In 1954 journalist Edward R. Murrow stepped away from his role as news reporter to speak out against the blatant demagoguery of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy.
According to an article by Carl Hausman published in The Institute for Global Ethics, “Murrow protégé Walter Cronkite noted that Murrow was troubled about taking an editorial position, but felt he had to break the rules because the situation was dire. It was an exception to the rule, noted Cronkite, but it was ‘the exception that made it so powerful.’
“ ‘You couldn’t get away with it every time and not expect the whole house of cards to fall, which it should if news were to be replaced with an unrelenting cascade of opinion,’ Cronkite said in a CBS documentary about Murrow that was produced decades later.
“When I was much younger,” Hausman writes, “I worked with a couple holdovers from the Murrow era — even a few old-timers who had worked directly with Murrow. While the old-timers had opinions and while they were human beings who often failed to keep those opinions out of their news, more often than not they did their best to present a balanced menu of the day’s news. Had they been pressed for an opinion of what news is, they might have echoed that of a real old-timer, Walter Lippmann, who felt that the function of news was to ‘signalize’ an event, bring to light hidden facts, put information in context, and paint ‘a picture of reality’ on which the citizen can act.”
Journalist Murrow famously said, “We cannot make good news from bad practice.” When it comes to the current state of some cable news programs, the line between news and opinion has not blurred, it’s vanished, and what we’re left with is not just bad practice, it’s become reckless malpractice.
In a new e-book that I recently completed entitled, Shameless: The Ethical Case Against Three Out-of-Control Critics and the Need for Civility Now, More than Ever, I write, “Today, we are inundated and insulated by that great, national, attention-deficit-disorder known as 24/7 cable news that is so melded to commentary, hate-speech and ‘info-tainment’ that it has become difficult even for the reasonably well-informed to tell the difference between fact and fiction; even then, too many are willing to believe the fiction over the fact.
“And why? For some it boils down to one amazingly ignorant reason: They’re on television and radio, so they must be right!
“In a time when many have lost jobs, homes, and hope,” I write, “the brand of shameless incivility practiced by the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter and Glenn Beck no longer sits on the sidelines. It has become the basis for much of the fear and unreason that has taken hold in the country. In short, the atmosphere has become poisoned with a level of malicious discourse that is not only intolerable but also astonishingly unethical…
“Thomas Paine wrote ‘…a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it the superficial appearance of being right….’
“Of course, Paine was referring to the various abridgments of freedoms imposed on the colonials by King George. Today, we face a far more critical abridgment by way of millions of citizens turning their thinking over to a handful of talking zealots who fervently believe that God, the founding fathers or their major representatives speak through them to tell the rest of us what to think or how to respond to any given issue or individual.”
In taking a stand against Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter and Glenn Beck, my purpose is to shine a light on the blatant demagoguery practiced by three individuals who hold themselves up to millions that watch, listen and too easily believe much of what they say, and when what they say concerns both issues and individuals that have an impact on us all, that’s dangerous.
Returning to Murrow’s editorial stand against Sen. McCarthy, sometimes an issue calls for breaking the rules and calling out dangerous individuals who abuse their position of power and influence. As a result of Murrow’s programs on McCarthy, “Tens of thousands of letters, telegrams, and phone calls flooded into CBS in support of Murrow’s report, and the power and influence of McCarthy began to collapse as he faced his own Senate investigation and eventual condemnation.
“When the records of McCarthy’s closed hearings were made public in a 2003 report,” I write, “Senators Susan Collins and Carl Levin wrote, ‘Senator McCarthy’s zeal to uncover subversion and espionage led to disturbing excesses. His browbeating tactics destroyed careers of people who were not involved in the infiltration of our government. His freewheeling style caused both the Senate and the Subcommittee to revise the rules governing future investigations, and prompted the courts to act to protect the Constitutional rights of witnesses at Congressional hearings… These hearings are a part of our national past that we can neither afford to forget nor permit to reoccur.’ ”
I will have more to report on the new book as it becomes available on Amazon’s Kindle, Apple’s iPad and other e-readers.