McCarthyism: What is it?

After World War II and in the early years of the Cold War, fear of communism swept the world. In the United States, politicians, the US Chamber of Commerce, Roman Catholic Church, and a number of newspaper chains and editors campaigned against communist influences in the government and the society. Security programs, loyalty checks, hearings and investigations were conducted to extract communists, sympathizers and anyone associated with communism from America.

Such fear placed Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the limelight with his accusations of Soviet spy infiltration in the government. McCarthy proved himself a genius in media manipulation, exploiting the ills of the institution—extreme objectivity, competition, deadline, circulation wars and revenues—to fuel his career.

In part, the American press is responsible in creating a journalism nightmare in McCarthy. By allowing competition and commercialization to takeover, and by misunderstanding objectivity, it has disregarded truth-telling, including accuracy and verification; justice together with fairness and balance; freedom from influences of advertisers and politicians; independence in information gathering; humaneness and respect.

The McCarthy episode in American press moves one to ask, first, whether the media should have run McCarthy’s accusations without verification, and the side of those impugned. Second, whether “objectivity” demanded journalists to report events only at face value, or did it license them to seek and report even the “truth about the facts.” Third, whether competition in media encroached on journalism’s loyalty to the people. Fourth, whether the television networks abandoned their independent watchdog roles by bowing to advertisers and federal regulation and toning down criticisms on McCarthy.

In the struggle that ensued during the McCarthy Era, several stakeholders advanced their interests. Senator McCarthy topped the list with his political career, ambition and popularity. The Republicans backed him up, focused on stripping power from the Democrats through McCarthy’s issues. The owners of media organizations and their advertisers were revenue-driven stakeholders. The accused wanted to clear their names, and the American people sought safety and peace of mind. Lastly, media practitioners defended their profession against McCarthy’s exploitative methods and manipulation.

In defense of journalism, media practitioners proposed courses of action to address ethical dilemmas and improve coverage and reportage of events.

To stop the flow of unverified and one-sided reports, journalists adopted a rule never to use McCarthy’s claims until those accused were contacted and the story contextualized. Such move, though tolling on the stories’ currency, respected people’s rights and reputations, screening out lies in the reports.

Though risking the ire of their time’s news writing style, journalists overcame extreme objectivity by reporting “what goes beyond the scenes” for truthfulness. In addition, they used backgrounds both on McCarthy and the events side by side with running stories to place readers in focus and context.

The television stations, however, should have sought independence from advertisers and the government using accurate, contextual, comprehensive, balanced and truthful reporting as their defense, though this could result to lose of income and withdrawal of franchise.

Lastly, my favored course of action which could gel all the other, could have been a move in the media industry to commit to the ideals of reporting and journalism, to censure and censor the excesses of one another, not letting competition compromise their main responsibility to the people, to focus primarily on their watchdog and gatekeeper roles in the face of crisis. This move nips the ethical dilemmas in the bud, cutting their fuel supply—competition and profit leading to irresponsible journalism.

By attacking the root of the problem, the symptoms are indirectly addressed. It is a single stone hitting all targets. Furthermore by reminding journalists of the ideals of their profession, it brings them back to the basics, including, but not limited to, the values of truth-telling, justice, freedom, humaneness and respect.

Such solution is aligned with the utilitarian, virtue, fairness and rights approaches.

In the Philippines, McCarthyism is still in action. This is exemplified by the media recklessly printing or airing comments from “newsmakers” without verification, fueled by circulation and ratings war. Two examples are Justice Sec. Raul Gonzalez and Sen. Miriam Santiago—the former, with his malicious and controversial comments on almost any issue dominating front pages and broadcast headlines, and the latter with her infamous assertion about China being the inventor of corruption.

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