Sixty-three years ago, the most famous journalist in America broadcast this on national television:
“We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends on evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear of one another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason.”
Those were the words of Edward R. Murrow, at the conclusion of his famous report exposing the actions of United States Senator Joe McCarthy, who had caused great fear and upheaval in this nation by recklessly accusing people of being Communists.
McCarthy was censured by the Senate later than year, and rapidly descended into the severe alcoholism that would soon kill him.
But we sometimes forget that Murrow lost his regular TV show and was consigned to relative obscurity by CBS.
Before long, however, Murrow would be regarded as a universal hero, and the words he spoke at the conclusion of the McCarthy broadcast were accepted as being as true and as uncontroversial as those in the Gettysburg address.
“We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result,” he also said that night, adding “There is no way for a citizen of the republic to abdicate his responsibilities … We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.”
Were a living Murrow to repeat those words today, there is a good chance he might be insulted via Twitter in the middle of the night by the President of the United States.
Much that we thought was a settled part of the American consensus has been openly attacked in the last few days, from our historic role as protector of the persecuted seeking asylum, to the separation between church and state.
The lead story in today’s Wall Street Journal concerns the new administration’s plans to dismantle much of the regulatory system put in place after the financial crisis of less than a decade ago, the crisis that saw our banking system nearly collapse.
These are things that, only a short time ago, nobody in either party expected. The question is, what should the average concerned person do?
In his famous broadcast, Murrow said he thought the issues dividing the country should be endlessly debated. He said “this is no time for men who oppose (or approve) Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent.”
His broadcast destroying McCarthy was done almost entirely by using film of the senator contradicting himself and saying things that were clearly untrue.
But today, we live in a different age.
News shows have repeatedly shown examples of Donald Trump lying, contradicting himself, or saying and doing outrageous things, evidently to little effect. This is extremely unsettling for journalists, who are taught that facts and truth are the highest values. But whether appreciated or not, I think it is our job to keep providing them.
If our freedom and our heritage still matter, we have no choice.
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.