Murrow and Sullivan

This Friday, March 9th, marks an unusual coincidence in anniversaries and significant dates in the media. In 1954 on this date, C-B-S news reporter Edward R. Murrow aired his famous Joseph McCarthy broadcast. And 10 years later, in 1964, also on March 9th, the U.S. Supreme Court limited the power of government officials to sue newspapers for defamatory statements made in the heat of public debate.

The March 9th broadcast of "See It Now" has been directly linked to the downfall of McCarthy, and the beginning of the end of McCarthyism.

As I talk to students today they find it almost inconceivable that there was a time in this country, not so very long ago, when a vast portion of the citizenry was actually afraid of someone in government. They find it almost impossible to believe that in this country careers were destroyed, relationships broken, and in some cases, lives ended, because of what you believed.

By showing McCarthy in action, and by using his own words, Murrow took a bold step in letting the public see just what tactics the junior senator from Wisconsin was using to destroy those who opposed his brand of patriotism.

Then, it was exactly 10 years later, March 9, 1964, that the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of New York Times versus Sullivan, in effect outlawed the concept of seditious libel in this country.

Until this ruling, many states had laws that punished newspapers for mistakes they may have made in criticizing public officials. Now, no one was condoning deliberate error, but the fact was, the mere threat of a law suit by a government officials may have been enough to keep a newspaper from printing a potentially unflattering story.

Thus it was that the court severely restricted just what a public official could do against a news organization. In a stirring ruling the court said that honest mistakes are inevitable in public debate, and that such mistakes have to be protected if freedom of speech and press are to survive.

McCarthyism may have been an aberration on the American political scene, but it was obvious the Court wasn't going to take any chances and allow government leaders to stifle debate.

As the court said, public debate must be robust and wide open if democracy is going to survive. Both Edward R. Murrow and the U.S. Supreme Court did their best to protect that debate.

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