How CBS News Saved America

Michael Rosenblum
4 min readJan 28, 2024
Joseph McCarthy — Image courtesy WIkiCommons

On February 9, 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy, then the junior senator from Wisconsin, and until that date a man of little accomplishment and with few prospects, held up a piece of paper and declared that he had a list of known Communists working for the United States State Department.

The State Department is infested with communists. I have here in my hand a list of 205 — a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department.”

In doing so, McCarthy set off a firestorm that nearly burned the nation to the ground. There was, in 1950, a good deal of anxiety about the ‘communist threat’. The Cold War was heating up. In December 1949, Mao Tse Tung and his Communist army had succeeded in taking control of China. The Soviets were in control of Eastern Europe, and just four months earlier, the Soviets had set off their first atomic bomb.

McCarthy seized on this anxiety and made it his own, despite that fact that he continually changed the number of Communists in the State Department. Sometimes it was 205, sometimes it was 57, sometimes it was 80. Facts did not matter to him. An investigation by Senator Millard Tydings and his committee established that there was, in fact, no factual basis to McCarthy’s claims. It didn't matter. McCarthy made up ‘facts’ as he needed them. Communists, he declared, were everywhere.

McCarthyism, the rabid fear of a vast Communist conspiracy within the United States spread rapidly. McCarthy generated a massive popular following. Investigations were initiated. The House UnAmerican Activities Committee began to subpoena anyone and everyone and began to question them. “Are you now, or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” they were asked. Witnesses dragged before the committee were required to ‘give names’ of people who they ‘knew’ to be known Communist sympathizers.

Careers were destroyed. Lives were shattered. People were fired, blacklisted from working. It was a terrible time in American history, all instigated by this one man.

But as he gained popular support, no one had the courage to stand up to him. No politician, for fear they would also be tarred as a Communist sympathizer. Even Dwight Eisenhower, the President of the United States, the general who had taken America to victory in the Second World War was powerless to stop McCarthy.

But one institution did stand up to him, and using its unique power, with great courage, brought McCarthy down and extinquished the Red Terror that he had personally unleashed.

Fred Friendly, (my mentor in the television news business), a producer at CBS News, working with Edward R. Murrow, a correspondent with CBS News, produced a searing documentary film for CBS, under the aegis of the See It Now series. It aired on March 9, 1954, and it used the unique power of television, then a relatively new medium, to effectively eviscerate McCarthy in the public eye.

Friendly and Murrow travelled the country, following McCarthy and did nothing more than record his many speeches and his many diversions from the truth. They then assembled that for broadcast, and as Ed Murrow said, introducing the film, ‘Now, Senator McCarthy in his own words.”

The result was devastating. The tide of public opinion began to turn. Friendly and Murrow went on to produce several other documentaries for CBS News further undercutting McCarthy and the evil he was spreading. Finally, on June 9, 1954, in a Senate hearing, also broadcast live on CBS, McCarthy was conducting a series of hearings on Communist infiltration into the US Army. The Army had hired Boston attorney Joseph Welch to defend them. McCarthy went after a young associate in Welch’s office, declaring that he too was a Communist.

This was to much for Welch. As an astonishing TV audience watched live, Welch simply turned to McCarthy and said, “”Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness. “Let us not assassinate this lad further, senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency?”

In a moment, the fever was broken. His public support evaporated. McCarthy was later censured by the Senate and died shortly thereafter, a broken man.

We may talk about Woodward and Bernstein what the Washington Post did during Watergate, but when American needed it the most, it was CBS News and Murrow and Friendly, and the enormous power of television news that, in my opinion, rescued the nation.



Michael Rosenblum

Co-Founder, Father of Videojournalism, trained 40,000+ VJs. Built VJ-driven networks worldwide. Video Revolution. Founder CurrentTV, NYTimes TV. etc..