Edward R. Murrow's Centenary

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Broadcasting began as an entertainment medium. Radio was not a source of original journalism until 70 years ago last month, and the fellow principally responsible for making that happen was born a hundred years ago today in Polecat Creek, North Carolina. Edward R. Murrow was reared in small towns in the state of Washington and assumed every possible leadership role in high school and college, looking for his ticket out of the working class. As a young man in New York, Murrow worked several years on international education exchange programs before joining the Columbia Broadcasting System in 1935. Although he had been a speech major in college, Murrow was not hired to speak on the radio. CBS sent him to Europe to line up entertainers and public figures for broadcasts that would be sent back to America. Nazi Germany was building an immense war capability at the time, but few people in isolationist America seemed to care. So when Germany annexed Austria in March of 1938, CBS had only Murrow and his assistant William L. Shirer as the network’s only employees in Europe. It was the story that made Edward R. Murrow a journalist and turned radio into a source for news.

Before World War II, public affairs programming on radio consisted of commentators---mainly veteran newspaper reporters bloviating about world affairs. Radio covered speeches, some important courtroom trials and other special events—but it did so with announcers---the same guys who emceed beauty contests and read the commercials. There was no overseas staff of trained journalism professionals and there was no regularly scheduled summaries of the news throughout the day. The war changed all that. Murrow would have to build a reporting staff, hiring newspaper and wire service reporters and teaching them about radio. He already had a good one in William L. Shirer, who would write some of the best-selling books from the war, Berlin Diary and The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. The CBS war reporting team would ultimately include Eric Sevareid, Bill Downs, Charles Collingwood, Howard K. Smith, Larry LaSueur, Winston Burdett, Cecil Brown and Richard C. Hottelet—bright and talented young men who became known as Murrow’s Boys. But the real radio star in the bunch was Murrow himself, who risked his life reporting on the London Blitz from the rooftop of the BBC. At that time, very few Americans had ever heard a live report of a war in progress.

This kind of reporting---in real time---revolutionized journalism. People still read their newspapers, but some of the stories repeated what they had learned from Murrow the night before---on the radio.

Murrow continued to defy the odds and, against orders from his bosses in New York, flew aboard Royal Air Force planes in bombing raids over Germany. He couldn’t report live from the bomber, but he could tell his listeners about it when he got back to London.

Radio reporters sent their broadcasts to New York by short wave, and the sound quality was often distorted by sun spots and adverse atmospheric conditions. Sometimes reports from overseas could not be heard at all and the reporters wouldn’t know that until later.

Near the end of the war, Murrow was traveling across Germany with General George Patton’s Third Army. Victory was near, morale was high, and Murrow was a big winner at a nighttime poker game. But their mood changed the next day, when they liberated the Nazi concentration camp called Buchenwald.

When Murrow returned home from the war, his stock could not have been higher at CBS. Company chairman William Paley made him a vice president, a board member and put him in charge of the news division. But Murrow didn’t care for the executive life and returned to daily radio news reporting. And here’s where Murrow’s career took a sharp turn. Everyone loved him when Hitler was the enemy, but now there was a new enemy.

After the war, the Soviet Union took control of Eastern Europe and built a military arsenal to rival the United States. When the Soviets developed a nuclear weapon, politicians in Washington played on public fear and declared war on Communists foreign and domestic. To dissent was to be suspected of Communist sympathies and to be labeled a "fellow traveler." Reporting from the Korean War, Murrow was critical of military strategy and tactics. Some of his reports were censored or silenced by CBS.

In 1951, Ed Murrow and producer Fred Friendly brought serious news reporting to the new medium of television, launching a weekly half-hour series called "See It Now." It was instantly controversial because it deliberately tackled the most controversial topics. By the time it took on the fear of Communists, the period had a name, the McCarthy Era, after the Republican Senator Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin. Like Richard Nixon and others before him, McCarthy was building a career declaring Communists had made their way into positions of influence in the U.S. government. His popularity poll numbers were above 50% at the beginning of 1954. Murrow believed people would be less enamored of McCarthy if they saw him in action---and television offered that very opportunity. On "See It Now" film clips of McCarthy’s Senate hearings showed him badgering and bullying witnesses---and this was Murrow major objection to McCarthy---the lack of due process afforded committee witnesses. Murrow ended his program with a bold, blistering commentary the likes of which had never been heard on network news.

The program was an eye-opener for most Americans. They opposed Communism, but they also opposed McCarthy’s tactics. Later that year, McCarthy would seal his own fate by accusing the Army of coddling Communists, holding a hearing that completely backfired on him and resulted in censure by the U.S. Senate. McCarthy was done and Murrow was a hero again---but not to CBS chairman William Paley. What should have been TV journalism’s finest hour was the beginning of the end for Murrow. Paley told Murrow that the controversial shows by "See It Now" gave him stomach aches. Murrow replied that stomach aches went with the job. Paley disagreed, and so did sponsors, local station managers and the government. Sponsors dropped "See It Now" in 1956 and CBS cancelled the show two years later. By the late fiftes, Murrow was marginalized by CBS and seldom seen on the air. But he would not be silent. Perhaps figuring he had nothing to lose, he gave a speech in Chicago at the 1959 annual convention of the Radio-Television News Directors Association---a speech that was somewhere between a thoughtful commentary on the shortcomings of television---to a bridge-burning screed. He faulted the industry for its low-brow lame programming, for its over-commercialization---even for its portrayal of American Indians, and especially for its failure to adequately cover news and public affairs.

He said in his speech "unless we get up off our fat supluses and recognize that television in the main is being used to distract, dilude, amuse and insulate us, then television and those who finance it, those who look at it and those who work in it, may see a totally different picture too late. This instrument can teach, it can illuminate, yes it can even inspire, but it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends, otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box." Edward R. Murrow left CBS in January 1961 and joined the Kennedy administration as director of the United States Information Agency. By the time of the Kennedy assassination Murrow was gravely ill with cancer. He died in April of 1965, two days after his 57th birthday.

Today there are new ways to deliver the news --- new instruments as Murrow might call them. Tiny computer chips have replaced the wires and lights in even smaller boxes. He would surely marvel at the new technology and embrace it, as he did with each new technology of his time. But he would want it to be used in part to make us better informed citizens and he would caution us not to be so enamored of our new toys. In that speech in Chicago he said "It is not necessary to remind you that the fact that your voice is amplified to the degree where it reaches from one end of the country to the other does not confer upon you greater wisdom or understanding than you possessed when your voice reached only from one end of the bar to the other. Whatever new medium comes along, here’s hoping it finds an Edward R. Murrow, who was born one hundred years ago – April 25, 1908.

-Bob