In a much-discussed Washington Post essay last week—“In America, Crazy is a Preexisting Condition”—the liberal historian Rick Perlstein argued that the mobs disrupting town hall meetings around the country are heirs to a long, if not proud, tradition of extremism on the part of the American Right. Conservatives countered that fanaticism is hardly exclusive to the right wing in U.S. history—the Left, they pointed out, has had some loonies of its own.
Left unexamined by critics of the piece, however, was Perlstein’s other argument—that in generations past the media responsibly marginalized crazies. “It used to be different,” he wrote. “The media didn’t adjudicate the ever-present underbrush of American paranoia as a set of ‘conservative claims’ to weigh, horse-race-style, against liberal claims. Back then, a more confident media unequivocally labeled the civic outrage represented by such discourse as ‘extremist’—out of bounds…. The tree of crazy is an ever-present aspect of America’s flora. Only now, it’s being watered by misguided he-said-she-said reporting and taking over the forest.”
Perlstein’s claim would be of immense credit to the media of earlier eras—if it were true. But it isn’t. On the contrary, a reluctance to challenge powerful reactionary myths has been a mainstay of American journalism. And that reluctance was especially pronounced in the decades Perlstein romanticizes as a time of media bravery, the 1920s to the 1970s. During those years, the lies spread by a conservative misinformation campaign—lies that originated not with a former governor from Alaska, but with a sitting senator from Wisconsin—were treated by the media not as lies at all, but rather as legitimate subjects suitable for rational discussion. In that, they became far more widespread and destructive than the current crusade waged against health care reform.
McCarthyism intimidated the media of its time into submission, in the process steamrolling over the Democratic Party, the State Department, and basic civil liberties. Indeed, far from being the media’s Golden Age, as Perlstein suggests, the mid-Twentieth century—and the era of McCarthyism, in particular—was the time of perhaps its greatest failures.
From 1950 to 1954, Senator McCarthy accused much of the American establishment of being Communists—that is, of being agents of the Soviet Union, the United States’ enemy in the Cold War. The State Department, the Army, Secretary of Defense George Marshall, Secretary of State Dean Acheson, Hollywood, and most of the Truman administration—all were pointed at as participants in a “conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.”
And what was the media’s response to those allegations, which were without evidence at the time they were made, and which have been since disproven by archival releases? In many cases, either silence or collusion. Time magazine, for example, spread anxieties about McCarthy’s broad message even as it downplayed his role as a messenger. It reported in 1953 that “the specter of the U.S. in the grip of a hysterical witch hunt, of the President cowering before McCarthy’s power, bears only a specter’s relation to reality. Long before McCarthy was a national figure, evidence began to accumulate of how deeply the U.S. Government in the 1930s and ’40s had been penetrated by Communists and their sympathizers.” This at a time when the senator was doing incalculable damage to American liberty and its image abroad. “McCarthyism is more myth than man,” the magazine continued, apparently unperturbed by the sight of loyalty oaths and government committees interrogating citizens about their political beliefs.
Even the most anti-McCarthy newspapers were deferential to the senator. “Senator McCarthy is getting careless,” began one article from The New York Times in 1954—which might have been a valid observation, except for the fact that it was made a full four years after the lawmaker had begun hurling his fact-free fabrications. As the historian Lawrence Strout concluded in his exhaustive study, Covering McCarthy: “While [New York] Times editorials fought McCarthy and his methods, for practical purposes the newspaper caved into pressures” from the Republican Party and the public at large. And this was the Eastern establishment press—then as now, the Times was accused by conservatives of being a left-wing bias machine.
The conservative outlets were far worse. Long before the rise of Fox News, many important media outlets called the liberal Truman administration and the State Department traitorous. As M.J. Heale notes in American Anticommunism: Combating the Enemy Within, 1830-1970, the Hearst newspaper chain, which owned the influential San Francisco Examiner, vociferously took McCarthy’s side. “Joe never had any names,” William Randolph Hearst, Jr. later admitted. “He came to us. ‘What am I gonna do? You gotta help me.’ So we gave him a few good reporters.” The Chicago Tribune and the Washington Times-Herald did the same, with reporters of the latter sometimes actually writing McCarthy’s speeches.
Moreover, stenography—one of Rick Perlstein’s chief complaints about the media’s current coverage of the health care debates—was alive and well among the media of the McCarthy era. “The newspaper ethic of the day was ‘straight reporting,’ relaying the news without adornment, which in this case meant confining a story to what McCarthy actually said, without injecting suspicions about his credibility or motivation,” Heale writes. “McCarthy’s far-fetched accusations were thus soberly reported as the pronouncements of a United States senator.” A sample from the Times: ”Senator Joseph R. McCarthy rose from his sickbed tonight to level a twenty-count indictment for ‘treason or gross stupidity’ against the Democratic party. Replying to attacks on ‘McCarthyism’ by Adlai E. Stevenson, the 1952 Democratic Presidential nominee, the Republican Senator from Wisconsin named Mr. Stevenson as attorney for the defense and asked whether he pleaded ‘guilty or not guilty’ to each count in the indictment.”
In 1952, the Times printed verbatim the entire address given by McCarthy accusing Stevenson of giving aid to the Communist cause.
Perlstein complains that today’s reporters and editors are terrified of being seen as left-wing or biased, but the same anxiety existed in the 1950s. “During the McCarthy era, there were UPI reporters who said they felt trapped—they believed in the canons of objective journalism but didn’t want to just report McCarthy’s lies,” says David Bennett, author of The Party of Fear: The American Far Right from Nativism to the Militia Movement and an historian at Syracuse University. McCarthy understood the U.S. media’s desire for neutrality and manipulated its members into reporting his distortions, Bennett says.
Even the most established press organizations trembled before the anti-communist witch hunt. In August of 1953, a committee of the American Society of Newspaper Editors was unable even to agree on whether McCarthy’s blatantly undemocratic questioning of the editor of the New York Post at closed hearings was threatening to the freedom of the press. And while CBS’s Edward R. Murrow is famed today as an anti-McCarthy crusader, his exposé of the senator came in 1954, Bennett points out—long after most of McCarthy’s damage had been done.
None of this is to excuse today’s media for their many failings in covering the health care debates, or for conferring legitimacy on the recent ‘death panels’ inanities. ‘We’ve always done it that way’ has never been a sound defense, and a serious press would be as vigilant about exposing false claims as they would be about reporting on them in the first place. But history matters, and Perlstein is incorrect in suggesting that previous generations had better media to work with. They didn’t. Just ask the many damaged by Joe McCarthy.