By William “Skip” Deegans
One of the most notorious examples in U.S. history of the impact disinformation can have occurred in West Virginia. In 1950, Joseph McCarthy, a then little-known Republican Senator from Wisconsin, addressed a gathering at a Lincoln Day celebration at the McClure House Hotel in Wheeling. In his speech, he expressed concerns about creeping communism in the United States and held up a list of 205 communists employed at the State Department. The list didn’t exist, and his claim wasn’t true. In subsequent speeches the number of communists he had on his list fluctuated. Nevertheless, McCarthy’s anti-communist fervor caught fire with the American public and the press. Buoyed by so much publicity, McCarthy continued his campaign.
Alarmed at the damage McCarthy was doing to the Republican Party, Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine said “I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horseman of Calumny – Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry and Smear.” Finally, in 1954 the Senate voted to condemn McCarthy’s behavior but not before many innocent lives were damaged by his false accusations. McCarthy died in 1957 at age 47 from acute hepatitis due, supposedly, to alcoholism.