Praising Jon Stewart, NYT Perpetuates the Myth of Murrow

As reported at NB by TimesWatch editor Clay Waters, the New York Times bestowed the honor of "modern day Edward R. Murrow" on "Daily Show" host Jon Stewart for his advocacy for a bill awarding billions for the medical care of 9/11 first responders.

As it would only ever do for a liberal, the Times lauded Stewart as the exemplar of righteous journalistic advocacy - hence the likeness to Murrow, who, according to lore, brought down Sen. Joseph McCarthy during his communist witchhunts during the 1950s.

But if the Times revealed its bias by bestowing the honor upon Stewart, its counter-factual recollection of Murrow's legacy speaks to its willingness to take mythical journalistic folklore at face value. Murrow was hardly the paragon of journalistic integrity that the Times made him out to be, and he certainly did not take down McCarthy single-handedly, as is so often claimed.

Veteran journalist W. Joseph Campbell took on the Murrow "media-driven myth," as he callsit, in a recent book titled "Getting it Wrong." Campbell took the Times to task Monday for pushing media myths at his blog, appropriately titled Media Myth Alert. Campbell wrote:

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, public opinion began turning against McCarthy well before Murrow’s often-recalled half-hour television report in March 1954 that scrutinized the senator and his communists-in-government witch-hunt.

Specifically, I note Gallup Poll data showing McCarthy’s appeal having crested in December 1953, when 53 percent of Americans said they had a favorable view of him. The senator’s favorable rating fell to 40 percent by early January 1954, and to 39 percent in February 1954, when an almost identical number of Americans viewed him unfavorably.

“To be sure,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “it wasn’t as if Americans in early 1954 were hoping for someone to step up and expose McCarthy, or waiting for a white knight like Murrow to tell them about the toxic threat the senator posed.

“By then, McCarthy and his tactics were well-known and he had become a target of withering ridicule—a sign of diminished capacity to inspire dread.”

On March 9, 1954, the day Murrow’s See It Now program on McCarthy was aired, former president Harry Truman reacted to reports of an anonymous threat against McCarthy’s life by quipping:

“We’d have no entertainment at all if they killed him.”

In an interview with NewsBusters, Campbell elaborated on the false Murrow narrative, and elaborated on some of the man's journalistic shortcomings:

Murrow, although he's held up as the white knight of broadcast journalism, was very much a compromised character. Even his own biographers have identified what we would see today as disqualifying ethical lapses in his background. He claimed degrees that he did not earn, he coached Adlai Stevenson on the finer techniques of using television during the 1956 presidential campaign. Privately, he did this, but if that was known, and a well-known broadcast journalist was doing that today - well, I don't know, but I suspect there would be considerable controversy about that kind of conduct.

No, Murrow was no white knight. He really wasn't. But he's been held up, and I guess perhaps TV needs to have somebody like that, someone who is regarded as the model of the integrity, of high ethics, and so forth, but he really wasn't.

During the interview with Camptell, I asked why he felt it was important to debunk these media-driven myths. Though he noted the detriments of ascribing more power to the news media than they really have, Campbell insisted - both in the interview and in "Getting it Wrong" - that his objective was really the central objective of journalism: truth - getting the facts straight.

There's more than a bit of irony in the Paper of Record using a false narrative about an often ethically-compromised journalist to laud the journalistic advocacy of a man who insists that what he does is not journalism.

There is one area in which Murrow and Stewart are similar, but it was not mentioned by the Times, perhaps because it undermines the hard-nosed-journalist narrative the Times takes for granted in discussing Murrow, and is now trying to impose on Stewart.

In 1953, Murrow started his "Person to Person" interview series, which focused mostly on celebrities and sports figures. "Person to Person" challenged traditional journalistic standards, since it focused on the cult of personality, and the intimate, personal details of the lives of those being interviewed. Stewart is certainly a pop-culture icon, and feeds celebrity centric news in much the same way Murrow did.

The false Murrow narrative falsely holds the man up as a model of what journalism should be. In that sense, it stands to reason that the Times would proclaim Stewart his contemporary successor. But neither are deserving of type of the fawning caricatures given by the Times.