What are media-driven myths? W. Joseph Campbell, author of Getting it Wrong, calls them the “junk food of journalism”—tempting but dubious tidbits that distort the facts and perpetuate erroneous information through news and popular media. In a recent cross-post from his blog Media Myth Alert, Campbell addressed the appealing but misleading story that Edward R. Murrow was the first to publicly denounce Senator Joseph McCarthy. Here, he wonders whether another famous quote attributed to Murrow may be a media myth. This entry is cross-posted from W. Joseph Campbell’s blog Media Myth Alert.

Edward R. Murrow

Edward R. Murrow’s bravery in taking on Senator Joseph R. McCarthy in a televised report in 1954 is the stuff of legend—and of media-driven myth.

The notion that Murrow’s half-hour CBS program halted McCarthy’s communists-in-government witch hunt is one of 10 media-driven myths addressed, and debunked, in my forthcoming book, Getting It Wrong.

The courage Murrow supposedly showed back then was invoked yesterday in a commentary at the Huffington Post blog. The commentary deplored the decline of civility in American political life and declared:

“One of the most courageous heroes steering Americans back to sanity during the McCarthy period, Edward R. Murrow, commented: ‘We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it.'”

Besides the reference to Murrow as hero, I was struck by the quotation’s second sentence:

“When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it.”

I wondered: Did Murrow really say that?

The first portion of the quote–”We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty”–is quite familiar. Murrow intoned the passage during his 1954 program on McCarthy, in a closing editorial comment.

But the rest of quotation– “When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it”–was not uttered during Murrow’s program on McCarthy.

I ran that passage through the “historical newspapers” database, which includes the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and Los Angeles Times. No articles quoting the passage were returned.

A search of the LexisNexis database produced a few returns, but none dated before 2001. And none stated when and where Murrow made the comment.

Among the LexisNexis returns was a book review published in 2003 in the Washington Post. The review invoked the “loyal opposition” passage and said Murrow made the remark “half a century ago, at the height of the McCarthy era.” But exactly when and where was left unsaid.

Harry Reid, now the U.S. Senate majority leader, invoked the passage, and cited Murrow as its author, in a speech in 2006 about Iraq. But Reid didn’t say when and where Murrow supposedly made the comment.

Otherwise, the articles, statements, and letters to the editor retrieved from LexisNexis offered no details about the quotation’s derivation.

A Google search produced links to nearly 9,000 online sites that cite the passage. A check of several of those sites turned up nothing about the quote’s derivation.

Google Books identifies seven books that contain the verbatim passage, none of which was published before 2003. None of the seven books is a biography about Murrow.

I could be wrong, but the passage strikes me as dubious, as a flexible, handy, all-purpose comment useful in scoring points by the political left as well as the right.

If it were genuine, if Murrow really said it, its derivation wouldn’t be difficult to track down.

Moreover, the quotation seems almost too neat and tidy to be authentic.

In that sense, it’s evocative of William Randolph Hearst’s often-quoted vow to “furnish the war” with Spain.

And that is a hardy and enduring media-driven myth.