A new documentary shows the parallels between the notorious Sen. Joseph McCarthy and President Donald Trump -- who each exploited structural weaknesses in the U.S. news media to attack democracy.
McCarthy, a two-hour "American Experience" episode that will be broadcast Monday night on PBS, has been in the works since 2003, but its subject matter is eerily relevant in the Trump presidency, reported The Daily Beast.
“There was a media benefit to McCarthy existing,” says Jelani Cobb, a New Yorker writer and Columbia University journalism professor. “Editors knew that if you put a quote from Joe McCarthy on a headline above the fold on the front page of a newspaper, people were going to pick that newspaper up, that McCarthy was good copy. There was a kind of hyperbolic, sensational quality to McCarthy’s rhetoric that was very marketable. It sold papers.”
McCarthy, like Trump, seemed to understand that reporters wouldn't challenge his lies for fear of looking biased.
“The American media wants to be objective," says Timothy Naftali, New York University history professor. "That meant that if you were an elected official, you’d get press regardless of what you said. McCarthy understood this. McCarthy was willing to assert things that he knew weren’t true, and he did it with aplomb.”
President Dwight D. Eisenhower was appalled by McCarthy, a fellow Republican, but understood the senator's symbiotic relationship with the media.
"(He) blamed the press for much of McCarthy’s popularity,” says historian and biographer Sam Tanenhaus. “He didn’t understand why newspapers and magazines kept reporting all of McCarthy’s allegations.”
The Wisconsin Republican's first Senate term had been so unremarkable that McCarthy feared he would not be re-elected in 1952, until he stumbled upon the conspiracy theory that made him infamous.
McCarthy was sent by GOP leaders to speak to the Women’s Republican Club in Wheeling, West Virginia, where he claimed -- with no evidence whatsoever -- there were 205 Communists operating undercover within the U.S. State Department.
“He called back to his office and he asked his secretary, ‘Are we getting any publicity?’” says Donald Ritchie, the Senate’s former official historian, "and she said, ‘We’re getting a lot of publicity!’ His secretary described him as being almost intoxicated with the joy and excitement of getting this much attention for a story.”
McCarthy's lies got bigger and more brazen, and correcting them became “a sheer exercise in fatigue" for the press, Cobb says.
“There were some people who were never going to part with the idea that Joseph McCarthy represented maybe some sort of truculent patriotism,” Cobb says, but the senator's fire quickly dimmed after the Senate overwhelmingly voted to censure him.
The press, and the public, quickly lost interest, and McCarthy's political career was over -- and he died from cirrhosis of the liver a few years later, at age 48.
“Once McCarthy was censured, the press began to ignore him,” says NYU history professor David Oshinsky. “The gravy train was over. The conveyor belt was gone. Nobody cared.”