(For a more detailed discussion of Senator Joe McCarthy, McCarthyism and Red Hunting see relevant section of the main Songbook.)
The late Forties to mid-Fifties was a period known as “The Red Scare,” a time of intense public concern about communist expansion in Europe and communist infiltration of U.S. domestic government. Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy, a Republican from Wisconsin, made anticommunism his issue and became the “star” of the anticommunist frenzy. He made spectacular accusations in public, claiming at one point that a spy ring of “card-carrying communists” was operating in the State Department with the full knowledge of the secretary of state. McCarthyism became a watchword of the times, referring to the blacklisting, guilt-by-inference, and harassment tactics that the senator used. Although McCarthy used the media to disseminate his beliefs, it was also the media that accelerated his downfall.
Edward R. Murrow had established his reputation broadcasting radio news reports from London during the World War II “Blitz.” In 1951 he and his partner, Fred W. Friendly, began coproducing a television news series called See It Now (CBS, 1951–58). Murrow also hosted the show, presenting in-depth reports of current news. In 1953, Murrow and Friendly turned their attentions to the anticommunism scare. On Oct. 20, 1953, they broadcast a story about Lieut. Milo Radulovich, who had been dismissed from the U.S. Air Force because his father and sister had been accused of being communist sympathizers. CBS refused to advertise the upcoming episode, which Murrow and Friendly promoted by purchasing their own ad in The New York Times. Later in the same season, the pair took on McCarthy himself in one of the most notorious news broadcasts in television history. The entire March 9, 1954, episode of the program addressed McCarthy’s recent activities, mostly as seen and heard through film and audio clips of his speeches. Stringing together McCarthy’s own words, the show exposed him as a liar, a hypocrite, and a bully.
Although public opinion about McCarthy did not completely change overnight, the See It Now broadcast was the beginning of the end for the senator. The following month, on April 22, hearings began regarding McCarthy’s accusations of subversive activity in the army. McCarthy’s charges, which were mostly fabricated, did not hold up to close scrutiny, and the Senate voted to condemn his actions. The ABC network, still without a daytime schedule of programming, was the only network to carry the “Army-McCarthy” hearings in full. The ratings were surprisingly high, and McCarthy’s appearance and mannerisms—seen in the intimate close-ups made possible by television—turned most viewers against the senator.