Murrow, Edward R. (1908-1965)

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Murrow, Edward R. (1908-1965)

Edward R. Murrow is the preeminent journalist in American broadcasting, having defined the standards of excellence and social responsibility for the news media. He was the guiding force for the development of news and public affairs on radio during the 1930s and 1940s as well as television during the 1950s. He almost single-handedly created a tradition that distinguished the broadcast journalist from the newspaper reporter while embodying the ideals of courage and integrity for the entire profession.

Murrow is one of the few giants of the industry to live up to his legend. He had both the style and substance to incarnate the quintessential roving correspondent. With his rich, resonant voice and penetrating eye, he documented some of the most profound events of the twentieth century. He also looked the part of the slightly world-weary reporter who was impelled by conscience to set the record straight. A Hemingwayesque figure with brooding good looks and invariably draped in a worn raincoat, Murrow was described as "the only foreign correspondent who could play a foreign correspondent in the movies and give all the glamour Hollywood wants."

Murrow's rise to fame is even more astounding because he never aspired to a reportorial career. Unlike his contemporaries in radio, who almost exclusively came from a newspaper background, Murrow was trained as an educational administrator. Born Egbert Roscoe Murrow in Greensboro, North Carolina on April 25, 1908, he graduated from Washington State University with majors in political science, speech, and international relations. He served as president of the National Student Federation, organizing international travel for students and debates between American and European universities. He also was assistant director of the Institute of International Education, where he supervised offices in London, Berlin, and Vienna. He was hired by CBS in 1935 for his executive ability, not his journalistic skills.

His first responsibility was as director of talks and special events, where he secured personalities to appear on the CBS radio network. In 1937 he was sent to London to schedule European speakers and oversee short-wave cultural programming. In March of 1938 he was on his way to Poland to arrange for a School of the Air broadcast when Adolf Hitler's German forces invaded Austria. Murrow chartered a passenger airliner and, out of necessity, reported the occupation from Vienna. He followed up with reports from London, describing Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's negotiations with the Germans and the eventual annexation of Czechoslovakia a year later.

In the late 1930s there was no network tradition of reporting international crises. With another major war almost inevitable, Murrow was instructed to staff correspondents in all the major European capitals. His team, known as "Murrow's boys," was radio's first professional corps of journalists and reported daily on CBS's World News Roundup. The members, whose ranks included William Shirer, Eric Sevareid, Charles Collingwood, and Howard K. Smith, were imbued with their leader's unflagging dedication and would have an impact on broadcast news for years to come.

More than anyone else, Murrow was able to bring the war into the homes of America. During the bombing of London in the fall of 1939 and early 1940, his impressionistic prose captured the anxiety and resolve of British people. Often speaking from the rooftops, Murrow commenced each broadcast with a somber gravity, "This … is London." His graphic description, called "metallic poetry" by one critic, gave an eyewitness account of the horror and devastation of the blitz. Poet Archibald MacLeish stated that Murrow "burned the city of London in our houses and we felt that flame … [he] laid the dead of London at our doors." Because of Murrow's intimate broadcasts, America no longer seemed thousands of miles away from the conflict.

In his long career, Murrow was never an impartial anchorman. He emerged from the tradition of the radio commentator, who did not shy away from expressing an opinion. During World War II Murrow wove his editorial views subtly into the broadcasts, not trying to be objective about the war against Hitler. As he often said, there is no reason to balance the values of Jesus Christ with those of Judas Iscariot. After World War II, Murrow had hope that the media would engage other less defined issues, such as injustice and ignorance.

During the mid-1940s, Murrow was a national celebrity, but had trouble finding a forum for his pursuit of truth. He was dissatisfied as a CBS vice president in charge of news and public affairs. He deliberately avoided television, proclaiming "I wish goddamned television had never been invented." In 1948 he found piece of mind by producing a series of record albums with Fred W. Friendly, a former radio producer at a Rhode Island station. The I Can Hear It Now albums interwove historical events and speeches with Murrow narration and, surprisingly, became a commercial success. The Murrow/Friendly partnership clicked, and the team developed a radio series, Hear It Now, which featured the sounds of current events, illuminated, of course, by the wisdom of Murrow.

In 1951 the team agreed to modify the Now concept again, this time emphasizing the visual dynamic of television. They called the effort See It Now. Murrow did not want the medium's first documentary series to be a passive recap of daily events, but an active engagement with the issues of the day. To implement this vision, Murrow and Friendly formed the first autonomous news unit in television. With Murrow as host and editor-in-chief and Friendly as managing editor, See It Now hired its own camera crews and reporters. As he did with radio, Murrow changed the fundamental structure of newsgathering in television.

"This is an old team trying to learn a new trade," proclaimed Murrow on the premiere of See It Now, which aired on November 18, 1951. Murrow, as in all the programs that followed, was seated in Studio 41 amid the television technology—the monitors, the microphones, and supporting technicians. To underscore this breakthrough in instantaneous coverage, Murrow relayed the first live coast-to-coast transmission, summoning up a split screen of the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City and the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

See It Now achieved many firsts during its early run. Reaching an audience of three million homes, Murrow presented the first broadcast from a submerged submarine. The program also simulated coverage of a mock bomb attack on New York City, with Murrow reporting from an F-94 jet. During the 1952 Christmas season See It Now featured a one-hour report on the realities of the ground war in Korea. The special surveyed the frustrations and anxieties of everyday soldiers and was described by The New Yorker as "one of the most impressive presentations in television's short life, [picturing] for us a tragic living legend of our time … with great piety and understanding."

Impelled by the accolades, Murrow and Friendly wanted to report on the anti-communist hysteria that was beginning to envelop the country. The team searched for what Friendly called "the little picture," a story that could symbolize this wrenching issue. In October 1953 Murrow and reporter Joe Wershba produced "The Case of Milo Radulovich," a study of an Air Force lieutenant who was branded a security risk because his family subscribed to subversive newspapers. In "Argument in Indianapolis," broadcast one month later, See It Now investigated an American Legion chapter that refused to book its meeting hall to the American Civil Liberties Union, a potent metaphor for how the demagogic tactics of Senator Joseph McCarthy penetrated middle America.

On March 9, 1954 See It Now decided to expose the architect of this paranoia, McCarthy himself. Murrow used documentary material, "told mainly in his own words and pictures," to refute the half-truths and misstatements of the junior senator of Wisconsin. In his tailpiece Murrow explicitly challenged his viewers to confront their fears: "this is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy's methods to keep silent." The McCarthy program produced tensions in the relationship between Murrow and the network. CBS did not assist in promoting the broadcast and questioned whether Murrow had overstepped the boundaries of editorial objectivity.

See It Now continued to provoke controversy. Murrow interviewed J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who was removed as advisor to the Atomic Energy Commission because he was suspected of being a Soviet agent. The series also documented issues of desegregation, the cold war, and governmental scandal. Beginning in October 1953, Murrow counterbalanced his grave image by hosting a celebrity talk show, Person to Person. Each week Murrow electronically visited the homes of personalities from the arts, sports, politics, and business. Critics worried about the show's lack of depth, particularly the interviews with such movie stars as Marilyn Monroe and Marlon Brando. In the late 1950s Murrow hosted a discussion series of greater depth, Small World, where he moderated an unrehearsed conversation among intellectuals and world leaders situated in studios and homes around the globe.

Murrow received numerous awards for his work on See It Now and Person to Person, but his relationship with CBS deteriorated. Murrow complained about the increasing commercialism of television. He lambasted the industry at a 1958 convention for radio and television news directors by stating the medium insulated the viewer from "the realities of the world in which we live." His crusades and jeremiads were accepted in times of war and national hysteria, but in the late 1950s they seemed out of place in a prosperous nation. After the cancellation of See It Now, CBS split up the esteemed team of Ed Murrow and Fred Friendly. Friendly became executive producer of CBS Reports, for which Murrow occasionally hosted such investigative reports as Harvest of Shame.

In 1961, President John Kennedy persuaded Murrow to leave CBS to become director of the United States Information Agency. Murrow remained in that post until 1964, when he resigned because he was suffering from lung cancer. Always a heavy smoker, Murrow had investigated the connection between cigarettes and cancer for See It Now. Murrow died on April 27, 1965 and was saluted by The New York Times "as broadcasting's true voice."

Edward R. Murrow remains the dominant individual in broadcast news. During his 25-year career, he made more than 5,000 reports, many of which are now considered journalistic classics, probing into the twentieth century's most troubling issues with poetry and insight. Murrow and partner Friendly invented the magazine news format, which became the major documentary form on network television. Shaping the form and content of television news, they also tested the limits of editorial advocacy. Murrow became the exemplar of free speech and democratic ideals in a commercial media. As the Columbia Journalism Review noted, Murrow's "spirit is still invoked … whenever the glories, the depredations, and the promise of television news come up for argument."

—Ron Simon

Further Reading:

Barnouw, Erik. Tube of Plenty: The Evolution of American Television. New York, Oxford University Press, 1990.

Bliss, Edward J. Now the News: The History of Broadcast Journalism. New York, Oxford University Press, 1975.

——, editor. In Search of Light: The Broadcasts of Edward R. Murrow, 1938-1964. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1967.

Boyer, Peter J. Who Killed CBS?: The Undoing of America's Number One News Network. New York, Random House, 1988.

Cloud, Stanley, and Lynne Olson. The Murrow Boys. Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996.

Friendly, Fred W. Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control…. New York, Vintage Books, 1967.

Gates, Gary Paul. Air Time: The Inside Story of CBS News. New York, Harper & Row, 1978.

Halberstam, David. The Powers That Be. New York, Alfred A.Knopf, 1979.

Kendrick, Alexander. Prime Time: The Life of Edward R. Murrow. Boston, Little, Brown, 1969.

Murrow, Edward R., and Fred W. Friendly, editors. See It Now. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1955.

O'Connor, John E., editor. American History/American Television: Interpreting the Video Past. New York, Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1983.

Paley, William S. As It Happened. Garden City, New York, Doubleday, 1979.

Persico, Joseph E. Edward R. Murrow An American Original. New York, McGraw-Hill, 1988.

Smith, Sally Bedell. In All His Glory. New York. Simon and Schuster, 1990.

Sperber, A. M. Murrow: His Life and Times. New York, Freundlich, 1986.