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.
The long shadow of WWII and the Korean War, a strong sense of nationalism and the specter of nuclear armageddon created a climate of paranoia in the country. In 1947, a group of writers and directors known as the Hollywood Ten refused to testify about their association with the Communist Party when called — after damning testimony, it should be mentioned, by Walt Disney and Ronald Reagan — before the House Un-American Activities Committee. They became the first names on the Hollywood Blacklist, banned from working in the industry, that eventually grew to more than 100.
And to be sure, the US and Russia had been spying on each other since the 1920s. A State Department official named Alger Hiss had been convicted of perjury in an espionage trial in 1948 — since then, hindsight has both exonerated and re-convicted him — and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg both took rides in the electric chair at Sing Sing in 1953 after being convicted of spying for the Soviets.
The Korean War, begun in 1950, pitted UN and US forces against a powerful new Soviet axis that included China and North Korea; victory seemed uncertain, a blow to the collective national ego after the recent success in World War II. Anti-communist propaganda wended its way through the popular culture in movies, comics and radio and television scripts, describing the “reds” as godless, violent, sneaky and seductive.
In the US, people in general were totally freaked out.
And after his inflammatory speech in West Virginia tapped into this national anxiety, McCarthy began to chase the dragon. The Tydings Committee was established in 1950 to root out communists, beginning with McCarthy’s list of 57 names in the State Department. The committee found no credence in McCarthy’s charges, but he kept up the effort, now including gay men in his hunt, rationalizing that their secret lifestyles exposed them to blackmail.
In 1950, syndicated columnist Drew Pearson began a series of pieces critical of McCarthy and his methods. McCarthy responded with seven speeches about Pearson on the Senate floor, insinuating that Pearson himself might be a communist and calling for a “patriotic boycott” of the column. A dozen newspapers dropped Pearson’s “Washington Merry-Go-Round” column as a result.
In September of that year, McCarthy and Pearson got into a fight at the Sulgrave Club in Washington, DC — McCarthy won the fight, Pearson sued for injuries sustained by a kick in the balls. In an interesting historical footnote, the fight was broken up by a young Richard Nixon, who was serving his first Senate term.
McCarthy won re-election in 1952, solidifying his power, and was named chair of the Senate Committee on Government Operations. He funneled his leverage from this position into the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, and escalated his communist witch hunt. He’d honed his tactics by now: conflation, false accusations, outright lies and intimidation, all broadcast nationally on the new medium of television. And he cut a swath through the entertainment industry, the media and government, destroying reputations and careers along the way.
By the time Murrow got on the story, McCarthy was investigating reports of communist sympathizers within the US Army.
Interlude from the present
Donald Trump is not Joe McCarthy — that is not the point of this analogy. But it’s true that Trump voters see enemies everywhere: immigrants, non-Christians, Black Lives Matter, Muslim terrorists, people who don’t own guns.
A Public Policy Polling survey of North Carolinians in August revealed that 69 percent of Trump voters believe that if he loses, the election will have been stolen, compared to just 16 percent who say they would accept that result. Forty percent of them believed that ACORN, a community organizing group that was dissolved in 2010, will steal the election for Hillary Clinton. And 41 percent of them believe that the former first lady is in actuality the devil.
That is not a joke. From the report on Aug. 9:
“Trump said last week that Hillary Clinton is the devil, and 41% of Trump voters say they think she is indeed the devil to 42% who disagree with that sentiment and 17% who aren’t sure one way or the other.”
Some Trump voters blame President Obama for 9/11 even though it happened seven years before he took office, and believe that he’s our first Muslim president and that he was born in Kenya. Last week, the Washington Post profiled Melanie Austin, a Trump supporter in Pennsylvania who believes Obama is gay, his wife is a trans-woman and his kids are adopted, and possibly kidnapped.
The point is that the truth is not getting through, and that the media — charged with operating in the public interest — has failed.
And maybe success is not possible.
Each one of us has access to more information than ever before in the history of humanity. It comes at us from thousands of directions, and each of us is responsible for weighting and curating our own streams. No one outlet has the reach Murrow had when he brought McCarthy’s activities to light, no single franchise can capture the public trust in the way Murrow and the crew at CBS News did in the first half of the American Century. There’s no such thing as a truth bomb, one that would instantly disseminate the facts and dispel the fiction, because a third of the people won’t want to believe it and will find sources to back up their false beliefs.
In 1951, Murrow adapted his CBS radio show “Hear It Now” for television, bringing with him his catchphrase, “Good night, and good luck.”
“See It Now” aired in prime time, the first coast-to-coast live broadcast that dropped in on reporters stationed around the country for newsreel pieces and updates, a style mimicked in later shows like “60 Minutes.”
Three years in it had tackled issues such as the Korean War and the 1952 presidential election and had nibbled around the edges of Cold War culture with pieces on an Air Force lieutenant who had been labeled a security risk because of his Serbian heritage and an American Legion hall that refused to rent the space to the ACLU because they believed it was a communist organization.
They believed it, Murrow realized, because McCarthy had said it on television during a subcommittee hearing. But it was provably false.
Murrow and his producer, Fred Friendly, convinced the network heads to allow a full episode of “See It Now” focused on the misstatements and inconsistencies coming out of the junior senator from Wisconsin. The network heads, fearful of being swept up in one of McCarthy’s inquisitions, offered half-hearted support: Murrow and Friendly used their own money to buy a full-page ad in the New York Times plugging the telecast, and were not permitted to use the CBS logo.
“A Report on Senator Joseph R. McCarthy” aired on March 9, 1954 to prime-time audiences across the country. It began with a head shot of the stoic Murrow himself, inviting McCarthy to rebut anything they reported.
And then Murrow laid out the working thesis of the program, a quote from McCarthy made 17 months earlier, in Milwaukee: “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.”
Murrow then had McCarthy refute his own statement, captured on a reel-to-reel tape, accusing the Democrats of 20 years of treason.
“The hard fact is,” the senator said, “that those who wear the label Democrat wear it with the stain of a historic betrayal.”
The program documented some of McCarthy’s lies, like the one about the ACLU, and his tactic in Senate hearings to reduce contextual information into yes/no questions, the implicit unfairness of the label “Fifth Amendment Communists,” which McCarthy ascribed to anyone who refused to answer his inquiries. Murrow even threw in a little Shakespeare.
His conclusion deserves to be reprinted in full:
“No one familiar with the history of this country can deny that congressional committees are useful. It is necessary to investigate before legislating, but the line between investigating and persecuting is a very fine one, and the junior senator from Wisconsin has stepped over it repeatedly. His primary achievement has been in confusing the public mind, as between the internal and the external threats of communism. We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men — not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular.
“This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent, or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities. As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age. We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.
“The actions of the junior senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies. 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.’”
Murrow’s World War II uniform jacket hangs behind a thick pane of glass at the Greensboro Historical Museum, a faded olive coat belted smartly at the waist, a “war correspondent” patch sewn over the left breast. His widow Janet donated it to the city during a visit in 1967, at the dedication of Murrow Boulevard.
There’s a story clip about the dedication in Murrow’s vertical file at the Greensboro Central Library, along with stories about a 1942 appearance at UNCG’s Aycock Auditorium and his honorary degree from UNC-Chapel Hill.
Another clipping recounts a time in 1942 when Murrow, while on the radio reporting on the war, announced he would be donating his fee to the Greensboro Community War Chest and encouraged his listeners to do the same.
Murrow left Guilford County at 6 years old, but he returned often to visit relatives and always felt an affinity for the state.
The last clip in the vertical file came from the Greensboro Daily News a couple weeks after the McCarthy piece aired, an interview with Murrow’s uncle, JE Murrow of Pleasant Garden about his nephew’s exposé.
“Well, I’ll tell you,” he told the news. “I don’t want to be quoted exactly ’cause I can’t use all the adjectives I’d like to. You understand?
“But I’m going to write Ed and quote some Shakespeare,” the farmer continued, “that part in Macbeth where he had Macbeth saying, ‘Lay on, Macduff. And damned be him who first cries, “Hold, enough!”’”
On April 6, 1954, McCarthy’s rebuttal was aired as an episode of “See It Now,” a filmed piece in which he refuted no facts Murrow had put forth, but outlined the dangers of communism, hinted at its presence in all of our institutions and, lastly, accused Murrow himself of colluding with the Russians.
“If Mr. Murrow is giving comfort to our enemies,” McCarthy said, “He ought not to be brought into the homes of millions of Americans by the Columbia Broadcasting System.”
But it did no good — his investigation into the Army was not going well, and had earned him more enemies in Washington, DC. His colleagues in the Senate had begun to distrust his crusade and were already talking about censure.
Murrow addressed McCarthy’s accusations at the tail end of the April 13, 1954 broadcast of “See It Now.”
“He proved again that anyone who exposes him,” Murrow told the nation, “anyone who does not share his hysterical disregard for decency and human dignity and the rights guaranteed by the Constitution must be either a communist or a fellow traveler.
“I fully expected this treatment,” Murrow concluded.
Earlier that day, Murrow’s teamat CBS had won four Peabody Awards for outstanding work in radio and television. He’d host “See It Now” until its cancellation in 1958; sponsor Alcoa pulled its resources in 1955, and a quiz-show phenomenon had taken over the primetime slots.
In October 1958, Murrow delivered one more blow for truth in American journalism, his “Wires and Lights in a Box” speech before the Radio and Television News Association.
In it, he called out the industry he had helped build for favoring entertainment over information, sponsorship dollars over the public interest.
“One of the basic troubles with radio and television news is that both instruments have grown up as an incompatible combination of show business, advertising and news,” he told the room of broadcast journalists and producers. “Each of the three is a rather bizarre and, at times, demanding profession. And when you get all three under one roof, the dust never settles. The top management of the networks with a few notable exceptions, has been trained in advertising, research, sales or show business. But by the nature of the corporate structure, they also make the final and crucial decisions having to do with news and public affairs. Frequently they have neither the time nor the competence to do this.”
He would never again bring to American network television the kind of work that had become synonymous with his name.
End of the road
Murrow Boulevard in Greensboro runs along the eastern side of downtown, a partial loop that describes an express route from Gate City Boulevard to Summit Avenue, where it merges with Fisher Street and unceremoniously feeds into the north end of downtown.
On the way, it passes a post office and the Interactive Resource Center, a day center and service provider for homeless people, as well as banks of affordable housing and a new playground near the Greensboro Farmers Curb Market.
Soon the Downtown Greenway will be coming through, the first major upgrade this stretch has seen since Murrow’s widow came to dedicate the quarter-loop in 1967. It seems unfinished somehow, a fine idea abandoned shortly after execution.
In 1961, Murrow resigned from CBS after more than 25 years and took a job with the US Information Agency under President John F. Kennedy, under the condition that he would have unprecedented access to the commander in chief.
He reportedly told JFK: “If you want me in on the landings, I’d better be there for the takeoffs.”
But Murrow’s battle with lung cancer had begun. He was too ill to take his journalistic front-row seat for the Bay of Pigs episode and the Cuban Missile Crisis, and was in treatment when the president was assassinated.
He sat out the front end of the Vietnam War, too, and died before the protests began in earnest.
The name survives, I suppose, here on Murrow Boulevard, a city park named for him in Washington, DC and a high school in Brooklyn.
And then there’s the legacy, largely forgotten and needed now more than ever.
There’s a difference between Murrow’s takedown of McCarthy and the saturation of fact-checking happening now, in real time, as the American people once again select a new leader.
What Murrow did actually worked. Or at least I think it did.
Then I think of Polecat Creek, the rebel flag flying above the pre-fab home and the store called “Guns.” I think about how many of my fellow North Carolinians will be voting against fact and reason this election season.
Sometimes I’m not so sure.