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‘We cannot escape responsibility’

Casey Murrow recalls how his father, the late broadcasting legend Edward R. Murrow, took on a fearmongering, fact-mangling politician hungry to chew up the nation’s press corps

PUTNEY—Vermonter Casey Murrow has something to say about the fearmongering, fact-mangling politician hungry to chew up the nation’s press corps.

“He called my father ‘the cleverest of the jackal pack.’”

Murrow, speaking Monday at the Putney Public Library, stood amid newspapers and magazines reporting the latest headlines about President Donald Trump.

But the lifelong educator wasn’t talking about the current-day commander-in-chief.

Instead, the son of the late, legendary broadcaster Edward R. Murrow was referring to his father’s most notorious adversary, U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

“He played up worries, bullied, pontificated,” Murrow told a crowd of more than 100 people. “Our family was not immune to threats and harassment.”

Much has changed since the celebrated CBS newsman pioneered live reporting on the radio during World War II and on television during the 1950s. Then again, much is also the same, according to the reporter’s son.

“Obviously one of the questions that comes up nowadays is how much of this relates to things that are going on today,” the 72-year-old Putney resident told an audience of Windham County neighbors.

Edward R. Murrow encountered McCarthy during the Wisconsin Republican’s crusade to save the country from what he perceived to be a communist threat.

“McCarthy played the press with great skill,” Casey Murrow said. “He was brilliant at ‘what will he say next?’ or ‘who will he accuse next?’ Anything he disagreed with was ‘fake news,’ although he didn’t use that term.”

Edward R. Murrow, witnessing the junior senator twisting the truth through fear, innuendo and deflection, decided to take him on through the CBS News program “See It Now.”

“They decided that McCarthy might be his own worst enemy,” Casey Murrow said, “by contradicting himself, sometimes looking foolish in public and berating people who did not always seem to be as horrible as McCarthy wanted them to appear.”

On March 9, 1954, television viewers tuned in to find a special episode.

“Tonight, ‘See It Now’ devotes its entire half-hour to a report on Senator Joseph R. McCarthy told mainly in his own words and pictures,” Edward R. Murrow began.

The show featured then Vermont Republican U.S. Sen. Ralph Flanders dismissing his colleague by saying, “He dons his war paint; he goes into his war dance; he emits his war whoops; he goes forth to battle and proudly returns with the scalp of a pink Army dentist.”

But the most damning statement came during the host’s conclusion.

“This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent,” Edward R. Murrow said. “We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result.

“The actions of the junior senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies,” he continued. “And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn’t create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it — and rather successfully. Cassius was right. ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.’”

On July 30, 1954, Flanders called for the Senate to censure McCarthy. On Dec. 2, 1954, the full chamber did so. Six decades later, the special episode’s last lines still echo.

“Is this a history lesson,” Casey Murrow said, “or can we apply it to something today?”

On one hand, the Vermonter cautioned the media landscape can’t be compared since the advent of the internet. On the other, he noted McCarthy’s chief counsel, Roy Cohn, went on to become Trump’s mentor.

“Never apologize,” Casey Murrow summed up Cohn’s credo. “Always attack.”

“What would my father make of the politics of today and the rate that things change?” the newsman’s son said. “I think he would be shocked by the current administration, but beyond that I really don’t know. I believe we are seeing warnings that the same issues are coming to the fore once again. We cannot escape responsibility.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #437 (Wednesday, December 6, 2017). This story appeared on page B1.

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