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McCarthy: when the press failed; Joe McCarthy and the Press, by Edwin R. Bayley. Madison, Wis.: The University of Wisconsin Press. 270 pp. $16.50.

''I have here in my hand,'' intoned Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy (R) of Wisconsin on Feb. 9, 1950, in Wheeling, W. Va., ''a list of 205 that were known to the secretary of state as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping the policy of the State Department.''

That was nonsense, of course; McCarthy later identified the flourished paper as ''an old laundry list'' and labeled this speech ''just a political talk.'' But by then this ''mischievous child,'' as one reporter described him, had launched a juggernaut of fear that lingered long after McCarthy himself was out of the limelight.

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''Because McCarthy was a true innovator, because he lied with unprecedented boldness,'' wrote Richard Rovere in ''Senator Joe McCarthy'' (1959), ''. . . even those newspapers that were willing to expose him found that they lacked the technical resources.'' Might a more alert, flexible, and courageous press have curtailed McCarthyism's rampage? In ''Joe McCarthy and the Press,'' Edwin R. Bayley, with palpable regret, concludes ''yes.''

Bayley, a Wisconsin political reporter during McCarthy's heyday, and now dean of the graduate school of journalism at the University of California in Berkeley , pinpoints the month after the Wheeling speech as the time when crucial first impressions of McCarthy as a dragonslayer were formed. Scrutinizing initial coverage in 129 newspapers, Bayley found that careless headline writers made McCarthy's allegations seem confirmed; editors clinging to narrow definitions of ''objectivity'' provided little background or analysis; wire services, the sources of about 85 percent of the period's news, buried important rebuttals and trumpeted specious accusations, all for the sake of ''fresh leads.''

Thus, even after newspapers adapted their methods to McCarthy's, readers wouldn't believe that he hadn't uncovered one bona fide Communist in government, couldn't be made to care about his character, or lack of it. ''It is a tribute to the intelligence of US citizens that so many saw through this confusion to the truth of the McCarthy affair,'' comments Bayley, ''but it is no wonder that so many did not.''

Television ultimately toppled McCarthy. As James Reston wrote in 1954, ''One cannot remain indifferent to Joe McCarthy in one's living room. . . . The country did not know him before, despite all the headlines. Now it has seen him.''

Bayley reserves his admiration for the newspapers, great and small, which endeavored to explore McCarthyism rather than merely publicize it. He praises the Washington Post, Washington Star, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Berkshire Eagle (Pittsfield, Mass.), Capitol Times (Madison, Wis.), and Milwaukee Journal for the guidance they offered readers. He commends the Baltimore Sun, New York Times , The Christian Science Monitor, Lowell (Mass.) Sun, and Racine (Wis.) Journal-Times for the volume of McCarthy news they carried. And he cites syndicated columnists Drew Pearson, Marquis Childs, Peter Edson, and Joseph and Stewart Alsop, as well as cartoonist Herblock, for risking their contracts to denounce McCarthy.

''History has given them too little credit,'' Bayley remarks of these and others on journalism's honor roll. This book, meticulously researched yet still passionate, will surely set the record straight.

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