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Selling the Spectre of "McCarthyism"

Do the Media Care About Guilt or Innocence Or Just Preventing Answers to Inconvenient Questions?

With President Clinton's political future in question, journalists have been raising a favorite liberal spectre: the ghost of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who charged that hundreds of communists had infiltrated the government almost fifty years ago. Liberals invented the word "McCarthyism" to imply the punishment of innocents through guilt by association. So why would the word "McCarthyism" apply to Bill Clinton, who hasn't suffered from guilt by association, but from guilt?

Some of the allusions came early in the Lewinsky scandal. On February 28, CBS host Charles Osgood trapped the audience of Saturday Morning in his poetry corner, concluding his ode to media madness: "And what we sow, we someday reap, last night as I laid down to sleep, I dreamed an apparition swarthy, the unshaved ghost of Joe McCarthy."

A wave of allusions to "sexual McCarthyism" broke out mysteriously in September, after Clinton admitted relations with Lewinsky. On ABC's Good Morning America September 20, The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz claimed: "The media may be partially to blame for what some are calling this period of sexual McCarthyism." On September 19, Tim Russert asked ex-Newsweek scribe Joe Klein about the charges on his CNBC show: "Is that sexual McCarthyism?" Klein replied: "I think so." (At least Klein claimed a "witch hunt" existed on both sides.)

On MSNBC's The White House in Crisis September 17, Keith Olbermann asked Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne: "The phrase Chris Black just used, 'partisan wilding.' What a wonderful description of this. Had politics as a whole ever been lower in this country, at least since the McCarthy era ended?"

Less than an hour later, Brian Williams began his MSNBC show The News With Brian Williams with this warning: "These are days of almost McCarthyistic charges and countercharges in the nation's capital. With a President vowing to stay and fight, and others nakedly embarking on a campaign to get him, the President's poll numbers are softening, the party lines are hardening."

On December 21, Williams was at it again on MSNBC, lamenting to Democratic lawyer Abbe Lowell that references to Republican McCarthyism were being overlooked in the media coverage: "This has been called the era when nothing truly matters. Nothing breaks through. It all ends up sounding the same. And when a certain Congressman from Florida said during the debate Saturday, 'have you no sense of decency, sir,' using the same quote as what ended, in a lot of people's minds the McCarthy era, it didn't get through because it wasn't heard because it was at the same volume as everything else."

On the January 2 Capital Gang on CNN, The Wall Street Journal's Al Hunt claimed: "A speedy, real trial, without any of the muck, the euphemism that they now use, is also impossible, especially with right-wingers like Tom DeLay waving the bloody shirt about an alleged incident that took place 20 years ago. Clinton's behavior is disgraceful, but there's McCarthyism run amok with some of this stuff." On Inside Washington the same night, Newsweek's Evan Thomas raised the same attack on the same point: the allegations of "Jane Doe Number Five" of being sexually assaulted by Clinton in Arkansas, saying "It rises to a level of McCarthyism."

Just as fifty years ago, guilt or innocence is not the issue. Preventing answers to questions is. - Tim Graham