Accuracy in Media

By Wes Vernon*

“History” is almost always written by the winners in a given conflict. Anyone viewing the George Clooney film, “Good Night and Good Luck,” should bear in mind that media skill does not necessarily reflect historical truth.

CBS News icon Edward R. Murrow was the clear winner in his battle with Senator Joseph R. McCarthy?not because the CBS commentator was right or that McCarthy was wrong in his investigations of Communists in and out of government (Quite the opposite, in fact), but because Murrow was a smooth media personality with a wide audience and McCarthy sported a five o’clock shadow and had inadequate public relations skills for the then  new television era.

Perhaps the most glaring distortion in the film is the failure to note that Murrow, a former director of the U.S. Information Agency, was motivated to go after McCarthy because one of Murrow’s friends, Laurence Duggan, had been questioned about his communist ties and committed suicide as a result. As Stephen Hunter conceded in an October 7, 2005, Washington Post review of the film, it turned out that Duggan was a Soviet spy embedded in the U.S. State Department at the time.

The facts about Duggan are included in the book, The Haunted Wood, by Allen Weinstein, the founder of the Center for Democracy, and Aleksandr Vassiliev, a journalist and former KGB agent.

The movie begins with an outright falsehood and ends with a monumental disingenuous half-truth that insults one’s intelligence.

The falsehood is a billboard in the film saying that McCarthy had claimed that over 200 Communists were in the State Department.

The Facts

William F. Buckley, Jr. and L. Brent Bozell in their 1953 book, McCarthy and his Enemies, conclusively showed that the figure the Wisconsin Republican senator used in a Wheeling, West Va. speech was 57 Communists, not 205 as was reported at the time and assumed by authors and historians to this day. The higher inaccurate figure was derived in part from an honest mix-up at the time. However, it was also perpetuated early on by some who knew better but were determined to hold McCarthy to it so as to try to discredit him and his cause. Authors and commentators have picked up the 205 figure and assumed (without any original research) that it was true.

So 55 years later, we must try?again?to set the record straight. That disentanglement will be laid out in the forthcoming book (Crown Publishers, projected release September, 2006) Blacklisted by History written by M. Stanton Evans, who is the ultimate authority on McCarthy and his investigations (He has been writing the book for over ten years).

In an interview with AIM, Evans says the 205 figure was in the advance text “that some speechwriter probably prepared, obviously. And [before McCarthy] delivered the speech, he [had gone] through the [written text] and revised it.”

The senator “never said it [the 205 number] and so this became a huge controversy, and in 1951, Senator [William] Benton of Connecticut moved that McCarthy be expelled from the Senate [charging] that he lied?perjured himself about the numbers in Wheeling.”

The upshot was that a Democrat-dominated Senate subcommittee “sent investigators to Wheeling to interview people, and they came back [saying] in essence that McCarthy was right?that he didn’t say it [205]?that therefore Benton was wrong and McCarthy was right.”

But  Evans notes “this report was suppressed?disappeared?and it was never mentioned in the final report of the committee” In other words, the investigators did not come back with the answer the Democrats wanted, so they ignored it, thus leaving the inaccurate figure dangling out there for the media and future historians to repeat again and again.

Setting The Record Straight

Evans promises an entire chapter in his book will answer every question about McCarthy’s Wheeling speech.

That is the damage to history in the early part of “Good Night and Good Luck.” Near the end comes a total distortion that is disingenuous, outrageous, and reflects the mindset of the movie producers. It glosses over the treason of Alger Hiss.

There is absolutely no doubt whatever that Alger Hiss was a Soviet agent, who bored from within the government to do the bidding of his Stalinist masters in Moscow. That has been established through post-Cold War revelations in the Venona decrypts and other archived evidence.

On the very night of Hiss’s death, this writer phoned AIM founder Reed Irvine and told him of an AP obit story repeating discredited erroneous material that appeared to exonerate Hiss. Irvine then called the AP and set the record straight. The wire service made the appropriate correction, and at least some of the news outlets that had used the first wire report also corrected themselves.

The movie producers put into the mouth of the late CBS CEO William S. Paley the statement that Hiss was not convicted of treason, but instead was convicted of the lesser crime of perjury.

Even if the gullible were to believe everything else in the film, that one line alone should discredit the entire flick.

It is true Hiss was convicted of perjury. What is relevant is what his perjured testimony actually was. He was convicted for lying when he said he was not a Communist Soviet agent who had worked with Whittaker Chambers, the man who had identified Hiss under oath. Hiss lied when he had denied knowing Chambers.

The statute of limitations had run out on the charge of espionage. Alger Hiss lied when he denied that more serious charge. For the movie to put the Paley dialogue into the script without giving it essential context is beyond misleading. It is gratuitous because McCarthy had very little to do with the Hiss case. Taken together with other propaganda in the show, that Hiss line puts “Good Night and Good Luck” in a class with such discredited movies as “Mission to Moscow,” “Action in the North Atlantic,” and Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11.” It shows again the left will never give up on the “Hiss was innocent” theme.

More Flaws

On other counts, “Good Night and Good Luck” is all downhill in terms of accuracy.

Murrow is depicted as saying McCarthy was off base “99 percent of the time.” Though perhaps an offhand figure of speech, the comment literally is terrible math, even worse history. It goes hand in hand with the line that “McCarthy never caught any subversives.”

Senator McCarthy never claimed to be a one-man substitute for the FBI or authorized intelligence services. Time after time, he found subversives, security risks, or outright Communists had been in sensitive positions and were protected by higher government authority, and he demanded to know why. 

It is literally not true that “McCarthy never found any Communists.” Many witnesses who testified before his committee pleaded the Fifth Amendment when asked if they were members of the Communist party. But both before and after the Wisconsin senator assumed his committee chairmanship, he did in fact hit pay dirt. Herewith, two examples:

  • Owen Lattimore. The film makes no reference to Lattimore other than McCarthy’s invoking his name (along with others) during his response to Murrow’s attack.

Owen Lattimore was a prime focus of attention shortly after McCarthy burst upon the national scene in 1950. The senator had come across a massive cover-up in the then 5-year old Amerasia case. In 1945, several persons were arrested after intelligence authorities raided an office in New York City where the magazine Amerasia was published. The pro-Chinese Communist sheet had published highly sensitive classified information. It appeared to be a transmission belt in the U.S. for sup-porters of the Chinese Communists who were then mounting an (ultimately successful) effort to overthrow the pro-Western regime of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek.

What McCarthy had discovered was a Truman administration cover-up that had used the clout and powerful contacts of the old Roosevelt administration “Mr. Fixit,” Thomas Corcoran, or “Tommy the Cork” as FDR affectionately called him. His role in pulling strings behind the scenes was finally brought to light in the 1996 book, The Amerasia Spy Case by Harvey Klehr and Ronald Radosh. McCarthy, along with the rest of world, did not know of Corcoran’s role in quickly making the Amerasia case just “go away.” Those arrested got off with little more than a slap on the wrist, and the headlines disappeared.

McCarthy’s focus on Amerasia led to the exposure of a carefully orchestrated campaign to convince U.S. government officials and the American media (notably the book-publishing world) that the Chiang Kai-shek government was hopelessly corrupt and incompetent and that the Communist crusade to take power was unstoppable. The result was the media of that day were telling Americans that the Chinese Communists were not really Communists, but instead were “simple agrarian reformers.” Rarely?if ever?was it mentioned that the “reformers” were backed to the hilt with arms and ammunition from the neighboring Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union.

At the center of the propaganda effort was the Institute of Pacific Relations (IPR), of which Owen Lattimore was a top official. IPR’s influence was considerable?both in the State Department and the U.S. media.

McCarthy blew the whistle on the cover-up and the IPR, and (among others) Lattimore who protested his innocence. At first Lattimore was exonerated by the stacked anti-McCarthy Tydings committee which compounded the whitewash.

However, McCarthy was ultimately vindicated by another panel. The Democrat-dominated Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, of which McCarthy himself was not a member, was chaired by Nevada Democrat Pat McCarran. That thorough months-long investigation concluded in a voluminous report that “[Owen] Lattimore was for some time beginning in the middle 1930’s a conscious articulate instrument of the Soviet conspiracy.” The panel cited a long list of instances of Lattimore’s willing collaboration with the enemies of this country.

  • Annie Lee Moss.  A young Fairfax, Va. mother and homemaker named Mary Stalcup Markward had for seven years been a member of the Washington D.C. Communist Party. She was director of the party’s membership, all the while working undercover for the FBI. She testified before McCarthy’s committee that Annie Lee Moss had been listed on the CP membership rolls.

McCarthy focused on a bewildering circumstance. Not only had the Army ignored an FBI warning that one of its employees, Annie Lee Moss, was a Communist, but also compounded the offense by reassigning Moss, a Signal Corps cafeteria worker, to the far more sensitive position of Pentagon code clerk. By any standard, that was an unusually huge promotion. Who did it? And why?

Murrow’s selective editing showed the case backfiring on McCarthy when Moss appeared before the committee as a befuddled woman who supposedly had been confused with another Annie Lee Moss.

Four years later, after McCarthy had died, the Subversive Activities Control Board presented solid evidence that Markward’s testimony was true and that the Annie Lee Moss who appeared before the McCarthy committee was in fact a member of the Communist Party.

Clooney did not include that information in “Good Night and Good Luck.”

Among other distortions/inaccuracies in the film:

  • Murrow castigated McCarthy for saying that the ACLU was listed as a front for the Communist Party. Murrow said there was no such listing. But not mentioned in Clooney’s movie is the fact that McCarthy was referring to a period in the early Thirties?a time when, as journalist Allan H. Ryskind notes in Human Events, various government agencies “with cause” did in fact view the ACLU as subversive.

Intellectual dishonesty by the sin of omission occurs several times in “Good Night and Good Luck.”

The media played up the emotional confrontation between Senator McCarthy and Army Counsel Joseph Welch during the Army-McCarthy hearings.

The Army’s case against McCarthy was going rather badly as the hearings progressed. The Army claimed it was pressured by McCarthy’s committee to give special treatment to Private G. David Schine, a former committee staffer. Evidence showed the opposite: The Army favored Schine in a futile effort to persuade McCarthy to drop his probe of Ft. Monmouth and the remnants of the Rosenberg spy ring. That prompted Welch to do what author M. Stanton Evans (in our AIM interview) describes as a “series of [irrelevant] improvisations and digressions which became issues that had nothing to do with the substance of the charges.”

The most famous one came when the Boston lawyer badgered McCarthy counsel Roy Cohn by repeatedly demanding?in a mocking way?to submit the names of any real communists “before sundown.”

That went on and on until it goaded McCarthy into swinging back.

He then said if Mr. Welch was so anxious to expose subversives before sundown, then it should be noted that Fred Fisher, a member of Welch’s law firm, had been a member of the National Lawyers Guild, a group cited as a mouthpiece for the Communist Party.

The movie focuses on the scene showing Welch sobbing and urging that McCarthy not “assassinate this lad [Fisher] further.”

What Clooney’s movie leaves out is that Welch himself had outed Fisher six weeks earlier.

Welch “had brought it up publicly in the New York Times,” Evans tells AIM. “In the New York Times there was a big picture of Fred Fisher [with Welch saying] he had relieved him of the [Army/McCarthy] investigations because he [admitted] he had been a member of the National Lawyers Guild when Welch confronted him.” Thus, says Evans, “Welch had done exactly what he was deploring McCarthy for doing.”

After the hearing adjourned, Welch quickly walked out to the hall and around the corner. Whereupon?believing the audience and TV cameras were out of sight?the Army counsel turned to an associate and asked, “Well, how did it go?” 

“This [‘assassinated’] lad,” by the way was not injured for life. Fred Fisher became a partner in a prestigious Boston law firm and president of the Massachusetts Bar Association.

On the day McCarthy died?May 2, 1957? radio commentator Fulton Lewis, Jr. declared he had “never seen such a shocking exhibition of distorted reporting and reportorial untruth as I witnessed throughout the coverage of the Army-McCarthy hearings.”

“It was a journalistic lynching party, spurred on by powerful frightened groups, who were in for the kill,” Lewis said, adding that “any reporter who dared try to tell the truth as to what was going on, as I did, was boycotted through sponsors, harassed by defamation, held up to scorn, and all but crucified himself.”

That fully describes the media’s inaccurate portrayal of Senator McCarthy, amplified in 2005 by “Good Night and Good Luck.”

Lessons Learned?

But demonstrating that it, like the press, has not learned any lessons from this period, the Department of State has announced that it is launching an “Edward R. Murrow Journalism Program” in conjunction with the Aspen Institute and six leading U.S. schools of journalism. An Aspen Institute press release claimed that Murrow was guided by “integrity, ethics, courage, and social responsibility.”

We could possibly expect such a program under the Clinton Administration. But under the Bush Administration and Secretary Condoleezza Rice? There is something still seriously wrong at the State Department.


John Seigenthaler, the founding editorial director of USA Today, has been making numerous media appearances ever since he blew the whistle on how the on-line encyclopedia Wikipedia had published false information about him. He first used USA Today, the largest circulation newspaper in the U.S., to tell this story. Seigenthaler got the false information taken out of a bio about him but he still complains that it took too long and was too difficult to get the changes made.

As we have noted, USA Today is the same paper that still won’t apologize for smearing President Bush by using phony National Guard documents. The paper got them from the same source used by CBS, Bill Burkett, who admits he lied about where he got them. Nobody knows where they came from, another indication of their suspicious nature. AIM took this this case all the way to the annual meeting of Gannett, parent company of USA Today, and still was unable to get USA Today editor Ken Paulson to apologize or reprimand anybody.

AIM editor Cliff Kincaid made those points when he called in to C-SPAN during Seigenthaler’s appearance. Seigenthaler responded by accusing Kincaid of having misrepresented the nature of the controversy. “I’m well aware of what happened,” he claimed. “Yes, there was contact with that source.” He then insisted that the paper had run a story “that validated what they had done and explained what they had done and what they had not done.”

He’s apparently referring to the fact that after the paper got caught using the phony documents, it ran a story about the problem. But that’s not the same as what happened when CBS got caught. CBS was investigated by a special panel and people were fired. Doing a follow-up story is not the same thing as disciplining people.

Seigenthaler was falsely accused of being suspected of participating in the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy. He had the right to be outraged. Again, however, he had a megaphone?USA Today?to trumpet his alarm and concern. And that’s the same paper that smeared Bush with no consequences to anyone involved in the smear.

What You Can Do

Send the enclosed cards or cards and letters of your own choosing to the State Department’s Karen Hughes and to actor George Clooney. Also, order your copy of the important book War Footing by mail or online.

Wes Vernon is a Washington-based writer & broadcast journalist.

Ready to fight back against media bias?
Join us by donating to AIM today.


Comments are turned off for this article.