Former Newsweek and Los Angeles Times political correspondent Shogan (Backlash: The Killing of the New Deal, 2006, etc.) persuasively argues that the famous 1954 confrontation had a transformative effect on the nascent medium of television.
The Army-McCarthy hearings pitted hard-charging anticommunist Joseph McCarthy and his chief aide, Roy Cohn, against the U.S. Army and its lead attorney, Joseph Welch. The Army accused McCarthy and Cohn of pressuring the military to give preferential treatment to a McCarthy aide, G. David Schine, while the senator countered that the accusation was being made in retaliation for his investigations into Army officials. Shogan ably recounts the many twists and turns of the hearings, including Welch’s famous question to McCarthy (“Have you left no sense of decency?”), but it’s his media analysis that makes the book truly interesting. Television was in its infancy in 1954, but the widely watched live broadcasts of the hearings, as well as Edward R. Murrow’s televised critiques, undoubtedly helped speed the decline of McCarthy’s popularity. Caught in the stark spotlight of live television, his blustering, bullying manner worked disastrously against him. “McCarthy demonstrated with appalling clarity precisely what kind of man he is,” wrote James Reston in the New York Times. Shogan effectively argues that the hearings were a watershed moment for the medium of television, helping to transform it into a key shaper of American opinion. The author has written about the role of TV journalism in politics before, most notably in Bad News: Where the Press Goes Wrong in the Making of the President (2001), and his critiques remain sharp in the historical context of the ’50s. In the final chapter, he widens his view to analyze television’s impact on perceptions of the Vietnam War, presidential politics and 9/11, finding a preoccupation with flash over substance that he tracks back to TV’s infancy.
An effective melding of political history and media criticism.