See It Now: Seeing RED!, March 9, 1954

Written By: Greg Howell - May• 11•18
SeeItNow2See It Now, Edward R. Murrow’s ground-breaking news program, had previously – in the fall of 1953 – broadcast exposes about the red scare. Scores of innocent American’s were labeled communists, and a growing political tactic was throwing the communist label at any American with countering views. Senator Joe McCarthy led the way. As Edward R. Murrow stated, “he didn’t create this situation of fear, he merely exploited it.” Those  disgraceful Senate hearings impeaching the name of numerous Hollywood writers, directors, and actors had been a post World War II tactic of government officials from the earliest days of television.  Senator Joe McCarthy, however, pushed hard and cast a wide net, accusing anyone, seemingly anyone suspected of being a liberal democrat, as being anti-American and communist. The McCarthy hearing in Congress was the culmination.

The result was terrifying to Americans on both sides of the issue. The fear-mongering and propaganda about communism taking hold in America went straight to the hearts of many Americans. Those unfairly being labeled as communist or communist sympathizers, simply for disagreeing with McCarthy’s tactics, were now fearful for their own lives, jobs, and well-being .  A witch hunt was on and the dividing lines becoming less clear. The great Charlie Chaplin was exiled from the country. John Garfield, the rising star of  The Postman Always Rings Twice, the man A/V Film’s Gwen Ihnat describes as “…Brando before there was a Brando,” had his career destroyed by being labeled a communist. Pert Kelton, the original Alice in The Honeymooners, was also listed as communist in Red Channels, the propaganda pamphlet naming Hollywood stars, writers, and directors as red, was fired from the show. Jean Muir, star of the hit 1950 situation comedy, The Aldrich Family, was immediately fired when she was named as a “communist sympathizer.”  In the fall of 1953, America’s number one star was mired in the sludge of the communist hunt. Lucille Ball was labeled a communist. She escaped destruction perhaps by the sheer power of her fame, but I Love Lucy‘s 3rd season premiere was anticipated by many to be Lucille Ball’s last show ever. Lucy escaped career destruction, but most others did not.  A popular 1952 play by Arthur Miller, The Crucible, also exposed the red scare as tantamount to the 1692 Salem Witch Trials.

Cracks were beginning to surface in Senator McCarthy’s tirade. Certainly, these events and other’s led to the See It Now broadcast in fall of 1953 exploring the red scare. By March 9, 1954, however, Edward R. Murrow and producer Fred Friendly had decided to take matters into their own hands. The See It Now broadcasters decided to take Senator McCarthy’s own words and flip them, hopefully exposing to America his hypocrisy and the dangerous path of fear-mongering. It was a risky venture, as journalism was expected to be unbiased, and CBS was concerned of a national backlash. The network, also realizing the seriousness of the subject, gave the green light but removed their logo or any network reference from the program’s promotion!

Just in the first minutes of the program, Murrow went into action.

Our working thesis tonight is this question: If this fight against Communism is made a fight between America’s two great political parties, the American people know that one of these parties will be destroyed, and the Republic cannot endure very long as a one party system.

We applaud that statement and we think Senator McCarthy ought to. He said it, seventeen months ago in Milwaukee.

McCarthy: The American people realize that this cannot be made a fight between America’s two great political parties. If this fight against Communism is made a fight between America’s two great political parties, the American people know that one of those parties will be destroyed, and the Republic can’t endure very long as a one party system.

Murrow: But on February 4th, 1954, Senator McCarthy spoke of one party’s treason. This was at Charleston, West Virginia where there were no cameras running. It was recorded on tape.

McCarthy: The issue between the Republicans and Democrats is clearly drawn. It has been deliberately drawn by those who have been in charge of twenty years of treason. Not the hard fact is…the hard fact is that those who wear the label…those who wear the label “Democrat” wear it with the stain of a historic betrayal.

Further, Murrow utilized the speeches of much admired and respected individuals, such as President Eisenhower, which defined a line to not be crossed by McCarthy, then aptly demonstrating how McCarthy continually, against the Constitution and consent, attempted to demoralize anyone identified as democrat as a communist or communist sympathizer.

The end result was revelatory and revolutionary. The American public came out of hiding and began to question exactly who was un-American, the fear-mongering Joeseph McCarthy or the so-labeled “communist sympathizers.” McCarthy was enraged, of course, and demanded an opportunity to respond; however, his appearance a few weeks later on See It Now was even more disastrous, and soon the Senate censured McCarthy, officially ending, if not quite completely ending, the Red Scare in America. While hundreds of careers and lives were destroyed forever, the broadcast of March 9, 1954 was American journalism’s greatest television moment, and cemented the new medium’s power to connect with audiences in troubled times. The immediacy of television continued to prove to be the single greatest instrument of persuasion, whether good or bad, right or wrong, television news came into its own.


See It Now transcript from March 9, 1954

Senator McCarthy’s follow-up interview transcript


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