In 1950, Republican senator Joseph McCarthy brandished a piece of paper and declared “The State Department is infested with communists. I have here in my hand a list of 205 that were known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping the policy of the State Department.” There is some evidence that that piece of paper was blank, but the claim fanned the anti-Communism fear that was smoldering in America into a raging forest fire. “In the next few weeks,” according to the History Channel’s “This Day in History” for February 9th, “the number fluctuated wildly, with McCarthy stating at various times that there were 57, or 81, or 10 communists in the Department of State. In fact, McCarthy never produced any solid evidence that there was even one communist in the State Department.” Notwithstanding the obvious contrivance, it became a sensational story that led to a tsunami of media attention for the junior senator, stoked hysteria, helped spread fear of debate and dissent, destroyed lives, and brought the American constitutional political process to its knees.
If you see a parallel between the past Republican senator, and the present Republican presidential candidate hold onto your hat. According to Spartacus Educational, a prominent United Kingdom history website, young McCarthy ran a chicken farm and managed a grocery store in Wisconsin before returning to school and earning a law degree. His success as a lawyer is uncertain, since he apparently had to supplement his income by playing poker. Undeterred, he tried and failed to become the Democratic candidate for attorney general then switched parties and became a Republican candidate for circuit court judge, and what he might have lacked in talent he more than made up for in guile. His campaign literature lied outright about his opponent’s age and implied senility and financial corruption and he won the election. When America entered World War II McCarthy resigned and enlisted in the Marines. While still a soldier he switched parties a second time, running unsuccessfully as a Democrat for the Senate. After the war he switched parties a third time and ran as a Republican, again for the Senate, employing all of the dirty tricks he had used to get elected to the judiciary. To quote Spartacus Educational, “his campaign posters pictured him in ‘full fighting gear, with an aviator’s cap, and belt upon belt of machine gun ammunition wrapped around his bulky torso.’ He claimed he had completed thirty-two missions when in fact he had a desk job and only flew in training exercises.” Sources actually disagree about his war record – some say he flew as many as 12 or 14 missions as a gunner-observer, some say he only debriefed those who did – but it seems clear that he personally authored a letter of commendation, which he claimed was signed by his commanding officer, citing the false number of 32 in order to win a Distinguished Flying Cross. After blatantly exaggerating his own wartime contributions in this way, McCarthy attacked his opponent for not enlisting – when his opponent was too old to serve – and for profiting in an unseemly manner from the conflict – when he hadn’t – and his slimy tactics were again successful. McCarthy joined the Senate in 1946.
By May 1950, under investigation for possibly cheating on his taxes and taking bribes from the Pepsi-Cola Company, about to be exposed for lying about his war record, and concerned about keeping his Senate seat, he and his advisors met and decided to begin a campaign against Communist subversives. He never proved anything during the campaign, but by cleverly manipulating the media and capitalizing on widespread irrational prejudice and fear, McCarthy became the most famous politician in the country. What finally defeated him (after several tragic years) was his abusive questioning of real military heroes during televised hearings.
The more you hear about Joseph McCarthy, the more you see Donald Trump, but this blog is really not about either. It’s about the media who aid and abet this kind of deceit. During McCarthy’s era, the problem was the demands of “objectivity.” According to the then current interpretation of this sacred principle, journalists were expected to pass on only what happened during an event, or what advocates and actors on each side of a controversy said…and nothing more. To provide context and background or to fact-check was verboten. A journalist’s job was to report, not “judge”. McCarthy exploited this and other media idiosyncrasies masterfully. He would wait, for example until just before copy deadline to make a sensational accusation or announcement. All the press could manage under the circumstances was to write down what he said and phone it in as quickly as possible if they were to make the next edition. They had no chance to ask questions and the accused had no chance to defend themselves. It was a perniciously effective strategy.
If lack of personal journalistic involvement was the problem yesterday, just the opposite is true today. After decades of relative security and prosperity (compared to World War II), and given a glut of technological self-expression options, self-absorption and personal opinion rule, at least in America. Without the need for cooperation and compromise on values and criteria to prevent mutual destruction, what has come to matter most – to marketers, newsmakers, newscasters, and many citizens – is what “I” like, what “I” believe, and what’s going on in “my” life. That Trump switches positions like a lizard does skin color, or ridicules the handicapped, or talks about women as though they were horses is irrelevant as long as he appears to agree with “me” on what to do about certain people and certain situations. (Consider the superabundance of “reality” shows and competitions where conflict is lionized and winning at all costs, not as a team but as an individual, is rewarded in the end.) The explosion of blogs by everybody-and-his-grandmother (a good thing in and of itself) forces Internet news producers to respond in kind. Since self-expression is de rigueur no Internet news site would be taken seriously otherwise. The thing is…blogs are difficult to maintain properly. Imagine having to come up with something accurate, original, relevant, and thought-provoking every week or every day when there are so many other pundits picking at the same news carcass! It’s almost impossible to do without relying on regurgitation, frivolous conjecture, and cheap red-meat sarcasm. Since everybody is doing it, Trump’s childish petulance does not shock and offend the way it would have in McCarthy’s day.
Sensationalism also remains a problem because it is the quintessential cash cow. “News” is, by definition, reportage of something that rarely happens. People originally bought news so they would be made aware of anything out of the ordinary that might prove dangerous. That 200,000 people did their job today, dropped by the store to pick up a few things and went home is not news. That one person died while doing so is news. And if one death is news, 10 bloody murders by a naked, machete-wielding psycho with a Satan tattoo on his derriere is so much better. But this interpretation of “news” is a two-edged sword. When citizens are constantly confronted with sensationalized conflict and disaster by a media that completely engulf them, they begin to fashion a skewed picture of a world that seems perpetually poised to squash normal people like so many flies. Since “desperate times call for desperate measures,” charlatans like McCarthy and Trump begin to make sense, and these charlatans have always known this.
Individualism is an important Progressive value, but so are cooperation and compromise. Progressives, interested as they are in the progress of humankind, understand that nobody holds the monopoly on truth, and anything taken to an extreme is eventually counterproductive. The current bonfire of vanity (apologies to author Tom Wolfe) is possible because technology makes it so, and because such power is still relatively novel. Here’s hoping the novelty eventually wears off and the bonfire dies down to the point where the reality of living on a crowded planet with billions of people unlike oneself brings about a balance between individualism and cooperation. The media’s obsession with sensationalism and bias is generated by consumer demand. Here’s hoping the eventual insistence on truth by wiser, tech-savvy citizens of the world eventually shuts down the market for journalistic schlock.
Of course that would require a workable definition of truth, that perhaps only Progressives can supply…but more about that later.