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Murrey Marder: 'Utterly tenacious about the truth'

March 18, 2013

This article was co-published by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard on Nieman Reports.

Murrey Marder, who was born in 1919, began working at a newspaper in 1937 and was speaking in public about journalism as recently as last year at the National Press Club, died this past week. He wrote for The Washington Post for 39 years. 

He was one of the most significant journalists of our time. 

He will be best remembered for having been the reporter who, nearly 60 years ago, may have done more to bring the demagogic reign of Sen. Joseph McCarthy to an ignominious end than anyone else.

But he later was also the first overseas correspondent of The Washington Post Foreign Service in 1957, opening a bureau in London, and in 1971 he was one of the senior reporters assigned to write the newspaper’s stories about the Pentagon Papers. 

Chuck_murrey

Photo by Mark Reading-Smith

Charles Lewis and Murrey Marder, formerly of The Washington Post.

He was utterly tenacious about the truth. Not only did it outrage him when those in power lied, but it also especially gnawed away at him when the national news media would just stenographically report, and thus repeat, those lies. Late in his life, when I was fortunate enough to meet and get to know him, he also seemed haunted by a particular time during his own distinguished career when he felt he and his journalistic colleagues had been hugely, tragically misled by a president and his administration. He wanted his profession and the public to avoid the pitfalls of the past, which led him in 1996 to donate most of his life’s savings, $1.3 million, to the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University to create the “Watchdog Project.” And that included the Nieman Watchdog blog (2004-2012), edited by former Washington Post Special Watergate Editor Barry Sussman and Dan Froomkin and including about 350 writers, including yours truly.

In 1998, at the first watchdog journalism conference at Harvard under then-curator Bill Kovach, Marder said, “In my view, watchdog journalism is by no means just occasional selective, hard-hitting investigative reporting. It starts with a state of mind, accepting responsibility as a surrogate for the public, asking penetrating questions at every level, from the town council to the state house to the White House, in corporate offices, in union halls and in professional offices and all points in between . . . 

“For me, the watchdog reporter is always in a struggle, because he is always trying to extract time to think. The entire Washington public relations process is to overwhelm you with “pseudo-information.” It happens to be very difficult, unless you have some secrets that I don’t know, to take notes on a complex conversation and think about the questions you should be asking about, the holes in what you are being told. The mind actually cannot do two things simultaneously.”

His proudest moment personally seems to have been when he was awarded a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard in 1950. A child of the Depression, there had been no money and no time to go to college. While born in Philadelphia, his earliest childhood years were in Atlantic City, N.J. He told me in a two-hour recorded interview in 2007 that “the Depression was worse than World War II in so many ways. . . the family had a couple stores there that immediately got wiped out by the stock market crash. I mean just ‘bang’ . . . so as a child, I started working probably around the age of 8.” College? “I had no prospect of that, because you had to support your family.” In terms of education as well as professional recognition, he said his Nieman Fellowship at Harvard was “the most valuable year of my life.” 

"If you keep putting enough light on a situation, then you'll hopefully have some consequence."

— Murrey Marder

 

After about four years as a copy boy at the Philadelphia Evening Ledger — including, he recalled, making up picture pages and writing captions the night of the 1937 Hindenburg disaster, which killed 36 people — Marder had landed a coveted position as a reporter. And ironically in light of his difficult financial circumstances, he was told “you’re going to the Mainline. Oh my God, the Mainline. That’s the worst place in the world.” Not only was it the “fanciest, wealthiest [part] of the Philadelphia suburbs,” he told me, “I was being broken in there, hating every minute of it, because [I had] to cover an area of about 20 miles long and about 60 miles wide.” And on his third or fourth day on the beat, his 1933 car had “two flats on the way to work.” Half a century before cell phones, by the time he finally was able to call in to the city desk, his angry editor harrumphed, “Where the hell [have] you been?” Now, he was told, he had 15 minutes to get that day’s story and also, somehow, a photo of a local girl who had been killed. 

Recognizing he would likely be drafted anyway, he joined the Marines a week before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, and soon ended up as a Marine Corps combat correspondent, seeing combat in the Solomon Islands and on Guam. By the end of World War II, he was running the Marine Corps news desk in Washington. Not surprisingly, his wartime experiences were indelibly seared into his consciousness. “The war had such an impact on me that anybody who is president must have, if not some direct military service, some kind of military training or knowledge. Because nobody should be commander in chief unless they have some knowledge of what the hell war is about.” 

After a brief postwar stint at Congressional Quarterly in Washington, which was founded by Nelson Poynter in 1945, Marder was hired by The Washington Post. He had covered the Alger Hiss case in 1949, and his fine coverage had led to the Nieman Fellowship. Back in Washington, he soon was assigned to cover the Red Beat, as it was then called. And not long after Sen. Joseph McCarthy had declared,in early 1950 in Wheeling, W. Va., that he had a list of State Department employees who were also “members of the Communist Party and members of a spy ring” — which, of course, he never proved — the Post put Marder on the McCarthy beat, full time. According to David Halberstam in “The Powers That Be,” his seminal history of the news media, Marder “was a perfect choice for the assignment, quiet, intelligent, dogged, meticulous . . . he was above all else careful and fair.” He decided his modus operandi would be to “hold him to the record. Not just what he said yesterday, but the day before and the week before . . . Try above all not to be a megaphone for McCarthy. Expose him to maximum scrutiny.” 

As Edwin R. Bayley noted in “Joe McCarthy and the Press” (1981), Marder essentially chronicled and scrutinized McCarthy’s every major utterance and official action for four full years, “in-depth daily journalism,” his stories “detailed and precise and events were all in context.” Marder told me, “I would often be in the office until 10 or 11 o’clock at night trying to get somebody’s response to a charge in the next edition of the paper.” And one long night, “one of my most respected colleagues” came up [to me] and said, “Look, how long do you think you can keep this up?” And they both laughed. And he pressed Marder further, “Well, what do you think we’re accomplishing?” And Marder replied, “Well, I have to operate on the premise, the only premise I know of, that if you keep putting enough light on a situation, then you’ll hopefully have some consequence . . .[That is the] only journalistic premise that I know is that it has some effect. If it doesn’t have an effect, we should all be in the bottling business or something.” 

In 1953, with McCarthy at the zenith of his influence and no major U.S. political figure, including President Eisenhower, willing to stand up to him and his charges, the Wisconsin senator held hearings at Fort Monmouth, N.J. He declared there were 33 espionage agents there, generating headlines such as “Communist Agents in the Sensitive Signal Corps Area.” Marder was very skeptical and reflected later to me: “You know, he looked like he’s going to crack the world’s greatest spy ring and so on. I did my investigation, went to see these people. The charges were even flimsier than usual . . . it was really the dregs.” 

Marder went to the managing editor of The Washington Post, Russ Wiggins, and told him that “there [are] no spies.” But he warned him, “I must forewarn you of something. This is his big shot . . . I can never be absolutely sure how any of these things will go . . . He [McCarthy] could put the Post in deep trouble.” And Wiggins assured him, “Don’t worry about the Post. Let me worry about that. You go ahead and write the story.” 

Marder wrote the first of his stories about McCarthy’s reckless charge portraying the Army Signal Corps Center in Fort Monmouth on Nov. 8, 1953, with the headline, “No Basis Found for Belief Monmouth Is Nest of Spies.”

“As a hotbed of Communism and espionage . . . Nothing that can be independently ascertained from information available here or in Washington indicates that there is any known evidence to support such a conclusion,” he wrote. Weeks later, at a news conference, Marder hounded Secretary of the Army Robert Stevens with persistent, precise questions and Stevens reluctantly acknowledged there was no evidence of espionage.

Marder’s disciplined and steadfast enterprise reporting helped to set up the dramatic Army-McCarthy hearings, the first “live,” nationally televised, Congressional hearings in history, in which Army counsel Joseph Welch famously said, “Let us not assassinate this lad any further, Senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir?” Within months, the U.S. Senate voted to “condemn” McCarthy for his conduct, effectively censuring him for acting “contrary to senatorial ethics and tended to bring the Senate into dishonor and disrepute, to obstruct the constitutional processes of the Senate, and to impair its dignity." He died three years later.

Urges publishing of the Pentagon Papers

Marder played an important role in another historic “moment of truth” in June 1971.

According to memoirs and other written and oral history accounts, Post executive editor Ben Bradlee had been enormously frustrated because The New York Times had obtained and now begun publishing the first three parts of a 10-part series before a federal court granted the Nixon administration’s request for a restraining order, citing the Espionage Act of 1917. Former Department of Defense official Daniel Ellsberg, who had first leaked the 7,000-page secret history of the Vietnam War to the Times, now realized he needed to find another, nationally respected and legally unencumbered newspaper to publish them. He called an acquaintance from the Rand Corporation, Ben Bagdikian, who had returned to The Washington Post as assistant managing editor for national affairs. And he wanted a promise that if he provided a copy of the papers to The Washington Post, they would actually be published. 

Before committing, Bagdikian told the excited Bradlee of the conversation and asked him if he could make such a promise under the present, difficult circumstances, which Bradlee did. Indeed, according to Bagdikian in Investigating Power (an online, multimedia oral history presentation about “moments of truth” in contemporary U.S. history and the journalists behind them), Bradlee had flatly declared The Washington Post would have to go find “a new executive editor” if it did not publish the Pentagon Papers. 

While Bagdikian was flying back to Washington with the Pentagon Papers, Bradlee had assembled three of his most knowledgeable reporters about Vietnam, Chalmer Roberts, Don Oberdorfer and Murrey Marder, as well as two researchers and the editorial page editor, Phil Geyelin, and his deputy, Meg Greenfield, at his home. Bradlee and his reporters and editors had implored Post owner Katharine Graham to overrule members of the Board and the company’s lawyers, which she did. As The Washington Post’s obituary of Marder noted, in her memoir, Graham recalled that Marder had forcefully argued, “If the Post doesn’t publish, it will be in a much worse shape as an institution than if it does.” He told her that the newspaper’s “credibility would be destroyed journalistically for being gutless.” The reporters and editors present that fateful day were in unison, and Graham and the Post published, over the vociferous objections of the Nixon administration, their decision affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court on June 28, 1971. 

In the majority opinion written by Justice Potter Stewart, the Court ruled that “In the absence of governmental checks and balances present in areas of our national life, the only effective restraint upon executive policy and power in the areas of national defense and international affairs may lie in an enlightened citizenry — in an informed and critical public opinion which alone can here protect the values of democratic government. For this reason, it is perhaps here that a press that is alert, aware, and free most vitally serves the basic purpose of the First Amendment. For without an informed and free press there cannot be an enlightened people.”

But it was Murrey Marder’s fascination with in-depth daily journalism that has most intrigued and will continue to inspire me. The story line for any major event gets set by the powers that be in the first hours and days, and it can often be just plain wrong, and not inadvertently. His unsuccessful efforts — along with the rest of the national news media in the first days of August 1964 to ascertain and report what had really happened in the Vietnam Gulf of Tonkin incident —haunted him for decades, sensitizing him to the critical need for journalists to become more skeptical and discerning, in real time. 

He wrote eloquently about that in “What Happens When Journalists Don’t Probe” in Nieman Reports in the summer of 2003, just a few months after the U.S. invasion of Iraq: “There has always been a compelling need for the press to be on maximum alert, especially when war is in the air, a point that has gnawed at me since I checked out an Associated Press bulletin at The Washington Post one August night in 1964. The bulletin was about an attack on the USS Maddox by North Vietnamese torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin. As a Marine Corps combat correspondent in World War II, I was familiar with torpedo boats; they are no match for destroyers. To risk attacking a destroyer, an adversary would have to be greatly provoked. But before any reporter could penetrate what turned out to be a secret American naval spying mission, Congress rubber-stamped the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. The ultimate outcome is inscribed on a long wall on the Washington Mall.” 

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman J. William Fulbright publicly lamented that he had been “hornswoggled” by President Lyndon Johnson, and he and nearly all of his colleagues certainly had been. Decades later, a few months after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in the summer of 2003, Murrey Marder wrote: “When a president hornswoggles, or bamboozles, Congress and the press, historians will tell you, the greatest default rests with those being misled for their failure to fulfill their obligation to the public interest as counterweights in the American system.”

The growing watchdog journalism movement certainly lives on in the U.S. and the world today, and Murrey Marder’s “gnawing” and humility about our profound, professional obligations and our very real human limitations to fulfill them will certainly live on. Indeed, his and other such examples inspire us. 

Charles Lewis, the founding executive editor of the Investigative Reporting Workshop and a professor of journalism at American University, is the creator and executive producer of Investigating Power, an ongoing oral history project about the role of journalism in U.S. history. 


 



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