Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 22, 2006

Television And The Witch Hunt

Filed under: media,repression,television — louisproyect @ 1:10 pm

(Swans – May 22, 2006) Last year's much-acclaimed Goodnight and Good Luck, now available in video, generated a wide-ranging discussion about the responsibility of the media in the face of government lies and repression. Even though the film dealt with the showdown between Joe McCarthy and Edward R. Murrow, it was fairly obvious that director, writer, and co-star George Clooney intended it to be a commentary on the failure of the media to challenge the Bush administration. This article seeks to place the events portrayed in Clooney's film in broader historical context and connect them to today's world, just as he intended.

Since the first place to start is a good biography of Murrow, it is hard to imagine anything more definitive than the 795-page Murrow: His Life and Times written by A. M. Sperber, who establishes the newsman's roots in native liberal traditions. Since the witch hunt was intended to stifle any kind of independent and critical thinking, Murrow's challenge to Joe McCarthy amounted to a radical act even though Murrow saw it as nothing but a stand for traditional liberal principles. A good companion piece is Fred Friendly's Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control. Friendly was Edward R. Murrow's producer at CBS and another beacon of liberal integrity. Finally, we will consider A Red in the House: the Unauthorized Memoir of Stephen E. Fleischman. In contrast to Murrow and Friendly, Fleischman was a member of the Communist Party when he went to work for CBS in the 1950s. A documentary on Jimmy Hoffa that he produced later on for ABC clearly demonstrates a kind of savvy that can only come from experience in the trenches of American radicalism. When Fleischman's generation was purged from the arena of American popular culture, the main victim — after the blacklistees themselves — was the American public, which was deprived of its keen insights.

Edward R. Murrow came of age politically when it was still possible to have an open mind about the USSR. In 1932 he became assistant director of the Institute of International Education (IIE), a student exchange program founded in 1919 by Nicholas Murray Butler, the president of Columbia University. He was hired by Stephen Duggan, the director of IIE who had advised the Soviet government on the administration of its workers colleges.

Duggan was a typical 1930s liberal crusader whose passions tended to overlap with those of the Communist Party. He was against fascism and the Japanese invasion of China. He opposed US foreign policy in the Caribbean and Latin America and especially the Platt Amendment, which provided a legal cover for US occupation of Cuba.

However, as was in the nature of this brand of liberalism, it also maintained a foothold in the establishment. Duggan sat on the Council of Foreign Relations and was sure to bring Murrow along with him to meetings. Sperber accurately sizes up Duggan, his young assistant, and their relationship to the inner circles of power as follows:

Where Duggan went, his assistant followed. At a time when many of his contemporaries were drawn to radicalism, young Murrow, at twenty-four, was catapulted into the school-tie world of old and exclusive club-rooms, venerable advisers, informal dinner meetings at the Century or the Town Hall clubs — the interlocking circles of academics, foundations, university trustees, Wall Street lawyers, and financial figures that would later be lumped together under the heading of the "Eastern Establishment."

Entering as "Edw. R. Murrow of the staff," he would become, in time, the youngest member by some thirty years to be elected to the Council on Foreign Relations.

Following Duggan's lead, Murrow also joined the American-Russian Institute, which had been founded by leading American intellectuals, including John Dewey. Its goal was to "promote international peace through the fostering of friendship between the USSR and the USA." It sponsored lectures at Town Hall, where Anna Louise Strong was among the featured speakers. Strong was a journalist who became famous for writing dozens of books defending the Soviet system, with titles like Soviets Conquer Wheat and Red Star in Samarkand. She died in China in 1970 at the age of 85.

full: http://www.swans.com/library/art12/lproy37.html


  1. I was waiting for your sequel Murrow post. Quite interesting post.

    Comment by Renegade Eye — May 23, 2006 @ 1:33 am

  2. Great job guys…

    Comment by tiladene — June 13, 2006 @ 11:19 pm

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