Edward R. Murrow's Report on Senator McCarthy: Image as Artifact
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 16, Number 3, September 1986
- pp. 54-69
- Additional Information
The final session was devoted to the discussion around the table of the individual curriculum plans submitted by participants. The Summer Seminar will be offered again in July, 1987. Participation is open to history teachers in New Jersey schools and colleges. 1 Actually there are a series of preliminary questions (which communications scholars might also keep in mind) having to do with the authenticity and completeness of sources. Edward R. Murrow's Report on Senator McCarthy: Image as Artifact John E. O'Connor This article is based upon curriculum materials developed in connection with "The Moving-Image Media in the History Classroom"project funded by the New Jersey State Department ofHigher Education. See report in this issue. John F. O'Connor is Professor ofHistory at NJlT and Chairman ofthe Historians Film Committee. Edward R. Murrow's place in the history of journalism was already well secure before March 9, 1954 when his See It Now broadcast confronted Senator Joseph R. McCarthy and laid bare for viewers some of the most troubling aspects of McCarthyism. In the context of the times, Murrow's public stance against the senator came late, only after many print journalists and some broadcast news commentators had spoken out. Still, it is the See It Now broadcast that jumps first into many people's minds when they seek to describe both the Murrow legend and the demise of Joe McCarthy. Although on some level every film (like any product of a culture) can be thought of as an historical document or artifact, the ones which fit that bill most obviously are those films which are either (1) based upon an era of history as their subject matter, or (2) become forces in history themselves, by impinging on the development of historical issues or events. The McCarthy broadcast meets both of these criteria, making it particularly valuable for historical analysis. The analysis to follow is structured around the three basic types of questions the historian must ask of any film or television production as an historical document: questions about its content (what does it say?), about its production (how may the forces at work in producing it have influenced what it says?), and about its reception (what did it mean to the people who saw it at the time?). Moreover, as with any primary source, the precise meaning and value of a visual document depends on the types of questions the scholar asks about it. Just as a diplomatic historian and a psycho-biographer might have very different readings of an entry in Henry Kissinger's diary, so there are different "frameworks for investigation" which scholars characteristically bring to the study of film/television documents. Four such approaches are: (1) the study of compilation documentaries and period dramas or "docu-dramas" which portray (and necessarily interpret) historical subjects; (2) the study of feature or documentary films as social or cultural artifacts of the societies which produced and consumed them; (3) the study of newsreel, TV pews and documentaries for the factual information they contain; and (4) the analysis of film/television as artifacts for understanding the history of the art and industry of the moving-image media. As will 54 be noted in under "strategies for the classroom." Murrow's See It Now: Report on Senator McCarthy lends itself to consideration in relation to all four of these "frameworks for investigation". Content The See It Now: Report on Senator McCarthy broadcast is 25 minutes in length, the typical running time for any program produced to fill (with commercials) one halfhour of television. The setting is a newsroom, where Murrow sits at the control console with several video screens and numerous knobs and buttons before him. As the program opens, Murrow explains that this will be a report on Senator McCarthy using his own words and pictures, allowing the Senator to "speak for himself," and that the producers will allow the Senator an opportunity to rebut on a future program. Murrow also indicates that, to be sure that he says exactly what he and his co-producer Fred Friendly mean to say, he intends to read his comments about McCarthy from script. Then, Murrow launches into a series of...