ARCHIVAL (WPA FILM LIBRARY, 1950s):JOSEPH MCCARTHY: This fight to expose those who would destroy this nation will go on and on.
GEOFFREY KABASERVICE (AUTHOR, RULE AND RUIN): Populism is a force that is as old as the American republic. It tends to become very much of an us versus them ideology. And I think populism is a somewhat dangerous force because it tends to undercut the authority of every institution in American life.
NARRATION: Early in the 1950s, a little-known Wisconsin senator named Joe McCarthy latched onto a populist message sure to get attention.
ARCHIVAL (1951):JOSEPH MCCARTHY: Our nation may well die our nation may very well die. And I ask you, who caused it? Was it loyal Americans? Or was it traitors in our government?
NARRATION: Following the Second World War, as the Soviet Unions power grew, the idea that Communism was creeping across the globe was concerning to many Americans, particularly Conservatives.
EDWARD H. MILLER (ASSOCIATE TEACHING PROFESSOR, NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY): In the early years of the Cold War they saw the Soviet Union taking over land in Eastern and Central Europe. China had become a Communist country, and its likely there were Soviet agents working in the government in the United States.
ARCHIVAL (F.I.L.M. ARCHIVES, 1950s):JOSEPH MCCARTHY: Even if there are only one Communist in the state department that would still be one Communist too many.
RICHARD VIGUERIE (CONSERVATIVE ACTIVIST): Growing up, playing cops and robbers with kids in the neighborhood, I dont tell anybody: Im not shooting robbers. Im shooting Communists. I just came to this world knowing thems is bad people. And we responded to people who would stand up and speak truth to power.
GEOFFREY KABASERVICE: McCarthy saw himself and presented himself as a figure in a drama, a drama where the elite was betraying the American people behind closed doors in places of power, and he was going to expose them.
ARCHIVAL (1950s):NEWS REPORT: Senator McCarthy said he had found 205 Communists in the State Department. Among the many charges was one that the State Department had many homosexuals in its employ.
ARCHIVAL (F.I.L.M. ARCHIVES, 1950s):JOSEPH MCCARTHY: Are you a member of the Communist conspiracy as of this moment?
ARCHIVAL (1954):JOSEPH MCCARTHY: Who protects Communists is not fit to wear that uniform, general.
GEOFFREY KABASERVICE: Did he have 100 names of Communists in the State Department, did he have 10, did he have none?
ARCHIVAL (WPA FILM LIBRARY, 1950s):JOSEPH MCCARTHY: I will not give those names. Senator, would you like to hear this? Its about you.
GEOFFREY KABASERVICE: It wasnt important. What was important is that he was speaking emotional truths about what had happened to the country as his supporters saw it.
NARRATION: McCarthys flair for the dramatic made him a media sensation. He was a natural for the new communication device rapidly populating American households: television.
DAVID BIANCULLI (TV CRITIC, NPRS FRESH AIR): I dont think that Joe McCarthy would have been successful if not for television. Its the whole idea that its an interesting person to look at, and hes saying these outrageous things, and what if theyre true? You watch almost every time.
NARRATION: McCarthy became attuned to the news cycles, timing his latest Communist revelations right when they would go to deadline
ARCHIVAL:NEWS REPORT: Dateline, Washington DC.
NARRATION:assuring he would be the big thing in the news that evening.
DAVID BIANCULLI: He would do things like he would give a speech and he would tell the reporters who were filming him, Ill knock on the podium when Im going to say something good and you can turn the lights on. And he would make these specious charges and move on to something else while other people tried to fact-check him.
MARVIN KALB (FORMER CBS JOURNALIST): At that time people were genuinely frightened, people lost their jobs because it was believed that they might be a Communist. And you didnt even have to be a Communist, you could just have leftist views. There were people out in Hollywood who lost their jobs as screenwriters, actors, directors, because they were trying to put into movies ideas considered damaging to America.
McCarthy was the second most powerful Republican in the country. And the only thing he had to do was to sell his point of view.
NARRATION: But as McCarthys accusations mounted, CBS reporter Edward R. Murrow entered the fray.
ARCHIVAL (1942):EDWARD R. MURROW: Hello America, this is Edward Murrow speaking from London.
NARRATION: The public trusted Murrow because he had been with them during some of the darkest hours of World War II.
ARCHIVAL (1942):EDWARD R. MURROW: The noise that you hear at the moment is the sound of the air raid sirens.
DOUGLAS BRINKLEY PROFESSOR OF HISTORY, RICE UNIVERSITY): It had such intimacy to it. He was reporting in a blow-by-blow fashion what was happening over there. So it allowed people of America to feel that they were experiencing the war in an almost tangible, visceral way.
NARRATION: And now Murrow was telling the nation he was set to take on McCarthyism as well.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, SEE IT NOW WITH EDWARD R. MURROW, 1951):NEWS REPORT: CBS television presents the distinguished reporter and news analyst Edward R. Murrow.
DAVID BIANCULLI: There were plenty of newspapers that were already circling the wagons around Joe McCarthy by March 1954. But then Murrow went on CBS to just say Lets go to the videotape.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, A REPORT ON SENATOR JOSEPH R. MCCARTHY, 3-9-54):EDWARD R. MURROW: Because a report on Senator McCarthy is by definition controversial, we want to say exactly what we mean to say.
DAVID BIANCULLI: He just used McCarthys own words against himself. Heres what he said then, heres what he said six months ago.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, A REPORT ON SENATOR JOSEPH R. MCCARTHY, 3-9-54):EDWARD R. MURROW: The line between investigating and persecuting is a fine one and the junior senator from Wisconsin has stepped over it repeatedly.
DOUGLAS BRINKLEY: The public wasnt used to seeing on television a respected reporter demean a sitting U.S. senator.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, A REPORT ON SENATOR JOSEPH R. MCCARTHY, 3-9-54):EDWARD R. MURROW: The actions of the junior Senator from Wisconsin has caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad and given considerable comfort to our enemies.
DOUGLAS BRINKLEY: Murrow started building a public consensus to say that McCarthy is a scoundrel.
NARRATION: McCarthy hit back at Murrow.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, SEE IT NOW, 4-6-54):JOSEPH MCCARTHY: Murrow is a symbol, the leader, and the cleverest of the jackal pack, which is always found at the throat of anyone who dares to expose individual Communists and traitors.
NARRATION: But by this point Murrow had the upper hand.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, SEE IT NOW):EDWARD R. MURROW: When the record is finally written, as it will be one day, it will answer the question: who has helped the Communist cause and who has served his country better: Senator McCarthy or I?
DOUGLAS BRINKLEY: It was the beginning of showing the power of TV that suddenly, Edward R. Murrow was more powerful than Joe McCarthy. Dwight Eisenhower, the president, saw things the Murrow way. The U.S. Army saw things the Murrow way.
NARRATION: Public opinion began to turn on McCarthy, particularly after watching him try to turn his tactics against the military.
ARCHIVAL (F.I.L.M. ARCHIVES, 1950s):NEWS REPORT: Even members of the Republican Party thought that this was hitting below the belt.
ARCHIVAL (1954):ROBERT STEVENS: I want to make it clear that the United States Army does not coddle Communists. This committee knows that, and the American people know that.
ARCHIVAL (6-9-54):JOSEPH WELCH: Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness. Have you no sense of decency, sir?
NARRATION: While his populist strain of politics would live on, Joe McCarthy would die from complications, likely due to alcoholism, just a couple years after being exposed on the airwaves by Edward R. Murrow.
GEOFFREY KABASERVICE: McCarthy was this great theatre and he made that tribal case for us versus them, but ultimately it was television that brought him down. Because Edward R. Murrow, the broadcaster, was able to set himself up as the anti-McCarthy, calling out his lies.