Donald Trump is American journalism's great failure

Republican front-runner Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump: 'I’m just flabbergasted’ by Clinton-Lynch meet Trump's new digital strategist quickly leaves campaign GOP megadonor compares Trump to Biblical figures MORE is not the first demagogue in American history to corrupt political discourse through falsehoods and innuendo that exploit public fear. In the early 1950s, Joseph R. McCarthy, a first-term Republican senator from Wisconsin, ruthlessly manipulated Americans' fear of communism. He was brought down because a courageous journalist named Edward R. Murrow understood that a vile bully like McCarthy could not be dealt with by traditional reporting. The problem is that they don't make them like Murrow anymore.

On Feb. 9, 1950, McCarthy, brandishing a piece of paper, gave a speech in Wheeling, W.Va.:

I have here in my hand a list of 205 [State Department employees] — a list of names that were made known to the secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who, nonetheless, are still working and shaping policy in the State Department.

McCarthy's timing was perfect. The previous year, the Soviet Union had successfully tested an atomic bomb and China had fallen to Mao Zedong's Communist forces. It didn't much matter to a frightened public that McCarthy could not even keep his accusations straight. The day after the Wheeling speech, McCarthy declared instead that there were "57 card carrying communists" in the State Department; 10 days later, however, he changed that to "81 loyalty risks" in the department. Thus began years of debasement of American politics and a national climate of fear.

ADVERTISEMENT
Then the widely admired Murrow of CBS took him on. During the Battle of Britain in 1940, millions of Americans had listened on their radios to Murrow report from rooftops in London while German bombs exploded around him. In February 1954, Murrow devoted an episode of his popular weekly program, "See It Now," to McCarthy. The show's premise was that since McCarthy had used newspapers and television to spread false accusations, he was not entitled to the benefit of disinterested, polite journalism. As David Halberstam wrote in "The Powers That Be," traditional reporting on McCarthy hadn't revealed "the invisible part, the inflection, the distortions of scene, the lack of follow through, the lack of seriousness, the cumulative record or lack of record which was missing in all accounts."

Murrow's show largely consisted of carefully juxtaposing McCarthy's speeches and accusations in Senate hearings. McCarthy came across as a bullying, shifty-eyed and leering zealot, contradicting himself, casually inventing facts and ruining innocent lives. Murrow closed the program with an all-out assault on McCarthy as a threat to America's national security, saying that the senator "had caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies." The program provoked a backlash against McCarthy that ended with his censure by the U.S. Senate.

Trump uses the same techniques as McCarthy. In a poisonous attack on Muslim Americans, for example, he claimed that on 9/11, he "watched in Jersey City, New Jersey [which has a large Muslim-American population], where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down." When safety officials in New Jersey said that no such thing had happened, Trump claimed that it has "been confirmed by hundreds of people" without identifying any reliable eyewitnesses. Trump then suggested that the exact number really wasn't the issue. "The only purpose in saying that was [to show] that there's something wrong. ... But throughout the world, I mean, amazingly, they were celebrating, which tells you there's something definitely going on here that's wrong. There's some bad stuff happening. And that's the point of the whole thing."

Trump has gotten away with this even though there are many more journalists and forms of journalism than existed in the 1950s. But there is no one like Murrow, who was highly trusted by the public, tough as nails, willing to risk his career to stop McCarthy and not afraid to drop journalistic norms when dealing with a subject who had dropped any pretense of telling the truth. Compare Murrow's approach in "See It Now" to the traditional, but ineffectual, way George Stephanopoulos questioned Trump about his 9/11 claims on ABC's "This Week."

Stephanopoulos: You know, the police say that didn't happen and all those rumors have been on the Internet for some time. So did you misspeak yesterday?

Trump: It was on television. I saw it.

For its part, CBS seems to have forgotten that Edward R. Murrow ever worked there. Leslie Moonves, the head of CBS, told a recent investor conference that while the Trump-dominated campaign "may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS. ... The money's rolling in ... [B]ring it on, Donald. Keep going."

Wallance is a writer and lawyer in New York City. His most recent book is "America's Soul in the Balance: The Holocaust, FDR's State Department, and the Moral Disgrace of an American Aristocracy."

More in Presidential Campaign

Will America's job creators also 'feel the Bern'?

Read more »