Press Coverage of McCarthy

Media Rants

By Tony Palmeri

from the April, 2006 edition of The Valley Scene

[Note: The Valley Scene and the Appleton Public Library are sponsoring a special screening of George Clooney's "Good Night, and Good Luck" on Thursday, April 27th at 6:30 p.m. A special section of the April Valley Scene features introductions to the film written by me "from the left" and Brian Farmer "from the right." My intro piece is called "The Media Will Serve Us - If We Make It . . . " I encourage everyone to come to the screening of the film on the 27th. Brian Farmer and I will be there on a panel to offer our perspectives on the film and the audience will have an opportunity to make comments and ask questions. Appleton Public Library Director Terry Dawson says, "The film and the debate it inspires are just as relevant today as in the 1950s, particularly so here in Senator McCarthy's home town. We hope that many will come to the library to see the film, hear the panelists, engage in the debate, and make up their own minds about the issues."]

As announced on the cover of this newspaper, on April 27th at 6:30 p.m. the Appleton Public Library (225 N. Oneida St.) will host a screening of “Good Night, and Good Luck,” George Clooney’s tale of the epic confrontation between CBS’s Edward R. Murrow and redbaiting Republican Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy. I will be speaking at that event and look forward to meeting you there.

One shortcoming of “Good Night, and Good Luck” is its suggestion that Murrow was the first journalist to take on McCarthy. Certainly Murrow’s March 9, 1954 “See it Now” program was the first television broadcast to expose the senator’s bullying shenanigans to a national audience, and did so courageously. Yet as noted by Edwin Bayley in Joe McCarthy and the Press (University of Wisconsin Press, 1981): “In some ways the most remarkable thing about the program was that it was so late. Even the conservative Republican newspapers had begun to turn on McCarthy as it became apparent that he was willing to fight President Eisenhower in the same way he had fought President Truman. But television has been so cowed by the Red-baiters, the blacklisters, and the fearful sponsors that Murrow’s cautious courage seemed heroic.”

Nathan Pusey was a prominent Fox Valley Republican and president of Lawrence College in Appleton in the early 1950s. In 1952 he came out against McCarthy and was redbaited for his efforts. When asked by Bayley about the Murrow program, he said, “By 1954 McCarthy was finished. The time to fight him – the only time it mattered – was before the election in 1952, when you could do something about it.” The mainstream press had gone easy on McCarthy even after Maine Republican Margaret Chase Smith delivered on the floor of the Senate her June 1, 1950 “Declaration of Conscience” condemning the McCarthyite smear tactics that had debased deliberation in the world’s greatest legislative body “to the level of a forum of hate and character assassination sheltered by the shield of congressional immunity.”

So who in the media were fighting McCarthy before 1952? Not the Fox Valley press. The Appleton Post-Crescent, Green Bay Press Gazette, and Chicago Tribune (widely read in northeast Wisconsin until the early 1950s) provided crucial support for McCarthy until by 1954 he became too much of an embarrassment even for them to sustain.

The most vehement press critics of McCarthy before 1952 were The Madison Capital Times under editor William T. Evjue, and George Seldes, publisher of the independent newsletter In Fact. Each published powerful indictments of McCarthy that were largely ignored by major newspapers along with most television and radio outlets. Edwin Bayley claimed, "If we ranked newspapers on the quantity and vehemence of their criticism of McCarthy, first place would go to the Capital Times." Bill Evjue was unrelenting in his criticism of McCarthy from the time “Tail Gunner Joe” entered the Republican US Senate primary against Bob LaFollette, Jr. in 1946. The Cap Times poked holes in McCarthy’s claims about his war record and tax returns, and found that as an Outagamie county district court judge he had granted “quickie” divorces to rich couples for a fee.

Evjue and the Cap Times persistently condemned McCarthy’s smear and guilt by association tactics long before Murrow. They even revealed the troubling effects of the Red Scare; in 1951 reporter John Patrick Hunter tried to get citizens in Madison’s Vilas Park to sign a petition he had created that consisted of portions of the Constitution including six amendments from the Bill of Rights. Only one person out of 112 would sign, while many accused Hunter of being a Communist. Others wanted to sign but feared possible repercussions. In 1953 the Cap Times revealed that the Madison Public Library decided against placing Jack Anderson and Ronald May’s caustic criticism of Senator McCarthy, McCarthy, The Man, The Senator, The Ism on the library’s shelves on the basis of a negative review of it by Westbrook Pegler, a reactionary racist who once defended lynching and saw integrated unions as evidence of Communist loyalties within the labor movement.

[picture: William T. Evjue]

The late George Seldes’ chapter “Face to Face with Joe McCarthy” from his extraordinary 1987 memoir Witness to a Century (New York: Ballantine Books) is must reading for anyone interested in the extent to which the mainstream media suppressed disturbing information about the senator. In February of 1950 McCarthy delivered his famous speech in Wheeling, West Virginia that included his waving of a list of the names of 205 alleged Communists in the State Department. Two months later, Seldes reported that the “senator was repeating, frequently verbatim, the words of one Joe Kamp, co-publisher with Lawrence Dennis of The Awakener, the first openly fascist magazine in America, a man whose writings met with Hitler’s enthusiastic approval, and who in 1948 was convicted of contempt of Congress and sentenced to four months in prison.” That information did not make the front page of any establishment newspapers, but Seldes himself in 1953 was subpoenaed to appear before McCarthy’s committee. He was “cleared” by McCarthy, though cleared of what he was never quite sure.

The McCarthy era gave us a climate of fear, principled critics struggling to be heard, and a mainstream press that looked the other way. Sound familiar?


Tony Palmeri ( is an associate professor of communication at UW Oshkosh