Sweat was dripping from the chin of Edward R. Murrow.
It was March 9, 1954.
He was just minutes away from telling his national television audience of 12 million See It Now viewers that U.S. Senator Joseph R. McCarthy (R-Wisconsin) was a bully and rumor monger.
McCarthy first garnered national attention on February 9, 1950, when he told a Republican Women’s Club in Wheeling, West Virginia, that "the State Department is infested with communists" and that he had a list of 205 of them.
Although McCarthy never produced the names — a pattern of behavior he would repeat often over the next four years when making allegations — the news media gave his speech a lot of attention. He was, after all, a powerful U.S. senator, and powerful people make news.
But Murrow was not impressed.
For four years he had watched McCarthy level false or misleading allegations against hundreds of U.S. citizens, including some of his colleagues at CBS. On several occasions, Murrow helped save the careers of these colleagues.
Some journalists and politicians had drawn attention to McCarthy’s baneful tactics. But the criticism seemed to have no impact on his ...
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What Would Ed Murrow Think of NSA Spying and Snowden?
The lasting legacy of broadcast legend Edward R. Murrow wasn't his integrity or his journalistic skills, as many journalists assert. It was, as I have argued elsewhere, his belief that the key role of journalism in society was to promote and protect due process and other civil liberties enshrined in the Bill of Rights.
Murrow died in 1965. But were he alive today, what would he think of the National Security Agency's secret campaigns of spying on the e-mails and telephone records of U.S. citizens and the actions of Edward Snowden, the computer systems analyst who exposed the campaigns?
Before I answer that question, let me provide a little background for readers unfamiliar with Murrow.
Murrow worked for CBS News from 1935 to 1960. In 1954, he broadcast a TV news show which implied that U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy had falsely accused hundreds of Americans of being communists and had violated their due process rights in and out of senate hearings. The U.S. Senate agreed, censuring McCarthy late in 1954.
Murrow wasn't the first to criticize McCarthy, who made national news in 1950 when he claimed several hundred communists worked for the U.S. government. But many historians believe Murrow's broadcast was the tipping point that brought on McCarthy's downfall.
Broadcast journalists then, as now, revere Murrow for his courage. But biographers later revealed that some of Murrow's CBS colleagues wondered why he had not acted years earlier. Some suggested it was because Murrow was afraid to lose his $1 million salary (in today's dollars) and his two homes. Murrow was an easy target for McCarthy, because Murrow had many connections to left-leaning political activists, including known communists.
I believe Murrow was afraid, especially because he had a family to support. But to his credit, Murrow broadcast the exposé on McCarthy, which helped remind Americans that due process and civil liberties are the principles that separate democratic states from totalitarian ones.
So what would Murrow think of the recent NSA spying campaigns and Snowden?
The public Murrow -- that is, the journalist who wrote and broadcast interpretive news reports (he didn't think much of objective journalism) --tended to be cautious in making judgments about controversial topics. He thought it was better to be right than first. He also identified with the power structure in American politics. Murrow was no radical, even though he had many radical friends.
So his interpretive news reports, I believe, would not outright condemn the NSA spying campaigns. Murrow would have recognized the right of the government to protect its citizens from terrorism. However, his reports also would point out the inherent danger that the spying technology poses to due process and privacy. He clearly would support efforts to have more public oversight of the NSA campaigns.
Murrow, the cautious commentator, also would not accuse Snowden of being either a patriot or a traitor. Rather, he would urge people to be slow to judgment, as the whole story has yet to come out.
Away from the microphone, the private Murrow -- the one known to his friends and colleagues -- would be deeply troubled about the NSA spying campaigns. He would speculate that government bureaucrats have already violated the rights of Americans by listening in on conversations without a court order.* As such, Murrow would assign several reporters ("Murrow Boys") to dig much deeper into the story. Those reporters would scour Capitol Hill and the NSA, and would try to arrange an interview with Snowden and pro-civil liberty groups.
Behind the scenes, Murrow would admire Snowden, even though Snowden technically broke the law when he turned over the spying records to news reporters. Murrow would take a balancing approach, arguing that people working in a bureaucracy have a moral obligation to report on others who violate the civil liberties of Americans.
-Dave Demers, 8/21/13
*Note: This article was written the day before The New York Times revealed that "a federal judge sharply rebuked the National Security Agency in 2011 for repeatedly misleading the court that oversees its surveillance on domestic soil, including a program that is collecting tens of thousands of domestic e-mails and other Internet communications of Americans each year ... ." (Charles Savage and Scott Shane, "Secret Court Rebuked N.S.A. on Surveillance," The New York Times, August 22, 2013).