communist Broadcasting System". As the Radulovich and subsequent programs should have made clear, Murrow was recognised for his left-of-centre political orientation. But Murrow's biographer explains how two incidents brought the tenor of the times home to him in a more personal way.[7]

The first of these involved a 1948 incident in which a friend and colleague from his earlier work in international education activities had either fallen or jumped from the sixteenth floor rooftop of his Washington D.C. office building after being caught up in anti-communist charges involving the Alger Hiss and Whitaker Chambers case. His name was subsequently cleared, but the ease with which certain politicians (in this case Senator Karl Mundt and Richard Nixon) bandied about charges of communist association and implied treason shook Murrow to the core. He must must have been reminded of this in the weeks after the Radulovich broadcast as a representative from McCarthy's office called aside one of his CBS associates to warn him that the senator had evidence of Murrow's own supposedly left-wing past. At issue was a 1935 report from an unscrupulously partisan Hearst newspaper which had identified Murrow with a group that was sending American students to Moscow. For Murrow, then Assistant Director of the Institute of International Education, the project was an exchange program meant to promote international understanding (indeed the plans had fallen through before any American students got to Russia anyway), but McCarthy would be sure to paint him as a communist sympathizer sending young impressionable Americans overseas for ideological indoctrination. The evident expectation that the threat of exposure might intimidate Murrow from speaking out only strengthened his resolve. From that point, Friendly reports, he did wonder about the possibility of his telephone being tapped, but Murrow pressed on with plans for speaking out against McCarthy directly.

Although Friendly dates the decision to begin collecting materials for an eventual report on McCarthy in Spring, 1953, historian Gerald Oshinsky suggests that it was only after McCarthy's attempt to intimidate Murrow (after the Radulovich broadcast) that Murrow began to gather materials for a McCarthy broadcast. "When Murrow learned what had happened, he ordered his staff to gather all the available clips on McCarthy. The incident angered and embarrassed Murrow. He hated the senator, yet had done almost nothing to oppose him." - Nothing yet.[8] Oshinsky is suggesting that Murrow's attack on McCarthy may have represented a self-defense tactic to beat McCarthy to the punch; to come out clearly against the senator and everything he stood for before McCarthy could publicly try to smear Murrow's own reputation with the story of the planned student exchange to Moscow. Linda Sperber's recent book adds little of significance to what we know about the Murrow/McCarthy episode, but she does cite at least one member of the See it Now team remembering the order to collect a visual dossier on McCarthy as early as 1951.[9]

By this time the senator's confrontation with the US Army was heating up significantly.[10] In September and October 1953 McCarthy had focused his attention on accusations of espionage activities associated with the Army Signal Corps at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. He held hearings in Washington based largely on the testimony of people who had left signal-corps related work soon after the war, and was unable to uncover any real evidence of current subversion there, but the effect was still to spread the climate of fear over the military. In December, 1953, McCarthy was tipped off regarding the case of Irving Peress, the army dentist whose official files had been bungled by the military bureaucracy in such a way that at the same time that one office was seeking his removal for failing to answer questions on the army's Loyalty Certificate, another office had automatically promoted him. The army soon discovered its foul up and (fearing the response of McCarthy or those like him if they found out) tried to cover the mistake by separating Peress from the service as quickly and quietly as possible. But this only complicated matters more in that in the process Peress received an honorable discharge. Meanwhile a new army inductee was the subject of concern. G. David Schine, a young assistant on McCarthy's staff who had been drafted into the army, was getting better treatment than his fellows in basic training (the Schine situation would become a central matter in the Army-McCarthy hearings later in the Spring of 1954.)

The Army was not pleased with the unsubstantiated charges that McCarthy was making, but their ire was not fully awoken until February 18, 1954, when the senator brought before his Sub-Committee on Investigations both Peress (now separated from the service) and General Ralph Zwicker, recently appointed commanding general at Camp Kilmer, where Peress had last served. As described by Oshinsky,[11] Zwicker was a sympathetic character who had done nothing more than falter slightly before McCarthy on the witness stand in answering questions about who it had been who had allowed Peress to be promoted (Zwicker's orders from superiors were to refuse to answer because such questions violated a presidential Executive Order intended to preserve the integrity of executive branch decisions). McCarthy's response was to publicly berate Zwicker, calling this loyal military officer and significant contributor to the victories at Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge a disgrace in uniform. In the days that followed, as the Secretary of the Army and the President reacted to McCarthy and as Murrow and Friendly came close to a decision to finally air a program on McCarthy himself, it became clear that the Zwicker incident would be a crucial element in the story they would tell. But because it had taken place in a closed hearing, there had been no newsreel or other camera recording the senator's tirade. Then came a stroke of luck which may have been a factor in urging Murrow and Friendly to move. Since earlier the previous year when the decision was made to collect visual materials on McCarthy, See it Now cameraman Charlie Mack and reporter and associate producer Joe Wershba had been trailing him around the country, whenever possible filming his public presentation. As Friendly explained: rare good luck Mack and Wershba had been present in Philadelphia when the Senator restaged the entire episode - including the verbatim reading of the transcript - for a Washington's Birthday celebration. The scene, enacted under a huge mural of the first president, took on an additional terror because of McCarthy's obvious delight in reliving it all - the unbridled bravado and rage were interspersed with the famous McCarthy giggle.[12]

This was the footage used in sequence 9 analysed above.

Murrow's and Friendly's decision to go ahead with the McCarthy program for March 9 was one they made on their own. The degree of independence they enjoyed was largely the result of Murrow's reputation and his personal relationship with CBS board chairman William S. Paley. (Friendly suggests that it may also have been due to the fact that network executives were not yet fully aware of the financial possibilities that the medium presented. He describes how, a few years later, he faced their absolute opposition for a decision he had made to interrupt ordinary commercial daytime programming to televise key portions of a congressional committee hearing of vital public interest.[13]) In 1954, the independence of See it Now was so secure that, while Paley and CBS News President Frank Stanton knew that the broadcast was coming (Stanton learned about it only hours before air time) neither had seen the program beforehand. The producers had an understanding with their sponsor, Alcoa Aluminium, that commercials might be limited to the beginning and the end of the program if a topic of special interest required no break of concentration - rather than check with Alcoa they made the decision to schedule the commercials for this broadcast themselves. Murrow and Friendly even used their own money to take a simple advertisement announcing the program on the TV listing page of the New York Times.

Friendly explains how the cutting room staff gathered on the first morning of the week in which the McCarthy program would be put together and "worked through the next six days. Everyone went home for one or two short nights, but the Moviola lights were on all the time and our projectionist did not have a single day or night off."[14] Murrow's biographer describes how the decision to narrate the program was made during that week, as members of the crew, gathered to review the selected footage.

Murrow asked the small See it Now group whether the program would be effective. The editors said yes, but the reporters said no. One of the latter explained that the film itself was "neutral", that it would encourage McCarthy's supporters by showing them their hero in full cry, but at the same time would give McCarthy opponents no comfort that anything could be done about McCarthyism. Indeed since the opinion polls showed McCarthy's popularity to be rising, his appearance on a national TV program in prime time might enhance it even more. Murrow's response was the observation that: "the terror is right here in this room."[15]

Friendly's account of the meeting goes on to explain how he and Murrow had asked each member of the group whether there was "anything in their own backgrounds that would give the senator a club to beat us with." When no one indicated any personal vulnerability, all turned to Murrow who paused and then said: "We, like everyone in this business, are going to be judged by what we put on the air; but we also shall be judged by what we don't broadcast. If we pull back on this we'll have it with us always."[16]

The program was aired at 10.30 pm on Tuesday evening. Great care had been given to edit and time the film sequences, but Murrow's comments were spoken into the camera at the same time they were broadcast to the nation.


The response was immediate. As Murrow finished his commentary, CBS correspondent David Hollenbeck came on the air with the regular 11 o:clock news. "I want to associate myself with every word just spoken by Ed Murrow," Hollenbeck said.

Leab notes that the response to the program was the "largest spontaneous response" that the network ever experienced. Nationwide they ran 9 to 1 in favour of Murrow. Friendly remembers that over the course of the next few days Murrow, CBS and their station affiliates received between seventy-five and one hundred thousand letters, heavily weighted against McCarthy.[17] Kendrick cites examples of people coming up to Murrow in the street over the following few days to congratulate him for his stand, and Friendly notes that the 1954 Freedom House award that had earlier gone to the likes of Dwight Eisenhower, Bernard Baruch and George Marshall, was bestowed on Murrow with the words: "Free men were heartened by his courage in exposing those who would divide us by exploiting our fears."[18]

There were the expected criticisms from media critics who were supporters of McCarthy or hostile to Murrow, such as Jack O'Brian, TV critic for Hearst's Journal American, but the bulk of response in the press was positive as well.

Just two days after the March 9th broadcast the senator called Annie Lee Moss before his committee charging that she was the clearest example yet of communist subversion into sensitive positions in government. Here was a poor and simple black women who had lost her menial job at the state department because her name had appeared on a list of people identified with the communist party. It came out in the testimony that she had never heard of Karl Marx and didn't even know what the word espionage meant.[19] Once more McCarthy had rushed ahead with unsubstantiated charges. See it Now cameras were present at the inquisition of Annie Lee Moss and the very next program on March 16, 1954, was devoted to it. Commentary from Murrow was unnecessary this time, McCarthy's actions really did speak for themselves.

Three weeks after that, on April 6, McCarthy took advantage of Murrow's offer of equal time to rebut what had been said about him. The first fifteen minutes showed McCarthy sitting at a desk (with absolutely no cut aways to newsreel or other footage - this was visually a boring presentation) discussing the threat of the communist conspiracy. The second half of the program had him at a map of the world showing the fearful spread of the slavery of communism. In the context of this presentation he renewed his charges against numerous Americans who he saw as in league with our enemies, and he named as "the leader of the jackal pack" none other than Edward R. Murrow, citing the "evidence" of Murrow's experience in the 1930s.

Perhaps the most thoughtful critique of McCarthy came from Gilbert Seldes, media critic for Saturday Review, who wrote only after the McCarthy reply. Seldes had been a friend and supporter of Murrow, but he expressed concern about what he saw as misuse of the medium. By calling the program "A Report on Senator McCarthy" Seldes thought, the producers had assumed a somewhat objective stance which the program that followed did not reflect. Rather than a report, this was "an attack, followed by an editorial appeal to action ..." Seldes was no defender of McCarthy, but he was distressed nonetheless. "In the long run," he wrote, "it is more important to use our communications systems properly than to destroy McCarthy ..."

Was the decision to attack McCarthy under the cover of a supposedly objective "report" a proper one? Sperber suggests that Murrow's conscience bothered him over the decision to go after McCarthy in this way.[20] Was it fair for Murrow and Friendly to select film so uniformly harmful to McCarthy, to use such manipulative editing, or to capitalise on a rhetorical structure which could be so powerful in leading and shaping the thoughts of an audience? Some would argue that in such a confrontation, one in which McCarthy would not hesitate to use any weapon, the kind of latitude used by See it Now was perfectly justifiable. Friendly writes that, at the time of the Radulovich broadcast, Murrow had reasoned that complete objectivity was impossible. "We can't make the Air Force's case if they won't help us. Besides, some issues aren't equally balanced. We can't sit there every Tuesday night and give the impression that for every argument on one side there is an equal one on the other side."[21]

Leab quotes Murrow as having stated on the air at one point that "this program is not a place where personal opinion should be mixed up with ascertainable fact. We shall do our best ... to resist the temptation to use this microphone as a privileged platform from which to advocate action." Clearly, as Leab continues, the temptation had on several occasions proven too great.[22] Kendrick states that Murrow was aware that "by using TV against a single individual he might have set a precedent that could someday be employed to damage or dishonour free government." "Is it not possible," as Seldes wrote "that an infectious smile, eyes that seem remarkable for the depths of their sincerity, a cultivated air of authority, may attract a huge television audience, regardless of the violence that may be done to truth or objectivity?"[23] Some would argue that at some point it becomes the responsibility of the journalist to speak out loudly about some social or political concern - they, after all, are citizens too.

The question here is how to speak out? Did the visual techniques used in the production of this broadcast differ in any definable way from those used in any other? Were the decisions involved in editing interviews and newsfilm for the program driven purely by objective production concerns, or were they invariably influenced by the politics of the situation? If the editing did become a political tool, were Murrow and Friendly justified in manipulating the unconscious response of the audience in response to all the manipulation that McCarthy had practiced? What if the editing decisions were not politically motivated, but simply a carrying out of the normal procedures (for example, using cutaways to shorten a too-long speech or interview with the unintended effect of suggesting to the entire audience that they have heard the entire speech)? It would seem that regardless of intent, scholars (like journalists) should be concerned about the messages taken in by viewers and the ways in which these messages might affect attitudes.

What effect can we say that the Murrow broadcast had on the demise of McCarthy and McCarthyism? Regrettably, there was no such direct response as there was to the Radulovich program. It is broadly recognized among media historians, and even political historians such as Oshinsky, that the program did "enormous damage" to McCarthy.[24] Leab recounts how in later years media leaders and critics have looked back to the Murrow broadcast as the beginning of their feeling free to address McCarthy and McCarthyism. Leab goes on to cite Murrow's own analysis with the benefit of hindsight: "The time was right... We did it fairly well... There was a great conspiracy of silence at the time; when there is such a conspiracy and somebody makes a loud noise it attracts all the attention."[25] The anti-communist hysteria did not simply go away, however. An unfortunate reminder came three months after the McCarthy broadcast, and soon after the close of the Army-McCarthy hearings, when Murrow's friend and colleague David Hollenbeck committed suicide, after a continuing series of attacks upon him, by Hearst columnist Jack O'Brian as one of Murrow's "pinkos." Friendly stops short of blaming O'Brian for Hollenbeck's death, but he and Murrow took it very hard.

It should be remembered that, although the press had taken earlier stands against McCarthy, this film has been credited with being a major factor in the encouragement of that opposition, dramatising how vulnerable McCarthy really was. The reception of the film should also be understood in the context of the Army/McCarthy hearings which followed in April and May of 1954 and eventually gave the American people a much fuller chance to see McCarthy in action. It is unfortunate that the clearest memories that many people have of the hearings is not from the TV coverage itself but from the film Point of Order which was later made from the footage - and shamelessly edited to show McCarthy at his absolute worst. In this context Point of Order makes the visual bias of See it Now seem mild indeed.

Aside from the content analysis of the program, much of what has been recounted here is based upon several well-known secondary accounts. But the point has been less to develop new insight into the production and reception of the film than to demonstrate that deriving the most complete meaning and the most suggestive implications from a moving-image document involves asking the same basic questions - applying the same basic methodology - that historians bring to bear on all the other forms of evidence that they study. Historians who may have been discouraged from the study of film by the inbred resistance to one or another "alien" methodology, may respond differently when addressed in their own terms. Also hopefully, colleagues in communications and cinema studies may recognize the value of the basic tools of historical scholarship - along with the paradigms and syntagms - particulary in helping to fill out the cultural context in which moving-image documents must finally be understood.


1. The material in this paper is to be published as part of a series of history-related curriculum materials developed under a grant from the New Jersey Department of Higher Education. A shortened version will appear in the journal Film and History.

2. Acually there are a series of preliminary questions (which communications scholars might also keep in mind) having to do with the authenticity and completeness of sources.

3. For a fuller treatment see Daniel Leab's "See it Now: A Legend Reassessed" in John E. O'Connor, ed. American History/ American Television: Interpreting the Video Past (New York, 1983), pp.33-54.

4. See Statistical Abstract of the United States from Colonial Times to the Present and Statistical Abstract of the United States.

5. Leab, passim.

6. Alexander Kendrick, Prime Time: The Life of Edward R. Murrow (Boston, 1969), p. 39.

7. Ibid, pp. 36-37, 46-48.

8. David M. Oshinsky, A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy (New York: 1985), p. 398.

9. Sperber, Murrow: His Life and Times (New York, 1986), p.390

10. Details on McCarthy and the broader events discussed here are based upon the Oshinsky volume.

11. Oshinsky, pp. 366-7.

12. Fred Friendly, Due to Circumstances Beyond our Control (New York, 1967), pp. 31-32.

13. Ibid, pp. 212-66.

14. Friendly, pp. 30-31.

15. Kendrick, Prime Time: The Life of Edward R. Murrow, pp. 50-51.

16. Friendly, pp.33-34.

17. Friendly, p. 43.

18. Friendly, p. 68.

19. Oshinsky, pp. 380-84, 401-03 for more on the Moss episode. Oshinsky suggests that Moss may in fact have been involved in some way with communists.

20. Sperber, Morrow: His Life and Times, Chapter 13 passim, but especially pp. 433-34. In fact she quotes Murrow as appreciating Selde's point of view: "You sonuvabith (to Seldes) ! You've made me think about a lot of things I thought I'd settled - but God bless you." p. 441.

21. Friendly, p. 10.

22. Leab, p. 9.

23. Kendrick, p. 54.

24. Oshinsky, p. 395.

25. Leab, p.21.

html markup=Tom O'Regan, with a few additions by Garry Gillard, 7 June 1998, 10 February, 2015