I drive to Polecat Creek in the rain, a straight shot south on country highways that leave vast tracts of land accessible only by private roads and unmarked paths through the woods.
Polecat Creek is almost literally a bend in the road — sensible brick ranch houses, modular homes and trailer parks spread thin across the low-grade hills. I have trouble discerning its distinct boundaries out there by Level Cross, near the Guilford-Randolph county line — but I do manage to find the creek itself, shielded by thick pocosin overgrowth as it passes under Highway 62. There is nowhere to pull over to take in this slim body of water, which is unremarkable except for the fact that two of the children who grew up playing on its banks went on to become Americans of some note.
O. Henry — aka William Sydney Porter — was born in a farmhouse not far from here in 1862. His connection to the area was well established by the time Edward R. Murrow came along in 1908 to a simple family of corn farmers in a log cabin that did not survive the years.
There is no memorial to Murrow in Polecat Creek — none that I can find anyway, though I do see a brown roadside sign commemorating NASCAR legend Richard Petty as I approach the county line.
Petty and Porter’s contributions to the culture notwithstanding, I’ve identified with Murrow since I first learned who he was in a college journalism class.
A Jesuit priest who felt as strongly about the First Amendment as he did the stations of the cross replayed for us some of Murrow’s radio broadcasts from World War II. One in particular I will never forget: his account from a Royal Air Force bomber of the siege of Berlin, broadcast on Dec. 3, 1943.
“The sun was going down and its red glow made rivers of lakes of fire on tops of the clouds,” Murrow said. He described a plane going down in flames as “a great, golden, slow-moving meteor slanting toward the earth,” and said the explosions on the ground were “going down like a fistful of white rice thrown on a piece of black velvet.”
This was broadcast journalism at the dawn of an age, when the principles of print and the elegance of literature fed a new immediacy afforded by the airwaves and the networks that organized them.
I had never heard a radio broadcast like that before. And when that same journalism professor showed us excerpts from Murrow’s CBS TV show “See It Now,” particularly the episodes that centered on Sen. Joe McCarthy, I was similarly floored.
By 1954, Murrow had moved into the new medium of television, and brought to it a gravitas befitting the covenant between the Federal Communications Commission and the stations given license to broadcast over the public airwaves.
The FCC still requires all broadcast radio and television stations — in return for custodianship of the airwaves which, by law, belong to the American people — to operate in the “public interest, convenience and necessity.” This section of the pact, going all the way back to the 1927 Radio Act, is what gave birth to broadcast news.
And under this mandate, Murrow used journalism to take down one of the biggest bullies of 20th Century American politics, averting what could have amounted to a fascist takeover of our republic.
That’s the way I see it anyway.
And so I drive out to Polecat Creek in the heat of an election more than 60 years after McCarthy led his charge. Comparisons to Donald Trump, whose rise also came on the politics of paranoia and exclusion, are inevitable. I’m troubled by the national discourse, which has divided the electorate into two feuding camps with little signs of reconciliation no matter who wins the election. And I long not only for the kind of reporting — factual, relevant, incontrovertible — that Murrow brought against McCarthy, but also the effect his message achieved.
Before the end of the year, McCarthy would be censured by the Senate for his tactics and rhetoric, and he’d finish his last term babbling about “reds” before drinking himself to death in 1957, at age 48.
I’m looking for Murrow, and with him the kind of journalism that can take down tyrants and restore a sense of balance within the electorate.
But there’s no trace of him out here among the cornfields, not even a sign, which makes sense, I suppose. Though Greensboro often claims him as a prodigal son, Murrow only lived here until he was 6 years old, before moving across the country to Washington state and then beginning his extraordinary life. His name wasn’t even Edward when he lived here: He was called Egbert until he changed it in college.
And judging by the yard signs, gun shop and rebel flags, Polecat Creek looks an awful lot like Trump territory.
In 1950, a few quiet years into his first Senate term, McCarthy roared into the national consciousness with a speech he gave in 1950 that would come to be known as the Wheeling Speech. In it, he told the Republican Women’s Club of Wheeling, W. Va. that he was in possession of a list of dozens, if not hundreds, of communists working in the US State Department.
His accusations launched the Red Scare — a period at the beginning of the Cold War, when communism was expanding in Europe and Asia, and with it a rivalry with the US that would last until the end of the century.