communists in the government

There were clues aplenty that McCarthy was spinning fiction. His “list” of communists in the government fluctuated—205 one day, 81 another day, and then 108. He mixed labels: Somebody was a communist one day and “inclined towards communism” on another. Reporters failed to press McCarthy in his slippery terminology. Was a communist necessarily a Soviet spy? McCarthy used labels like communist, CPUSA member, and loyalty risk. McCarthyism ruined lives as person after person suspected of Communist leanings was hauled before Congress and questioned about their loyalty to the United States.

News reporters didn’t focus on the damage McCarthy’s allegations were causing, though. Rather, they focused on McCarthy’s words with a penchant for verbatim accuracy. However, they failed to examine McCarthy’s discrepancies. Deadlines didn’t allow time for fact-checking, nor did reporters include background or context, including the fact that McCarthy had fabricated his military record. No time to check on that. They also failed to report that McCarthy was an alcoholic whose thinking processes were increasingly muddled.

Today the term “McCarthyism” remains in the language for unfair and false allegations. Applying deadline-driven journalistic practices, reporters got all the facts right. They quoted and paraphrased McCarthy accurately, but reporters failed to tell the truth—that McCarthy was a liar. To do so would have seemed opinionated and partisan—a violation of the idea from the Bennett era that news should be reported in an objective tone. The problem was that the truth would have appeared less than neutral and dispassionate.

Reporting News Accurately Which of the following lead sentences would have been more accurate?

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah—Sen. Joseph McCarthy, R-Wis., warned that 81 Communist security risks are on the U.S. State Department payroll, posing a serious threat to state security.

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah—Sen. Joseph McCarthy, R-Wis., an alcoholic who falsified his war record while campaigning for the U.S. senate, repeated his charge that Communist security risks are on the U.S. State Department payroll, this time changing his figures to 81 persons and, as before, citing no specific

sources or evidence.

These may be extreme examples, but they illustrate how the presentation of facts can be accurate while still missing the truth.

Does reporting the truth jeopardize objectivity?

The fact is that McCarthy’s inconsistencies and questionable behavior were left unexplored journalistically until Edward R. Murrow at the CBS television network exposed contextual information relevant to the story—but that was in 1954, more than four years after McCarthy grabbed his first national headline, and four years too late for hundreds of thousands of people who lost their jobs, their financial security and their reputations due to accusations of being a Communist or a Communist-sympathizer.

The vigilante nature of the McCarthy era, with its various witch-hunts, severely damaged the social fabric of the country by pitting neighbor against neighbor, causing so many people to lose trust in their government.

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