- - Wednesday, February 8, 2023

In our age of disinformation, an unprecedented number of sources – from legacy media to freelancers – using print, broadcast and online platforms are capable of amplifying truth or lies from the mouths of politicians to massive audiences. What is not unprecedented is the dishonesty itself. Seventy years ago, one of the most infamous episodes in American history was built on a mountain of lies.

Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin rampaged through American politics by leveling wild allegations of Communist infiltration of the U.S. government. At a time of pervasive anti-communism in the country, McCarthy’s charges found a receptive audience, even though many of the journalists who covered him and politicians who served alongside him hardly believed a word he said.

In this episode of History As It Happens, McCarthy biographer and historian Rick Fried discusses the importance of the notorious Commie-hunter’s legacy for our own time. In his new book, “A Genius For Confusion,” Mr. Fried shows why incessant lying was an effective tool for the Republican senator and his allies amid anti-communist hysteria.

“He learned early that he could get away with a lie. In the 1939 race for state district court judge [in Wisconsin], he was able to lie about his age,” said Mr. Fried, professor emeritus of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

After winning the 1946 Senate race, McCarthy’s first cause in Washington wasn’t anti-communism. Instead, he attacked the U.S. Army for allegedly abusing German prisoners of war who were tried and convicted in the Malmedy massacre of 1944. Incredibly, the junior senator from Wisconsin unfavorably compared the treatment of the German POWs to the crimes of the Nazis.

“There are a lot of different theories, none of which has been nailed down, as to what possessed him to get into this,” Mr. Fried said. “I just think he was looking for something.”

Indeed, McCarthy was more opportunist than ideologue, as contemporaries questioned the authenticity of his anti-communism because it wasn’t based on a deep understanding of Marxism-Leninism.

We are not living through a new McCarthy era, but public confidence in the news media to parse truth from fiction, to avoid amplifying dishonest political claims that feed a frenzy, is at a low point. From former President Trump’s 30,000 false or misleading claims while in office, to debunked reports on Russiagate that relied on anonymous sources, McCarthyism still has plenty to teach us about the politics of fear as well as the journalistic challenge of reporting specious claims.

Listen to Mr. Fried discuss those lessons by downloading this episode of History As It Happens.

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