Fred approaches Palmer Williams’ desk and tells him that the CBS lawyers want to talk to him. We see Palmer talking to the lawyers the following day as voiceover of his and Fred’s conversation continues, in which Fred urges him, “Tell them what you know.” The scene shifts and the journalists watch footage of McCarthy interviewing a black woman, Annie Lee Moss, about her affiliations with the Communist party. The woman alleges that she has never paid any dues to the Communist party. Fred turns off the footage and wants to know what their angle is. He outlines the story: McCarthy suspects that Annie Lee Moss is a spy working in the Pentagon, and has gotten into the Code Room. Murrow asks for newspapers that reported on McCarthy’s assertion, so he can research and put together a story. The journalists strategize about how to frame the story, discussing the fact that McCarthy left the hearing after only seven questions.
Natalie interrupts the meeting to let Murrow know that McCarthy wants to appear on the show on April 6th. There is a silence in the room for a moment, and Murrow thanks her. The men begin arguing about the fact that McCarthy wants to defend his position on the show. Murrow interrupts to say, “He’s going to come after me, there’s nothing more he can do. He’s gonna bet that a senator trumps a newsman.” Just then, Don Hollenbeck comes in and asks to speak to Murrow.
In the next room, Don confides in Murrow that O’Brian’s criticism is really getting to him. While Murrow urges him to care less about the criticism, Don cannot seem to get over it, saying, “We ought to let that guy have it.” Murrow tells him that they cannot take on both O’Brian and McCarthy, firmly telling Don not to pay attention to the negative press. Murrow leaves and Don’s face falls in dismay.
We see Murrow recording voiceover for a news story. We then see footage of Annie Lee Moss’s hearing, in which McCarthy seems to have made up his mind about Moss’s case before the questioning even starts. Moss testifies that she has only ever had to send or receive messages in her time working at the Pentagon, nothing more. Abruptly, McCarthy leaves to work on another case and the questioning is cut short. Another man present at the trial stands up for Moss and states that he doesn’t want to try her based on hearsay, but wants to have a fair trial. The scene shifts to show Murrow recording a news segment about the incident.
April 6. 1954. Murrow sits at his typewriter, smoking. As he gets up and walks down the hall, we hear his voice in voiceover, introducing his guest for the evening news segment, Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy is there to defend himself against Murrow’s previous report. We see Murrow turning to a screen, on which McCarthy’s image is projected. McCarthy responds to the report, saying that Murrow is emblematic of the ways that people always come after people who fight communism. He then reveals that Murrow himself “was engaged in propaganda for communist causes” at one point, because he worked for the International Institute of Education. Paley watches the broadcast and looks down in concern. McCarthy suggests that Murrow ought not to be on television and that he will not be deterred by the attacks from Murrow. He ends his statement with “In complete humility, I do ask you and every American who loves this country to join with me.”
We see an advertisement for Alcoa aluminum. It is the following week, and Murrow is recording a rebuttal to McCarthy’s statement. He says, “Since he made no reference to any statements of fact that we made, we must conclude that he found no errors of fact. He proved again that anyone who exposes him, anyone who does not share his hysterical disregard for decency and human dignity and the rights guaranteed by the Constitution, must be either a communist or a fellow traveler…His proposition is very simple: Anyone who criticizes or opposes Senator McCarthy's methods must be a communist. And if that be true, there are an awful lot of Communists in this country.” He then goes through all of McCarthy’s charges against him and denies them. Murrow then reads a dedication that was made to him in a book by a socialist who was his friend. He says of the socialist, “He was one of those civilized individuals who did not insist upon agreement with his political principles as a pre-condition for conversation or friendship. I do not agree with his political ideas.” Murrow goes on to outline his 19-year career at CBS. He says, “I require no lectures from the junior senator from Wisconsin as to the dangers or terrors of communism” before wrapping up his response.
The scene shifts to the journalists reading a positive review of Murrow’s response and laughing at McCarthy’s expense. Suddenly, John Aaron comes in and announces that the Senate is investigating McCarthy, due to charges the Army has made against him and his operation. The men are elated, and Shirley comes in and smiles at Joe when she hears the news. Fred’s phone rings, and when he listens to the other line, his face falls. As the men file out of the room, he whispers in Murrow’s ear, and Murrow’s face falls too.
In his first direct attack on McCarthy in his show, Murrow invited McCarthy to defend himself on the program. In this section of the film, McCarthy takes him up on this offer and comes to make a statement. Tensions are high surrounding the imminent visit and many in the office wonder what the junior senator will say when he is given a microphone. When he does come, not only does McCarthy refute all that was said about him on Murrow’s segment, but he also goes directly after Murrow, accusing the newscaster of being a communist sympathizer. Such are the tactics of McCarthyism, to point the finger and blame secret communist conspiracies when anyone disagrees.
The fact that Murrow and his fellow journalists allow McCarthy to come on the program and say whatever he wants is a testament to their conviction and confidence in their reporting. Rather than try and control the issue or the interaction with McCarthy, they fully cede television time for the senator to say whatever he wants and rebut Murrow’s statements. In playing so fairly, Murrow shows that he is not afraid of what McCarthy has to say. While everyone may be worried about how McCarthy will strike back, Murrow remains confident that he is on the right side of the argument, which gives him a noble kind of bravery.
Indeed, one of Murrow’s strengths is his ability to shake off criticism and believe that he is on the right side of history. This strength that the reporter has for believing in himself and holding fast to his convictions is unique in his newsroom. In fact, Murrow’s sensibility directly contrasts with his fellow news anchor, Don Hollenbeck. After being labeled a “pinko”—a Communist sympathizer—by a conservative publication, Don becomes increasingly insecure in his position on television. When he seeks guidance from Murrow, Murrow urges him not to take the flak too much to heart, and to keep doing his job without paying too much attention to it. Don is Murrow’s foil in many ways, however, and he can barely stand the heat.
The difference between Murrow and Don is highlighted by the way their interaction in the newsroom is shot. They stand across the room from one another, two different temperaments faced with resistance from the conservative media. We see the control room they are standing in from a slight distance, and they stand on opposite sides of the room. It is a striking image, one which viscerally evokes the differences between the two men, and the distance that they feel from one another. We are used to seeing Murrow alone, poised to fight back against the powers that be for the sake of what’s right. Don is less at ease in this position, and seems vulnerable and on the edge.
This section of the film ends with a burst of good news. As the journalists are already celebrating the fact that their broadcast has done well, John Aaron enters to announce that McCarthy is under investigation. This news is met with elation by all of the journalists, who see that their work has influenced the course of history in some way. Indeed, by pressing on and questioning McCarthy’s brute authority, Murrow and his team brought to the nation’s attention just how shady McCarthyism was, which in turn exposed a corruption the authorities had no choice but to investigate.