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The Press and Joe

Joe McCarthy and the Press By Edwin R. Bayley The University of Wisconsin Press, 270 pp., $16.00

By Robert M. Mccord

JOSEPH McCARTHY--America's premier Red-hunter--levelled accusations of treason at people he knew nothing about, often not even their names. He lied with such boldness that he distracted a nation and shot it full of distrust. Few regret it more than journalists. By offering the print of page-one articles and the air-time of lead stories, American news media fed McCarthy the publicity he needed. Edwin R. Bayley focuses on that process in his new book, McCarthy and the Press. In a world seemingly vulnerable to media-made images, he offers the comforting notion that today's news reporters are better prepared to combat demagogy.

Bayley's narrative spotlights McCarthy's four years at the fore-front of American politics. It begins with newspaper coverage of McCarthy's infamous 1950 speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, Where McCarthy started his campaign of slander by stating that more than 200 known card-carrying Communists filled posts in the State Department. Bayley ends his account with the coverage of the "Army-McCarthy hearings," where McCarthy saw his public image crippled, precipitating his censure by the Senate. These four years saw certain newspapers carrying over 15 stories a day featuring McCarthy. Dredging up every sort of reporting on the Senator, showing the media's role change from Joseph McCarthy's mouthpiece to that of a dramatic image-maker which cast McCarthy as a villainous "bully" with "heavy dark brows" or as a heroic cow-boy who fought "smear gangs" and "parlor pinks," the book vividly illustrates McCarthy's ride on the tracks of America's media, lying and venomously spewing forth accusations.

Bayley does more, however, than weave a narrative based on spicy excerpts. He constructs an argument about the role of the press during "the McCarthy years" and, ultimately, about the role of the press today. McCarthy and the Press repeatedly faults the vast majority of journalists for failing to add "news analysis"--an organized presentation of relevant facts or ideas--to their mechanical reporting of McCarthy's accusations, and he argues that most journalists displayed a singular lack of curiosity during McCarthy's first years of invective. They failed, for example, even to find out the identities of those card-carrying Communists. Bayley also highlights distortedly melodramatic performances of the media, points out that many headlines and broadcasted leads exaggerated McCarthy's charges; Senate to Probe Department Reds" or "Reds in High Places Face Senate Quiz," many headlines read, assuming guilt for the accused Communist sympathizer.

An anti-McCarthy reporter for the Milwaukee Journal during the 1950s. Bayley could have pointed an accusing finger at his colleagues from the era but instead, he explains the failures of the press sympathetically. Journalists made news out of McCarthy's charges, he says, because they came from a United States Senator. Papers desiring to investigate the accuracy of McCarthy's charges usually ran up against a shortage of time and research facilities. In any event, Bayley notes, news analysis was generally left to the editorial pages in those days.

BAYLEY'S most insightful offer of circumstances mitigating the press comes with his discussion of McCarthy's uncanny ability to force himself into the news. Reporter after reporter testifies to McCarthy's manipulative skill, describing the Senator's skill at exploiting deadline pressure and competition within the news industry. He would release his accusations hours, or even minutes, before wire services sent out their releases, leaving them without time to investigate. And McCarthy released his charges simultaneously to several different wire and newspaper conduits, so that a failure to print a day's charges could lead to some newspaper's public embarrassment at seeming uninformed.

McCarthy and the Press maintains that the American news media have improved since the 1950s. McCarthy's manipulations showed that reporting only what was said to the press and not what might have been the truth often led to bias and misinterpretation. Newspapers are no longer so vulnerable to sensationalizing slander, Bayley says. Thorough and effective news analysis no longer gets relegated to the editorial pages. The popularity of televised news has left investigative reporting as the "meat and potatoes" of print journalism. Increased staffs and decreased competition have allowed newspapers greater opportunity for research and more discretion about what, and when, to print.

Unfortunately, the book fails to deal with concurrent changes in America's consumption of news. Increases and improvements in news analysis might have little effect, since most of today's voters get the bulk of their news not from developed anaylsis, but from the one-liner world of tabloids and television. McCarthy and the Press even leaves some question about the efficacy of the vigorous reporting which did go on during the McCarthy era. Bayley found that those Wisconsin areas with newspapers which did oppose Senator McCarthy--with news analysis and editorials--saw a steady erosion of the Senator's support. Contrary to Bayley's assumptions, however, this bit of detail fails to show the strong guiding role of the press. Rather than the press, determining reader opinion, readers could have guided the press, or made judgments independent of it.

Possibly, Americans withdrew their support from McCarthy not because he was a proven liar (as with Richard Nixon, the evidence had been there a while), but because he had been upstaged by trial lawyer Joseph Welch in the Army-McCarthy hearings. Or possibly, people simply grew tired of McCarthy and his tremulous voice, tired of him as they grow tired of over-exposed rock musicians whose hate-filled music finally becomes stale and offensive.

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