Salon pegs the recent spate of Republican accusations that John Kerry is aiding and abetting terrorism as an extreme new McCarthyism and makes some interesting links to the way the press acted then and the way the press is acting now.
Half a century ago, most of the press was slow to unravel McCarthy’s vicious and reckless charges of treason, as reporters instead simply amplified them. “The press served as transmission belt for McCarthy’s charges, making it more difficult for the truth to catch up,” says Edwin Yoder, former editorial page editor of the Washington Star, once the major daily newspaper in the capital…..
In covering the current explosive Republican accusations without holding the accuser responsible, the press is in danger of repeating the same mistake, some observers say. “The press can’t simply report flat-footed a smearing accusation against somebody’s loyalty; it’s the most insidious charge you can make, particularly in Washington,” says Murrey Marder, who covered McCarthy for the Washington Post. “I think the press certainly can recognize quicker than anyone else when a loaded accusation, questioning somebody’s loyalty, is coming out. The press should ask the accuser, ‘What do you mean? What justification do you have?’ That’s real work, and it’s called journalism.”
However some historians are saying that the tactics and press reactions are even more extreme than the type of behaviour of politicians and the media in the McCarthyiest era.
The accusations that the Kerry campaign is aiding terrorists and that terrorists would prefer that he be elected president hark back to the ugliest period of the early Cold War. “It’s reminiscent of red-baiting,” Yoder says. He notes one significant difference, however: “McCarthy specialized in wild accusations and character assassinations, but he didn’t get involved with electoral politics. [What's happening] today is something of a novelty.”
Historian Alan Brinkley, the provost of Columbia University, agrees that even during the height of the Cold War, scathing rhetoric that called into question the loyalty or patriotism of a presidential candidate was deemed too extreme. “This kind of rhetoric never would have come into a presidential campaign during the ’50s or ’60s. It would come from people widely dismissed as extremists — people on the margin of the party who were tolerated or perhaps quietly encouraged — but never from anyone identified as the party. Now it has migrated to the very center of the campaign.”
It seems that the traditional McCarythyist paranoid impulse of certain sections of conservative ideology is here meeting the scandal/conflict/spectacle mode of the contemporary press and is producing an even more frightening ideological apparatus.
The original Washington Post article which spurred the Salon story argued that these new tactics amounted to “a line of attack that tests the conventional bounds of political rhetoric.”
While the Salon article draws heavily on Dana Millbank’s Post story they are also critical of its paltry attempts at “balance”:
The Washington Post’s Sept. 24 article also stretched when trying to show balance by pointing to “questionable rhetoric” on the Democratic side equivalent to Sen. Hatch’s suggestion that terrorists are working hard to elect Kerry. The Post’s example? The crude sexual pun comedian Whoopi Goldberg had made at Bush’s expense at a celebrity fundraiser for Kerry this summer.
“That kind of equation is ridiculous,” Marder says. “Someone will always provide an inadequate parallel to try to deal with [the subject].”
“It’s a bit like reporters in dealing with McCarthy,” says Lewis. He notes that most reporters then were overly anxious to dutifully report McCarthy’s accusations as though they were objective news, and that today reporters are trying to present the contemporary versions with false balance. “They haven’t figured it out yet.”