After reading Senator Joe McCarthy’s recent biography, I was haunted by his desire for power and willingness to wreak havoc on people’s lives to obtain it. I kept wondering how his ascension would have looked in a digital world?
Dubbed a young-adult picture book by reviewers, the 270-page life story, “The Rise and Fall of Senator Joe McCarthy” has at least one black-and-white photo per chapter. The tale begins with the senator’s aspirations as a chicken farmer when he drops out of school in eighth grade and humbly goes back at 20 to complete the ninth through twelfth grade requirements in one year to graduate and go on to college.
The rest is more familiar ground, but fascinating all the same because of its context: it took place when television was becoming a popular news medium. Edward R. Murrow exposed McCarthy on his weekly television news program, See It Now, and it took months to gather the facts.
After an internet video of USDA worker, Shirley Sherrod surfaced on the internet this summer, it took less than two days for the alleged racial altercation to result in her submitting her forced resignation on her Blackberry cell phone. Once the event became viral, the faux news of her racism coupled with her position of power spread out of control. In the end, when more methodical journalists became involved, it was discovered that the video was spliced out of context, and no one in the process–including the President of the United States and especially the news media–came out of this multimedia news event without permanent scars.
I often hear today’s professional journalists, the ones who mentor my newspaper students, lament that they no longer have the luxury of holding on to a story, that immediacy has become paramount in the digital news business. However, history and current events have lessons to teach us about accuracy and ethics in digital journalism.