by Louis Proyect
(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.
Dewey, a principled liberal like Duggan and Murrow, was never afraid to stand up for unpopular causes. In the late 1930s, when Leon Trotsky was reviled by American liberals and the Communist Party equally, Dewey agreed to chair the Commission of Inquiry on Leon Trotsky that had been set up to clear his name during the Moscow Trials.
In 1932, Murrow was assigned by the IIE to begin work on a project that would make him highly vulnerable to red-baiting 20 years later. In keeping with existing exchange programs, Murrow would set up summer schools for Americans visiting Russia. In 1935, the Hearst-owned NY American ran an exposé on the summer school with the headline "Moscow-Linked Professors in Drive on U.S. Schools." The Hearsts played the same role later on in supporting McCarthy that the Murdoch press plays today in supporting Bush. The article contained references to "Soviet agency...prominent Soviet leaders...propaganda school...Communist propagandists."
In a letter to a friend that combined sincerity and naïveté in equal parts, Murrow wrote, "The current red-baiting campaign and general attitude of anti-foreignism is not a very healthful atmosphere in which to cooperate..."
In 1934, at the age of 26, Murrow agreed to accept another post as Assistant Secretary of the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced German Scholars that was founded by highly respected American and European academic figures, including Nobel scientist Ernest Rutherford and Harold Laski of the London School of Economics. The Emergency Committee was set up to find positions for German professors who had been removed from their posts by the new Nazi government. From reports written by IIE exchange students, Murrow learned about the nature of the purge. One report stated, "All 'Marxists' as well as Jews generally have been 'purged'...universities and colleges are going to be cleaned up (gesäubert) and made instruments for educating the young strictly along nationalist -- Hitleristic -- lines..." This experience would turn Murrow into an ardent antifascist and prepare him politically and psychologically for his showdown with Joe McCarthy.
Among the scholars brought to the U.S. under the auspices of the Emergency Committee were Thomas Mann, Herbert Marcuse, and Martin Buber. When the committee was running low on funds, New York Times publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger stepped in to provide favorable press coverage and funding.
In 1935, Murrow left the world of the IIE and the Emergency Committee behind and went to work for CBS radio where he continued to uphold traditional liberal values. He hired William Shirer who would serve as a European correspondent covering the rise of fascism on the continent. Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich remains one of the best chronicles of those times. It is difficult to imagine a newsman today who would be capable of such an authoritative work.
After the war, Shirer demonstrated an unwillingness to go along with the Cold War that was taking shape under Harry Truman's administration. He was critical of the Truman Doctrine and other such anti-Communist policies on-air, which antagonized his sponsor and led to his firing. He blamed Murrow partially, whom he referred to as "Paley's Toady." Later on Shirer provided the same kind of hard-hitting commentary for the Mutual Broadcasting System, until regular radio work dried up. This was an outcome expected from being listed as he was in Red Channels, a prime blacklisting organ that is referred to continuously in Clooney's film.
Another Murrow friend would also become a casualty of the witch hunt. Lawrence Duggan, son of IIE founder Stephen Duggan and now director of the IIE himself, jumped out of the 16th story window of his Manhattan office on December 20, 1948, just 5 days after Alger Hiss had been indicted for perjury by a federal grand jury. Duggan, a former State Department official considered part of a "pro-Soviet" bloc within the agency, had been grilled in the course of the Hiss investigation. Hiss had the same kind of profile as Duggan, father and son, and Murrow. These were highly-placed liberals who viewed cooperation between the U.S. and USSR as both necessary and desirable. In the 1930s such views were acceptable in American society because the main threat to corporate interests was a rising fascist power rather than an enfeebled and isolated workers state. After WWII, all that would change. Since the Soviet Union was now the new enemy of civilization and democracy that had to be confronted and defeated, any lingering softness on communism had to be rooted out and destroyed.
Partially out of unhappiness with the way things turned out for his old friend William Shirer, Murrow left his management post at CBS and returned to broadcasting. Although it was clear that he was troubled by the nascent witch hunt, he remained totally unsympathetic to Communism, which he likened to a "virus" on one of his broadcasts. Despite making such declarations, Murrow found himself being dragged into the witch hunt. In April of 1950, an old IIE colleague, Senator Frank Graham of North Carolina, was running for reelection. His Republican opponent put out literature "exposing" Graham and Murrow for participating in the 1935 Moscow summer school. Murrow, furious at the red-baiting, wrote an open letter defending Graham and putting their activities into context. Such was the tenor of the times that Graham was defeated handily.
Despite his antipathy to Communism, Murrow demonstrated more of an antipathy against fanatical anti-Communism. During the Korean War, he pushed for normalization of U.S.-China relations on his "See it Now" show. These remarks and others like them eventually put Murrow on McCarthy's hit-list. Murrow understood that his career was threatened in the same way that Senator Graham's was. He was also under pressure from his liberal peers at CBS to stand up to McCarthy. So out of a sense of self-preservation and a desire to confront what he considered inimical to his own liberal beliefs, Murrow resolved to produce a series of "See it Now" shows on McCarthy.
Fred Friendly's account of these famous shows can be found in Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control..., a 1967 memoir that is essential reading for anybody trying to understand what made television successful in its early stages and why it became a "vast wasteland" later on. In keeping with the liberal anti-Communist outlook of both Friendly and Murrow, the chapter on the April 6, 1954 episode begins with Murrow's own words from that broadcast:
"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? I would like to be remembered by the answer to that question."
Friendly describes this period as one in which "much of Washington was so terrorized by McCarthy that national policy was often made in reaction to his tirades." In keeping with the stated goal of both Murrow and Friendly to be more effective anti-Communists than the witch hunters, Murrow reported in 1954 on the loss of morale and effectiveness at the Voice of America after McCarthy's aides Roy Cohn and David Schine began investigating a Communist underground in the United States Information Agency! After McCarthy launched a similarly inexplicable hunt for Reds in the army, Murrow used his radio show, which was often a testing ground for ideas that would eventually be aired on TV, to complain about the ineffectiveness of his adversaries rather than about protecting the civil liberties of Communists, something that was given short shrift outside of the radical movement.
On February 24, Murrow quoted CBS News Paris correspondent David Schoenbrun on the reaction of Europeans to McCarthy's attack on the Army: "It is a case of burning down the barn to catch a rat, one French editor told me. Our allies don't think a line can be drawn between objectives and methods, particularly when methods, as in the McCarthy case, are so spectacular and destructive. Hitler's methods may have been to eradicate Communism in Germany and destroy the Soviet Union, but what his methods did in fact accomplish was to eradicate democracy in Germany and destroy France, not Russia."
When one hears this sort of thing, you cannot help but think of the thesis in Stephen Kinzer's Overthrow, a book that decries US interventions not because of any intrinsic violation of democracy or the rights of weaker nations, but because they "backfire." If Hitler had succeeded in destroying the Soviet Union, would that have made his invasion justifiable? One can only wonder.
Watching the April 6, 1954 broadcast at the Museum of Radio and Television in New York will demonstrate first of all that Goodbye and Good Luck is fairly faithful to the show. It is highly dramatic and demonstrates the power of television to affect public policy in a positive manner. No matter how wedded Murrow and Friendly were to the anti-Communist agenda of American foreign policy, the show was instrumental in breaking down the system that threatened world war. If it was an "officer's revolt" rather than a true revolution from below, it at least had the merit of creating a new climate in which it was no longer possible to damage a person's career because of their political affiliations.
After the witch hunt came to an end, television continued to be pressured by the powerful. Except now it would be corporate sponsors rather than Congressional Committees calling the shots. To Friendly's credit, he is unstinting in describing the threat to the rights of the public in having uncensored news that will help them to make intelligent political choices. In his final chapter, aptly named Common Stock vs. the Commonweal, Friendly writes:
Suppose that in 1776 there had only been three printing presses? Suppose that there were only three today; what would we print on them? Texts, books of general interest, newspapers, magazines, comic books, catalogues, advertising matter? Ideally, all of them, but surely there would be some order of priority. Television's defenders would claim that it dispenses all of these items. This is true, but the order is almost exactly the reverse of the above; the amount of time devoted to illuminating, teaching and informing is dwarfed by the amount of hours spent on entertainment and advertising.
Three soap companies -- Procter & Gamble, which spends $161,000,000 per year on television advertising, Colgate-Palmolive, which spends $71,000,000 per year, and Lever Brothers, $58,000,000 -- account for about 15 percent of the nation's total television sales. This is one reason why Americans know more about detergents and bleaches than they do about Vietnam or Watts. The three great printing presses in their seven-day-a-week continuous runs are so oriented to advertising and merchandise that after a single day of viewing television, a visitor from another planet could only infer that we are bent on producing a generation of semiliterate consumers.
One wonders how Edward R. Murrow would have reacted to a real Communist like Stephen Fleischman, the wise and witty author of A Red in the House. If there is anything that can serve as an antidote to thinking about Communism in terms of a virus, etc., it is reading the warm and human memoir of this life-long television producer now in his 80s and still going strong.
Throughout his entire career, no matter how high he climbed up in the corporate ladder at CBS or ABC, Fleischman never forgot his roots:
When the Communist Party disintegrated out from under me in the mid-1950s, I still found Marxism a valuable tool for understanding the world around me. Marxism had an influence on the political and cultural development of America, whether some of our leaders like it or not.
The "old left" of the 1930s and 40s that was rooted in Marxism and seemed so moribund a generation later, gave rise to the vigor of the "new left" of the 1960s and 70s, whether the Yippees and Yuppies liked it or not.
Right-wing extremism is now in vogue. The myth of "the end of ideology" is just that, a myth.
Not even our present Attorney General, John Ashcroft, can wipe out the influence of Marxism on this country. My thirty years in network news may be one example of it.
Fleischman was a member of the Communist Party in 1953, when a fellow member of the Writer's Branch of the Upper West Side in Manhattan helped him get a job with CBS news. When a personnel officer at CBS asked him to sign a loyalty oath, Fleischman decided to lie about his background since he "wasn't going to let some fucking document stop my life." We are grateful that he did since some of the finest television documentaries of the next 30 years were a result of that decision.
Like tens of thousands of others, Fleischman found himself drifting away from the party in the 1950s. This tendency was accelerated after Khrushchev revealed how much of a lie it was that they had been taught to believe:
The year 1956 had come and gone. Stalin was long dead and Khrushchev had taken over. At the 5th Party Congress in Moscow, Khrushchev blew it all wide open with his exposure of Stalin. It threw Communist parties throughout the world into turmoil. The FBI had completed its penetration of the American Communist Party. There were more FBI agents running around in the party than members. Informants were rampant. People were being named out of the blue. The membership scattered. I just drifted away and hoped no one would notice. I never formally resigned, basically because there wasn't anyone to resign to. I saw less and less of my former comrades in Writers Branch, Upper West Side not only because the party was in such disarray but also, no one trusted anyone anymore. I stopped seeing Morton Sawyer for the simple reason that every time I did he accused me of stealing his job. I couldn't get it through his head that there had been six months and another Story Editor between the time he was fired and I was hired to fill the job. And furthermore, I no longer felt guilty about enjoying the work. I wondered how it would affect my political life. Was I still part of the "vanguard of the working class" or had I become a "capitalist tool"?
Although one may have doubts about anybody representing themselves as "the vanguard of the working class" in a country like the U.S., where workers have become so depoliticized, there can be no doubt about Fleischman's qualifications as having been in the vanguard of television.
Fleischman produced a documentary on Jimmy Hoffa that appeared on ABC News Closeup in 1974. For those accustomed to seeing the standard dirt dished out on Hoffa, the labor leader America was conditioned to hate, Fleischman's report is a real eye-opener for its complex analysis, an obvious function of his political background and ability to see things from a class perspective.
This was not just a documentary on Hoffa but the quintessential study of the corruption of the American labor movement. It was also a powerful attack on the shady methods that the government used against Hoffa as well as a defense of his place in the labor movement as a determined defender of the basic economic demands of the workers he led. It also included an extended interview with Farrell Dobbs, the Trotskyist leader who Hoffa acknowledged as a major influence on his organizing strategy -- stripped, of course, of the revolutionary goals.
The interview with Dobbs took place when he was 67 and still in full command of his powers. It was a pleasure to see him hold forth with an interviewer who obviously knew how to ask the right questions. The interview was preceded by Hoffa's fond recollections of Dobbs and his comrades Vincent and Ray Dunn as mentors. He freely admitted that without the precedent of Dobbs organizing regionally across state lines, he never would have enjoyed the success that he did.
The interviewer asks Dobbs to comment on Hoffa's version of a bit of Teamster history, when Tobin sent him in to clean out the Trotskyists in the Minneapolis union local. With a shark-like grin on his face, Dobbs says that Hoffa could only succeed with a little outside help -- namely the Republican Governor of Minnesota, the Democratic President of the USA, the FBI, the local cops and the Department of Justice who were all determined to throw the antiwar socialists out of the union on the eve of WWII.
Even though Fleischman's background was in the Communist Party, he seems to have shifted to the left after leaving the party and focusing on a career in television. This was manifested in this particular show by his willingness to attack sacred cows like FDR and Bobby Kennedy, whose hounding of Hoffa comes across as a personal vendetta.
As the U.S. enters a period of deepening radicalization, marked by opposition to the war in Iraq and by the new civil rights movement for immigrant rights, there will be a struggle for control over the mass media just as there has been since the 1920s. The fight to preserve a space for outspoken and courageous viewpoints of the sort found in Stephen Fleischman's documentaries will be worth having.
Ultimately, there is continuity between Stephen Fleischman and radical voices going back to the 19th century. He is in the legacy of Frederick Douglass's "Liberator" and John Reed's reports on the Russian Revolution. Fleischman demonstrates a keen awareness of his historical role when he writes:
When Thomas Jefferson was elected President in 1800 he pardoned all those convicted under the Sedition Act, while Congress restored all fines paid, with interest.
Those things happened periodically throughout our history. At the end of World War I, 1918-1920, there were the famous, or infamous, Palmer Raids, widespread arrests and deportations using the inflammatory "Red Scare" to justify it. Motivated almost to the point of fanaticism, the Attorney General of the United States, A. Mitchell Palmer, summarized his fears of Bolshevism by this statement: "the Department of Justice has undertaken to tear out the radical seeds that have entangled American ideas in their poisonous theories."
They go on and on. In 1964, the acknowledged leader of the extreme conservative wing of the Republican Party, Barry Goldwater, Senator from Arizona, was the presidential nominee against the Democrat, Lyndon Johnson.
Goldwater lost the election to Johnson but he shall be forever remembered for his now famous quote during the campaign:
"Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue."
As Barry Goldwater suggested, "extremism" can't be all bad. Being extreme, depending how you define the word, can have value in combining ideologies, ideas, and passions making life interesting, full of convictions and emotions and opening vistas to broader interpretations and possibilities in the world.
1. Stephen Fleischman, A Red in the House: The Unauthorized Memoir of S.E. Fleischman, My Thirty Years in Network News, iUniverse Inc., New York, 2004, ARedintheHouse.com.
2. A. M. Sperber, Murrow: His Life and Times, Freundlich Books, New York, 1986.
3. Fred Friendly, Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control, Times Books, New York, 1967.
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