I studied the great CBS reporter Edward R. Murrow a great deal as a journalist, but this week I’ve viewed him in a whole new light: as a patriot of this country.
We’ve been studying Murrow in my public diplomacy class. Before this week I had no idea that Murrow, after being a journalist, became director of the United States Information Agency in 1961. In one of my textbooks there was a great quote from when he testified before Congress:
“American traditions and the American ethic requires us to be truthful, but the most important reason is that truth is the best propaganda and lies are the worst. To be persuasive we must be believable; to be believable we must be credible; to be credible we must be truthful. It is as simple as that.”
I think that’s why the presidential press conference yesterday was so baffling. It was not persuasive because it was not believable. It was not believable because it was not credible. It was not credible because it was not truthful.
It is as simple as that.
I’ve lived my adult professional life dealing in the currency of truth. As a journalist, your worth and your reputation depend on presenting information in a fair and accurate matter. The reporters I have worked with and respect are not biased toward a political doctrine, but toward the truth.
I think that’s why my brain broke trying to understand what was going on in that press conference.
I can only imagine what it must have been like to be a reporter sitting in the audience struggling to get an answer to your question. (If you haven’t seen it, The New York Times has you covered here.) I have been a reporter in a lot of crazy press conferences before but nothing like that. I very much respect the reporters in that room yesterday.
It’s one thing to challenge politicians on their policy ideas. It’s an entirely different challenge when the interviewee’s world view has no basis in fact and no commitment to truth.
So, to find comfort in the midst of this disheartening attack on journalists and the First Amendment, I looked up the stories that Edward R. Murrow delivered that took down Senator Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy, of course, was the Wisconsin Senator who turned the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations into a witch-hunt looking for Communists in the U.S. government. (If you are unfamiliar with Murrow, I highly recommend watching George Clooney in Good Night, and Good Luck.)
I think we often forget what a brave thing it was for Murrow to confront McCarthy back in 1954. People like to wax poetic about journalism’s golden days–but I honestly feel the best journalism is being done today. People forget what a brave act it was for Murrow to challenge a sitting senator who had already taken down several Americans as alleged “communists.” He knew McCarthy would then attack him and question his patriotism. There were very few people willing to speak truth to power like Murrow. That’s why they have a journalism award named after him today.
The clips of the McCarthy hearings are incredibly interesting, but as I was looking through those, this resonated with me:
Here’s the script:
Earlier, the senator asked, “Upon what meat does this, our Caesar, feed?” Had he looked three lines earlier in Shakespeare’s Caesar, he would have found this line, which is not altogether inappropriate: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”
No one familiar with the history of this country can deny that congressional committees are useful. It is necessary to investigate before legislating, but the line between investigating and persecuting is a very fine one and the junior senator from Wisconsin has stepped over it repeatedly. His primary achievement has been in confusing the public mind, as between the internal and the external threats of Communism. We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men — not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular.
This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent, or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities. As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age. We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.
The actions of the junior senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn’t create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it — and rather successfully. Cassius was right. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”
This brings me to yesterday’s press conference. The fault, as Murrow pointed out, is not in our stars. It is all of those who notice injustice and do not speak out. It is in those who know people around them are acting recklessly, and do nothing. It is in those who, like McCarthy, call people who disagree with them “dishonest” and label patriots as “disloyal.” It is in those who see corruption and choose to empower it or look the other way.
It is in those who abandon freedom and give comfort to enemies by ignoring the principles of this country and the very values upon which we were founded.
It is in those who condemn others for speaking truth to power.
I do not intend to be one of those people, and I am heartened by all of the people I see who feel the same.
I encourage you to have the same bravery as Murrow and not lose heart.
Good night, and good luck.