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60 Years Ago, Edward R. Murrow Took Down Joseph McCarthy

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Sixty years ago, Edward R. Murrow performed one of the most famous acts of journalistic evisceration in American television history.

On March 9th, 1954, Murrow—who was then perhaps the country's most highly revered journalist—devoted an entire episode of his CBS program "See it Now" to the words and deeds of Senator Joseph McCarthy, who had already done much to earn his notorious place in history. Using McCarthy's own statements, Murrow painted a picture of a man whose recklessness with the truth and ugly attacks on his critics had contributed to a climate of deep fear and repression in American life.

At the end of the show, Murrow turned to the camera and delivered a long monologue, which read, in part:

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.

McCarthy replied to Murrow on "See It Now" three weeks later; his response was not judged too highly.

Murrow's ultimate role in McCarthy's downfall is hard to parse. There are people who will say that the senator's popularity was already on the wane when Murrow went after him, or that other journalists laid out more damning cases against him, or that people like Joseph Welch—the lawyer who memorably asked McCarthy during a televised hearing whether he had "no sense of decency"—were more important in breaking McCarthy's power than Murrow was.

But what's undoubtedly true is that Murrow's attack on McCarthy has become legendary—an iconic example of journalistic guts, and one that contains a directness which would almost certainly not be allowed in any of Murrow's modern-day successors. It's also a symbol of the ability of television to shape our historical memory; whatever impact Murrow may have had when "See it Now" aired, the words and the video of his crusade against McCarthy have immortalized him.

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