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What Edward R. Murrow Had to Say About Cancel Culture

March 23, 2021


To look at his long face, cocked eyebrow, and slicked-back dark hair is to peer into a face of the past. A sadly skeptical countenance, pinstriped suit, and endlessly smoke-streaming cigarette—forever frozen in black-and-white—only solidifies the impression: Edward R. Murrow is a dinosaur, a curiosity, a relic from a quaint age. What, if anything, could a newsman from a bygone age of big band and world war, crackling radio and ancient televisions have to say to the smart, sleek modern world?

The answer, it seems, is plenty.

Originally, Murrow made his name reporting for CBS during some of the most harrowing and consequential days of the twentieth century. He offered riveting coverage of Adolf Hitler’s “bloodless conquest” of Austria, the West’s infamous appeasement at the Munich conference, and London’s hellscape during the darkest days of the Battle of Britain. In the wake of the Second World War, Murrow became the trusted face and voice of thoughtful commentary on issues and events of the day.

Perhaps the apogee of Murrow’s career, however, was his confrontation with Joseph McCarthy, the volatile anti-Communist Senator from Wisconsin. Serving as senator during the early years of the unfolding Cold War, McCarthy, like many, saw expansionist Soviet Communism as an existential threat. Without question, the rise of the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe, the brutal blockade of Berlin, and the shocking development of the Soviet atomic bomb proved the aggressive designs of the Communist ideology. But it was the concern over well-placed Soviet spies in the American government and military that led McCarthy to embark on his crusade.

Today, the question of highly placed Soviet spies in various American enterprises is beyond dispute. State Department official Alger Hiss, whose story was revealed in the dramatic 1948 House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, was convicted of perjury (not espionage due to the statute of limitations). Though Hiss and his family have contested it up to and after his death, data revealed in the wake of the Soviet collapse points increasingly to his guilt. Klaus Fuchs, a British scientist serving in the Manhattan Project, was convicted for sharing information thought to be important to the development of the Soviet atomic bomb. Most famously, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted and put to death for passing on military and nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union.

What was most concerning about Joseph McCarthy, however, was not his concern about Communism. Rather, it was his dark method of fighting it. It began with his speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, where he insisted, “I have here in my hand a list of 205 [State Department employees] that were known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping the policy of the State Department.” It continued with his tarnishing of the reputation of Second World War and National Security icon General George C. Marshall, saying Marshall was a part of “a great conspiracy, a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.” And it peaked with the so-called Army-McCarthy Hearings of 1954 in which McCarthy, the Chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations, leveled accusations that the Army Signal Corp was infiltrated with Communists. After McCarthy launched a particularly bitter attack on the reputation of an underling Army lawyer, the Army’s chief counsel Joseph Welch spat, “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness. . . . Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency?” As the Senate chamber erupted in applause, McCarthy saw his star fall. Overnight, he was seen as a bully instead of a crusader. Within six months he would be censured in the Senate and within three years—at the age of forty-eight—Joseph McCarthy would be dead.

But what does Edward Murrow have to do with this? In observing the behavior of McCarthy and his minions, Murrow recognized the danger of unchecked demagoguery, whether from an individual or a movement. Threats to national security and overt treachery are indeed dangers to confront, but America, Murrow reasoned, is not a country that allows the wholesale destruction of any one individual by powerful people or causes, especially when built upon half-truths, innuendo, and personal animus. To be sure, orthodoxies and philosophies are to be debated vigorously in the public square and wrestled with in the private conscience. They are not, however, meant to be imposed. A person’s good name does not deserve to be slandered. Nor does their livelihood deserve to be destroyed or their security deserve to be jeopardized by a seething man or a wild mob. There is no place in a democracy with ethical underpinnings for punishing censorship, vindictive cancellation, or hate-filled destruction.

Perhaps Murrow said it best in his commentary during the height of the Army-McCarthy hearings, when he challenged,

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.

What, if anything, could a newsman from a bygone age have to say to the modern world?