On October 23, 1952, Senator Joseph McCarthy (1908-1957), a conservative Republican from Wisconsin, storms out of Seattle's KING-TV studios after his televised speech is canceled. KING-TV officials, fearing libel, ask McCarthy to remove two paragraphs from a 15-minute telecast. McCarthy argues that no television station has the right to censor a paid political speech, and the evening speech is canceled.
From 1950 until 1954, McCarthy served as the controversial face of the domestic anti-Communist movement, a period which lasted roughly from the end of World War II until the 1960s. McCarthy claimed that Communism was a pervasive force within the U.S. government and that Soviet forces held a dangerous influence over American foreign and domestic policy. By October 1952, he was nationally famous for his investigations of the 1949 “loss of China” to Communism and of Communists in President Harry S. Truman’s (1884-1972) State Department. McCarthy was best known, however, for his sensational accusations against “known Communists” on the Senate floor and in the press.
As part of his two-day visit to Washington state, McCarthy planned to deliver a 15-minute speech on KING-TV, Washington’s largest television station. Following McCarthy’s speech, Washington Senator Warren G. Magnuson (1905-1989), a veteran Democrat, was scheduled to counter the Wisconsin senator’s arguments. After submitting his speech for review on the afternoon of October 23, McCarthy spoke at the annual Gridiron dinner at the Washington State Press Club and was heckled and booed. When he arrived at the station after dinner, KING-TV officials asked that McCarthy either delete two paragraphs from his speech or provide proof of his accusations, as the station’s lawyers feared being sued for libel.
In these paragraphs, McCarthy alleged that Drew Pearson (1897-1969), a syndicated national columnist and a vocal opponent of McCarthy, employed two Communist staff members. Although unable to provide immediate proof, McCarthy refused to delete the paragraphs from his manuscript. Since he had paid for the airtime, he argued that KING-TV did not have the right to censor him. According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the station could not censor political candidates. KING-TV lawyers reasoned that since McCarthy was not running in any Washington State election, they could censor him on the grounds of libel. When the time came for the speech, the station announced it had been canceled. McCarthy left the station for the airport threatening to ask the FCC to revoke the station’s license. (He never actually filed a complaint.)
Otto Brandt, the vice president and general manager of the station, responded in a statement to the press that since the station risked a libel suit, they had every right to censor McCarthy. The next day, McCarthy claimed that KING-TV had canceled the speech. Brandt responded that it was the senator who had “canceled the speech as he was not able to include it exactly as written” (Chicago Daily Tribune). The canceled telecast marked the end of a rocky trip to Washington state for McCarthy.