Scott D. Pierce: PBS documentary shows parallels between McCarthy and Trump — including one the press won’t like

(Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society) Sen. Joseph McCarthy speaks with reporters at LaGuardia Airport shortly after his victory in the 1952 Wisconsin Republican primary.

PBS’ “American Experience” documentary about Joe McCarthy is deeply disturbing — not just because of the senator’s outrageous lying, red-baiting and gay-baiting, but because of the parallels between what happened in the early 1950s and what’s happening today.

And the similarities go far beyond the fact that both McCarthy and Donald Trump employed the nefarious Roy Cohn as their legal adviser.

There are also disconcerting parallels between how the media of the 1950s treated McCarthy and how the media treated the president when he was running for office.

To be clear, the “American Experience” documentary (Monday, 8 p.m., Ch. 7) is not about Trump. Work on “McCarthy” began “way before” the 2016 election, according to senior producer Susan Bellows, and viewers are left to draw their own conclusions about the similarities.

No doubt those who are inclined to oppose the president will see the parallels; those who support Trump won’t. But that segment of the population might also miss that the press had a part to play in McCarthy’s rapid rise before his sudden, precipitous fall.

“To me, there’s a resonance in the treatment of the press,” said Sharon Grimberg, the writer, director and producer of the documentary. “McCarthy was somebody who lied constantly, vociferously, and did it so often it was hard to fact check him.”

It’s become almost legendary that CBS’ Edward R. Murrow took on McCarthy and precipitated the end of his reign of terror. Grimberg doesn’t discount Murrow’s importance, but said she found “many journalists who did stand up to McCarthy early in his career.” And they “got very rough treatment for doing it” — even being called before his Senate panel.

“He punished journalists who called him out on his lies and his erroneous facts,” she said. “I think that we’re in a similar sort of situation today.”

Although you could argue that Trump has amped up the pressure, calling the free press the “enemy of the people.”

The documentary recounts how the media played a role in bringing McCarthy down. It clearly lays out how televising the Army-McCarthy hearings revealed the senator to be a bully and a blowhard. There’s less emphasis on how the media of the day — mainly newspapers, which dominated the early 1950s — made McCarthy in the first place.

“The media kind of had a conflict of interest as it pertained to him,” said Jelani Cobb, a professor of journalism at Columbia University and staff writer at The New Yorker who consulted on the documentary. McCarthy regularly said “outlandish” and “outrageous things … speaking in tabloid headlines almost. … He’s good copy. He sells. If you put his name or a quote from him above the fold on a newspaper, that newspaper is going to get people’s attention.”

In other words, the media of the early 1950s gave McCarthy a lot of ink to sell newspapers and a lot of airtime to boost TV news, which was still in its infancy. This, despite the fact that editors knew he was lying.

“Obviously, the more important the person and the more spectacular the charge, the more likely that is to be on Page 1,” said NYU history professor David M. Oshinsky, the author of “A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy.”

Compare that to TV and online media devoting a disproportionate amount of coverage to Trump because, for good or ill, he brought viewers and clicks.

And when McCarthy was called out on his lies, “He would lie exponentially … churning out more and more misinformation,” Cobb said.

You have to willfully deceive yourself not to see that parallel between McCarthy and Trump.

Return to Story