Fifty years ago today, before a live national television audience, Attorney Joseph Welch uttered the famous words, "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you no sense of decency?" As the gallery burst into applause, a clueless Senator Joseph McCarthy looked at his sidekick in Pinko-hunting, the legendary walking paradox Roy Cohn, confused and blissfully unaware that this televised moment was the beginning of the end.
Media scholar Ben Bagdikian covered the hearings as a reporter for The Providence (Rhode Island) Journal-Bulletin.
"McCarthy was an important part of post-World War II history as television became a major instrument of American politics, with all of its sins and advantages," says Bagdikian, now 84.
The hearings, he adds, "were the first demonstration of how melodrama in politics was made for television. The hearings were great drama, and television ate it up."
As the first nationally televised congressional inquiry, it set the stage for TV-political co-productions to come, including the Watergate, Iran-Contra and Thomas-Hill hearings. In each case, the enabling presence of TV cameras did more than cover the event. TV also drove it.
Like Watergate's Sam Ervin or Iran-Contra's Oliver North, the Army-McCarthy hearings boasted a colorful cast of characters, and none more so than McCarthy and Welch. As any viewer could see, they were a study in contrasts: the erudite, patrician Welch vs. McCarthy, a roughneck who gloried in his lack of refinement.
"I felt that if the public could see just how McCarthy operated, they would understand just how ridiculous a figure he really was," the late ABC network President Leonard Goldenson wrote in his 1991 memoir, explaining his decision to air the hearings gavel-to-gavel.
News by radio and newspaper didn't convince the public of McCarthy's ruthlessness, but a live telecast did, at a cost of $600,000 to a struggling network, ABC. The cost was great to the network, but the benefit to the nation was greater. McCarthy stopped in his tracks.
We take it for granted that we can watch live broadcasts of Senate Committee inquiries and Commission hearings live and replayed over and over again on C-Span. We take it so for granted -- if that's even a phrase I can use -- that no one wants to watch C-Span "because it's boring."
Yesterday I found myself home from work, sick, lying on the couch with the remote in my hand. I channel surfed, as I do most sick days, and came to C-Span, where Ashcroft was testifying before a committee. I tried to watch for a few minutes, but I found the man so irritating that I just couldn't stay tuned in. I flipped away. When I got near the news channels, I felt a sudden twinge of panic pass over my body, and I flipped through them quickly, trying not to let the crawl suck me in. And only today, when I read this article about the McCarthy telecast, did I realize why we take our access to government processess for granted: INFORMATION OVERLOAD.
Yes, I've come to the conclusion that too much information can, in fact, be a very bad thing. It's only June and I can't wait for the election to be over, even though I understand that we've only just begun (cue Barbara Streisand).
Without the 24 hour news networks and unfettered access to Internet news sites, perhaps more people would sit down and watch national decision makers defend bad decisions before committees. Perhaps more Americans would have noticed that Rumsfeld was not upset over the abuse, but over the fact that the media released the pictures to the public before he could develop a proper spin strategy or suppress them altogether. There's so much we see, but so much we miss simply because of the amount of information thrown our way. We have to make choices now. We can choose to listen to Rush Limabaugh or we can choose to listen to Al Franken. We can choose to read the Washington Post or we can choose to watch Fox News. In order to truly grasp the big picture, however, we'd have to synthesize every single media outlet, and that's simply impossible. So we choose what we want to hear and tune everyone else out. In the process, we stop viewing the world clearly and start watching helplessly through media filters. And sometimes we can't stand to hear any of it at all, and apathy sets in.
Taking the McCarthy anniversary in a different direction...
Apparently there's a movement, on the right, of people who believe that "McCarthyism" is little more than liberals crying wolf. Ann Coulter included her spin on the liberal conspiracy in a book boldy called Treason. I think that, like Holocaust deniers, it's important to listen to why they believe what they believe, but not really think too hard about it. That's why I plan to read all of Ann Coulter's books. That's right. Every single one. I will become enraged and likely slam the books shut; I will scream and yell at the pages; but I feel that before I talk any more about how insane I think she is, it's important for me to understand her better. I refuse to buy them, for obvious reasons. Thank goodness for libraries. At least if Ashcroft ever decides to check my library records, he'll get an entirely different impression of me than if he actually checked my book collection.
McCarthyism happened. People's careers and lives were smeared by a foolish attempt to pinpoint Communists within America. If people like Ann Coulter would stop stereotyping liberals, we'd all get along so much better.