Murrey Marder, a former Washington Post reporter and founder of the Nieman Watchdog Project, died on March 11, 2013, at age 93. Former Nieman Curator Bill Kovach, NF ’89, reflects on Marder’s legacy:
The pop historians have filled pages of praise for Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly, his fellow creator of “See It Now,” as the ones who exposed Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy as the malicious liar that he was. But the pop historians were and are wrong—dead wrong. Murrey Marder was the pathfinder.
Murrey drove the first nails into McCarthy’s political coffin. And he did it without the flash and pseudo drama of television or the deft prose of scriptwriters but with quiet, meticulous, careful and fair reporting. He did it, in fact, after being alerted to the broad and deep threat of a virulent current of anti-Communist sentiment flowing though the United States during his year (1949-1950) as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard. Murrey had been covering the trial of Alger Hiss, charged but not convicted of spying for the Soviet Union, a trial that accented the opening of the Cold War before he came to Harvard.
He told me several times about that year and what it meant to him but the story he repeated most often was of a lecture by John Fairbank, an outstanding China scholar, in which the professor interrupted his lecture to read from a local newspaper article about a “Mr. X, a noted Communist sympathizer.” “Who knows who Mr. X is,” Murrey would recall Fairbank asking. “He could be you or he could be me. In fact, Mr. X is me!”
The Hiss trial and that lecture, Murrey said, sent him back to what he called his “Red Beat” to expunge the blot of that kind of journalism from newspaper pages. Joe McCarthy gave him his first opportunity and he tackled it with a vengeance.
Foremost among reporters Murrey demanded McCarthy state his slanderous charges against public officials he accused of Communist leanings; that he explain what his charges meant and what evidence he had to support them. He even insisted at each new barrage of charges that McCarthy explain what was the outcome of previous charges.
Editors despaired of getting Murrey to get his story in and literally had to order him to stop writing. Pressmen came to know him well also for he would often follow his copy back to the typesetters to make sure they didn’t edit things out before the presses ran. Murrey Marder was the consummate journalist and one who took his responsibility to seek out the truth seriously no matter how long it took.
Bill Kovach, a 1989 Nieman Fellow, was curator of the Nieman Foundation from 1989 to 2000.
Nieman Reports articles by Murrey Marder:
What Happens When Journalists Don’t Probe From Summer 2003
This is Watchdog Journalism From Summer 1998
Arrogance Wins? American Journalism’s Identity Crisis From Fall 1998
The Press and the Presidency: Silencing the Watchdog From Spring 2008
Murrey Marder: “Utterly Tenacious About the Truth” by Charles Lewis
Murrey Marder, a “Steady and Wise Watchdog” by Morton Mintz, NF’64
Obituary for Murrey Marder in The Washington Post
Marder’s Bio at Nieman Watchdog
Learn more about the Nieman Watchdog Project
Watch Marder discuss what it was like to cover Sen. Joseph McCarthy