Note to the image: Edward R. Murrow (from the Edward R. Murrow Center of Public Diplomacy, The Fletcher School, Tufts University)
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Why the life and times of the broadcast pioneer still matter.
Issue of 2006-01-23
There is a memorable entry in William Shirer’s “Berlin Diary” in which he describes—as, in effect, something that happened at work one day—the birth of broadcast journalism. It was Sunday, March 13, 1938, the day after Nazi troops entered Austria. Shirer, in London, got a call fro CBS headquarters, in New York, asking him to put together a broadcast in which radio correspondents in the major capitals of Europe, led b Shirer’s boss, Edward R. Murrow, who was on the scene in Vienna, would offer a series of live reports on Hitler’s move and the reaction to it
Shirer had to overcome two problems: CBS had no staff in Europe except Murrow and himself, so he had to find newspaper reporters in Berlin, Paris, and Rome; and then he had to line up shortwave transmitters that could carry the reporters’ voices to the United States. Somehow, he and Murrow pulled it off. “One a.m. came,” Shirer writes, “and through my earphones I could hear on our transatlantic ‘feedback’ the smooth voice of Bob Trout announcing the broadcast from our New York studio. Our part went off all right, I think. . . . New York said on the ‘feedback’ afterwards that it was a success. They want another one tonight.”
After that, the exigencies of war in Europe turned Shirer and Murrow—and, over the next few years, a crew of additional CBS radio reporters like Howard K. Smith, Charles Collingwood, and Eric Sevareid—into unusually busy and prominent members of the working press. When Murrow returned to the United States for a home leave in the fall of 1941, at the age of thirty-three, he was more famous and celebrated than any journalist could be today. A crowd of fans and reporters met his ship at the dock. CBS gave him a banquet at the Waldorf-Astoria, with eleven hundred guests in attendance and millions more listening in via a national radio broadcast. Franklin Roosevelt sent a congratulatory telegram to be read aloud, and the poet Archibald MacLeish offered the most eloquent of many in-person encomiums, in which he said, “You burned the city of London in our houses and we felt the flames that burned it.”
It seems obvious now that the country was eager for broadcast journalism from Europe, so you wonder why CBS didn’t realize that when it sent Murrow there in the first place, in 1937. Aside from the technical difficulties of broadcasting across the ocean, and the historical indifference of Americans to news from overseas, the answer is that CBS didn’t think of itself as being in the news business. Instead, it was an entertainment company, under vague but frightening instructions (they came from the federal government, which had life-and-death power over the future of the networks) also to offer material that was uplifting and public-spirited.
The Radio Act of 1927 established a system in which the government owned the airwaves; rather than broadcast itself, however, it would grant licenses for locations on the spectrum to private companies, though only—fateful phrase—“if public convenience, interest or necessity will be served thereby.” The Communications Act of 1934, which created the Federal Communications Commission, adopted the same language. During the debate over the Communications Act, two U.S. senators (one was Robert F. Wagner, of New York) proposed that one quarter of the spectrum be given over to purely educational stations. That, as Sally Bedell Smith writes in her 1990 biography of CBS’s founder, William Paley, “would have been devastating to commercial broadcasters.” The proposal was defeated, but still, with the New Deal at its apogee and with other Western nations setting up state broadcasting systems like the BBC, CBS had reason to be vigilant about protecting its public-interest flank.
It was in the aftermath of the fight over the Communications Act that CBS hired Murrow—and the company thought it was getting an educator, not a journalist. Murrow came from a nonprofit organization called the Institute of International Education, which set up lectures and student seminars all over the world (including, as Murrow later had occasion to regret, in the Soviet Union) and helped scholars to leave Nazi Germany. Like all great stars, Murrow was complicated; he was both a rawboned son of the West—he’d grown up in Washington state, and worked in logging camps—and a rising young man of the Eastern establishment. He was elected a member of the Council on Foreign Relations while still in his mid-twenties. Murrow’s title, when he joined CBS in 1935, was Director of Talks.
CBS sent Murrow to London with the title of European Director. When Murrow hired Shirer, a wire-service reporter who’d lost his job, as CBS’s man on the Continent, Shirer was under the impression that he was leaving journalism. “Murrow will be a grand guy to work with,” he writes in his diary, less than six months before the Anschluss broadcast. “One disappointing thing about the job, though: Murrow and I are not supposed to do any talking on the radio ourselves.” By then, Murrow was breaking that rule, but still, until the war began, he and Shirer were bookers, producers, good-will ambassadors, and technology logisticians more than they were reporters. They were making sure that nobody could fairly accuse CBS of ignoring world affairs.
Seasons of retrospective Murrow-worship have come regularly since his death, in 1965, of lung cancer, at the age of fifty-seven. Usually, they coincide with a bad moment for television journalism: a reporting scandal, newsroom budget cuts, censorship, attacks from outsiders, the cancellation of a respected program, the death of a prominent broadcaster. We are in such a season now. Its most obvious manifestation is George Clooney’s black-and-white movie about Murrow’s confrontation with Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1954, “Good Night, and Good Luck.” A few months earlier, a gift box of Murrowiana called “The Edward R. Murrow Collection,” which CBS had originally produced on videocassette in 1991, was released on DVD. In 2004, Bob Edwards, the former National Public Radio host, published a short book called “Edward R. Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism.” (Anchors tend to invoke Murrow on ascending to, and on leaving, their jobs.)
Both Edwards’s book, explicitly, and “Good Night, and Good Luck,” obliquely, make it clear why this is a Murrow season. It looks as if, once again, right-wing politicians are trampling on civil liberties in the name of protecting the country from a terrifying global threat. Commercialism and superficiality seem regnant in broadcast news. Owners avoid controversy, cut budgets, and focus on producing the profits that Wall Street demands—we’re back in the fifties. Murrow represents a kind of implacable, heroic journalistic courage that could sweep away all the obstacles in its path.
Bob Edwards’s book is slight—a useful summary of Murrow’s life story, but not a real addition to our understanding of him. “Good Night, and Good Luck” is not history, exactly, but it is ambitious and stylishly done. As claustrophobic as the nineteen-fifties were in liberal memory (most of the action takes place in a few drab, crowded, smoky rooms, and most of the characters are men with white shirts and slicked-down hair), the film makes you feel trapped inside a culture intolerant of dissent and worshipful of normalcy and prosperity, being subjected to a relentless onslaught by McCarthy and his allies that nobody had the courage to resist. Clooney and his star, David Strathairn, elected to portray Murrow as a grim, tight-lipped cipher who never ingratiates himself or even smiles, and laughs only mirthlessly, as a way of indicating how bad things are. He’s a martyr who seems to be in constant torment. The movie briefly shows Murrow hosting his celebrity-interview show, “Person to Person,” but presents him as suffering through it.
Clooney’s film takes great pains to be accurate about all the specifics. It isn’t just the way people dressed and carried themselves; every word Strathairn says on the air, Murrow said on the air. Those Murrow shortcomings (by today’s lights) that pertain to the McCarthy story, such as his having voluntarily signed the CBS loyalty oath, are duly inserted somewhere or other in the screenplay. Still, without ever misstating anything, “Good Night, and Good Luck” leaves you with the impression that Murrow was an early, and the dispositive, attacker of McCarthy, and that isn’t exactly the case. Murrow was genuinely courageous, and not just in this instance, but the real story is more complicated.
The part of Murrow’s journalistic career that was most glorious and least difficult was his radio reporting during the Second World War—especially during the Battle of Britain. One can imagine Murrow’s sudden appearance generating some harrumphing today, since he’d neve worked as a reporter before, but he was immediately terrific at it. He had a great story to cover, but it’s a journalistic skill to maneuver onesel into that situation; he could easily have remained in New York in the late thirties. Murrow’s reporting conveyed the feeling of a corresponden who’s all over his story, who goes everywhere and knows everybody. He seemed to experience life with a special intensity and empathy, and h could capture those qualities in his reports
In broadcasting from a London rooftop while German bombers were overhead, Murrow was among the first to use ambient sound in radio journalism, and he also called more vivid attention to the plight of Londoners, as well as to himself. He spoke to the listener as a friend. Bob Edwards quotes in entirety a couple of Murrow’s most famous radio broadcasts: one from a bombing run from England to Berlin and back (Murrow made twenty-five of these trips, which were so dangerous that some of the people around him thought he had a death wish), the other from the liberation of Buchenwald. Here is a passage from the first:
The clouds were gone and the sticks of incendiaries from the preceding waves made the place look like a badly laid out city with the streetlights on. The small incendiaries were going down like a fistful of white rice thrown on a piece of black velvet. As Jock hauled the Dog up again, I was thrown to the other side of the cockpit, and there below were more incendiaries, glowing white and then turning red. The cookies—the four-thousand-pound high explosives—were bursting below like great sunflowers gone mad. And then, as we started down again, still held in the lights, I remembered the Dog still had one of those cookies and a whole basket of incendiaries in its belly, and the lights still held us. And I was very frightened.
And here is one from the second:
In another part of the camp they showed me the children, hundreds of them. Some were only six. One rolled up his sleeve, showed me his number. It was tattooed on his arm. D-6030, it was. The others showed me their numbers; they will carry them until they die.
During the war, Murrow never had to play the role of the dispassionate reporter. He was an important player in the Allied war effort, and under the circumstances, that did not conflict with his journalistic role. Murrow’s special significance was in making Americans see, through hi broadcasts about the Blitz, that the European war was not something faraway and irrelevant. When Harry Hopkins, F.D.R.’s right-hand man came to London for a visit, eleven months before Pearl Harbor, he met with three people on his first day in town: Anthony Eden, Winsto Churchill, and Murrow. Churchill was a personal friend as well as a journalistic subject, and Murrow had a wartime affair with Churchill’ daughter-in-law, Pamela Digby Churchill, who later married Averell Harriman. On Pearl Harbor day, Murrow was in the White House for long-planned private dinner with the Roosevelts, who, despite the distraction, didn’t cancel the appointment. (F.D.R. understood the power o radio as well as any politician.) In 1956, Murrow briefly and quietly advised Adlai Stevenson on how to use television in his Presidentia campaign. In 1958, thinking seriously about running for the Senate from New York as a Democrat, he consulted privately with both Paley an Harry Truman
After the war, Murrow never found a role at CBS that was as perfect a fit as his post in London had been. He first took up an executive position, called Director of Public Affairs. It may not comport with the Murrow we think we know—the man who always called himself “this reporter” in public and who made no secret of his disdain for network suits—but he was in fact a gifted spotter and manager of journalistic talent. In any case, Murrow didn’t last long in that job. The advent of television found him as, once again, America’s best-known broadcast journalist, and, though he grumbled about the new medium, he soon became America’s top television newsman. By dint of trial and error, and of inspired hiring, Murrow wound up as a pioneer of virtually every variety of television journalism except evening-news anchoring: the documentary, the celebrity interview, the prosecutorial investigative piece, the on-the-scene sociological report, the expert-rich treatment of an “issue,” the gee-whiz account of one of the world’s wonders, the scary, exciting bout with danger.
But what looks now like a string of triumphs was accompanied by tension and agony on all sides. A. M. Sperber’s extensively researched 1986 biography of Murrow presents him as one of the great troubled souls. He regularly worked himself into a state of exhausted collapse. He was moody to the point of clinical depression. He was literally smoking himself to death, even as he gave on-air reports on the dangers of cigarettes. At fifty, he had the look and the elegiac attitudes of an old man, and his important work was behind him. He fought constantly with his superiors—though not in the straightforward manner of the pain-in-the-ass reporter in a newsroom. He served on CBS’s corporate board of directors and, despite everything, maintained a workable personal friendship with Paley. As is true of his successors at the pinnacle of television news today, he was one of the highest-paid people in the country. He lived in a Park Avenue apartment during the week and a Dutchess County estate on weekends. Somehow, it never impaired his connection with middle-class Americans that he was always impeccably turned out in elegant suits, suspenders, shirts with cufflinks, and (his everpresent and most vivid physical prop) a perfectly cupped cigarette.
Almost as soon as the Cold War began, with President Truman’s intervention on behalf of the antiCommunist regime in Greece, in 1947, CBS and, in particular, Murrow were struggling with the question of how to respond to the excesses of American antiCommunists. Murrow’s personal position was always clear—anti-Communist but, domestically, opposed to the antiCommunists of the Republican right—yet he was a public figure who was called upon to take stands, and in that regard he vacillated between boldness and caution. He had a falling out with William Shirer in 1947, after the shaving-cream company that sponsored Shirer’s regular radio broadcast pulled out and CBS killed the program. Shirer said that the sponsor had dropped him because he was too liberal, especially in questioning Truman’s support for the regime in Greece; he left CBS and for years didn’t speak to Murrow, whom he blamed for not protecting him. But after CBS’s correspondent in Greece, George Polk, was assassinated, in 1948, Murrow went on the air and criticized America’s ally in the dawning global struggle, by saying, “Greece is in the grip of politicians who are amazingly unwilling to serve anybody except themselves.” And when Senator McCarthy made his first sensational accusations, in early 1950, Murrow said on the air, “If the weight of the public testimony has tended to show that so far, Senator McCarthy’s charges are unproven, that is not my responsibility.”
Then Murrow seemed to pull back. In late 1950, he signed the CBS loyalty oath without evident protest, and he elected not to crusade against McCarthy, despite occasional entreaties from friends, during the next three years. It isn’t clear why Murrow held fire for as long as he did. He’d lost a sponsor, Campbell’s Soup, and that may have made him circumspect. Sperber’s view is that he was just weary and not in the mood for a fight. He had a master politician’s sense of timing, and he may have sensed that, with the war being fought in Korea, the moment wasn’t right for an attack on anti-Communism. Also, the political pressure on the broadcast networks, which during the New Deal came from the left, had moved to the right. Senator John Bricker, of Ohio, an ally of McCarthy’s, had proposed federal legislation to regulate the networks (then as now, individual stations were federally regulated, but not the networks themselves). Sponsors didn’t like political controversy, either; CBS had a business interest in trying to ride out the McCarthy period.
During the nineteen-forties, the networks, under an agreement they’d made with the F.C.C. called the Mayflower Doctrine, were prohibited from editorializing on the air. Murrow was always an opponent of that policy. During his time as an executive, he drafted and presented to Paley an alternative, in which broadcasters could express opinions and those who disagreed would be given the opportunity to respond on the air. In 1949, the F.C.C. rescinded the Mayflower Doctrine and replaced it with the Fairness Doctrine, which was similar to Murrow’s suggestion. It made more explicit the requirement that broadcasters air public-affairs programming, and lifted the ban on editorializing in exchange for a requirement to provide equal time to opposing views. (Just a few years earlier, the federal government had forced the breakup of NBC—that’s where ABC came from—so broadcasters had reason to take Washington’s wishes very seriously.) When, eventually, Murrow did take on McCarthy, it was the Fairness Doctrine that made it possible, and that mandated McCarthy’s disastrous reply.
The run-up to Murrow’s McCarthy broadcast began with a program in the fall of 1953 on Milo Radulovich, an Air Force Reserve lieutenan from Michigan who had been dismissed from the service because his father and sister had unspecified Communist affiliations. McCarthy himsel was not involved, but Murrow saw something in the case, which involved a blue-collar Midwestern immigrant’s son, rather than a tweedy-diplomat type like Alger Hiss. The broadcast led to the Air Force’s reversing its decision. In November of 1953, McCarthy’s menacing chie investigator, Donald Surine, buttonholed one of Murrow’s reporters, Joseph Wershba, in a Washington corridor, complained about th Radulovich program, and showed Wershba some news clips from the thirties about the Moscow Summer School, which Murrow had helped ru when he was with the Institute of International Education. This added a new note—a direct personal threat to Murrow that he’d better shut up, o McCarthy would take him down—and, along with the success of the Radulovich program, overcame any remaining hesitancy that Murrow ma have had about attacking McCarthy
By the time the first “See It Now” program on McCarthy aired, on March 9, 1954, McCarthy was past the height of his powers. Just a few weeks earlier, he had picked a fight with the Army, an overreach that led to his Waterloo, the Army-McCarthy hearings. At that point, the most powerful press baron in the country was Henry Luce, and his magazines had been intermittently critical of McCarthy for years. Of the major news organizations, only Hearst was ardently pro-McCarthy. (In the original McCarthy show, Murrow gestures to a large stack of leading newspapers—the Times, the Herald Tribune, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Chicago Tribune, and many more—that opposed McCarthy.) President Eisenhower, who had disappointed Murrow and other liberals by campaigning with McCarthy in 1952, made an unspecific speech about the importance of civil liberties in the fall of 1953. Murrow picked an opportune moment to strike; if he’d waited even two more months, it would have been difficult to present him now as the man who discredited McCarthy.
The broadcast itself, which was the first of four—two “See It Now”s on McCarthy, McCarthy’s reply, and Murrow’s reply-to-the-reply—uses the national disenchantment with McCarthy to full advantage. Murrow took pains to put onscreen McCarthy’s most plainspoken, all-American opponents, like Senator John McClellan, of Arkansas. Murrow’s other main weapon was McCarthy himself. The Senator was awful on-camera, and the program catches him scratching, pulling at his ear, gesticulating purposelessly, giggling, and fiddling with his hair. To see him in action is to understand instantly what was most chilling about him: he would accuse just about anybody (including, in his rebuttal, Murrow) of being a Communist, without offering any solid evidence. Murrow, on the other hand, spends the first program in a magnificent controlled fury, handsome and composed—an attitude all the more effective because the public knew that he could be genial and easygoing on-camera.
It is impossible to imagine the McCarthy broadcasts happening today. Although there is some dispute over whether Paley asked Murrow not to do the first show, everybody agrees that Murrow and his exuberant producer, Fred Friendly, decided to go ahead on their own, without asking anyone’s permission, and informed only Paley himself in advance, the day before it aired. But no problem: they got half an hour of prime time on a Tuesday night. The program ended with Murrow looking straight into the camera and saying, “The actions of the Junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad and given considerable comfort to our enemies.” He responded to McCarthy by saying that the American public would have to decide “who has served his country better, Senator McCarthy, or I.” (Newsweek ran a cover story not on McCarthy but on whether journalists should editorialize.) It was great television, because it was a showdown between a journalist and a politician, but the days when a major figure on network television can pick that kind of fight, and openly state political opinions on prime time, are long gone. Today, famous broadcast journalists are far more likely to battle each other than Washington officials. Murrow’s McCarthy shows make an absurdity of the modern-day conservative accusation that, say, Dan Rather represents the introduction of a heretofore unknown ideological strain into broadcast journalism. The Murrow broadcasts were far more nakedly political than anything on network television today, and came from a source with a much bigger share of—and more adoration from—the audience than anybody has now.
Although the forms of broadcast journalism on the McCarthy broadcasts are recognizable, the style, including Murrow’s intensity and earnestness, seems antiquated. Murrow and Friendly used long, long takes—four, five, six minutes of footage at a time, on a half-hour program—that feel as stately as a daguerreotype. Onscreen, Murrow was perfectly capable of being reverential, or amused, with powerful and celebrated people, as well as tough; what’s striking now is how unhip and unironic he was. For arts coverage, the DVD boxed set gives us Murrow interviewing Grandma Moses and Louis Armstrong—when the real story was Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk and the Abstract Expressionists. “Harvest of Shame,” the great “CBS Reports” documentary on migrant farmworkers, which represented Murrow’s last major appearance on television, is also impossible to imagine on network television today—one hour, the day after Thanksgiving, 1960, of horrifyingly unpleasant images of poverty and hunger—and its aesthetic is straight out of the socialist-realist Depression-era work of Dorothea Lange and Pare Lorentz and Russell Lee. It’s worth remembering that the first news star to outshine Murrow was not one of his CBS colleagues, the more neutral and calming Walter Cronkite, but the very young David Brinkley, of NBC, who created a sensation during the 1956 political Conventions with a dry-Martini on-air style meant to communicate that he found politicians and public affairs amusing. That was a note that Murrow could not strike. He wasn’t anti-authority, he was authority.
“Good Night, and Good Luck” begins and ends with another famous Murrow moment, a speech to the broadcasters’ trade-associati n convention in 1958 in which he blasted television for being frivolous and too timid. It was probably a conscious parting shot: the president f CBS, Frank Stanton, fired back (by telling th Times’ television critic that the questions on “Person to Person” were shown to guests in advance), and Murrow took a year’s leave of absence, returning to CBS only briefly before accepting a job from President Kennedy as director of the United States Information Agency—as, in effect, the chief propagandist for an American government he admired. We’re meant to think that Murrow’s dire predictions of television’s descent into profitable meaninglessness have come true.
But the outlines of his critique have been around since the dawn of American broadcasting. The best journalists, like Murrow, are often sentimentalists who subscribe to the great-man theory of history and see public affairs as a titanic struggle between heroes and villains. It shouldn’t be surprising that, half a century later, the standard answer among journalists to the problems Murrow saw in broadcasting is, in effect, “Bring back Murrow!” Nostalgia has even set in about the old press barons, whom journalists took pleasure in detesting back in Murrow’s day—better to have a Paley or a Luce, or even a William Randolph Hearst or a Roy Howard, calling the shots than hedge-fund managers. The formula is a kind of romantic dream: larger-than-life news heroes, backed by public-spirited owners whose primary consideration is not profit.
The better way to insure good results, in any realm of society, is to set up a structure that encourages them; we can’t rely on heroes coming along to rescue journalism. The structure that encouraged Murrow, uncomfortable as it may be to admit, was federal regulation of broadcasting. CBS, in Murrow’s heyday, felt that its prosperity, even its survival, depended on demonstrating to Washington its deep commitment to public affairs. The price of not doing so could be regulation, breakup, the loss of a part of the spectrum, or license revocation. Those dire possibilities would cause a corporation to err on the side of too much “See It Now” and “CBS Reports.” In parts of the speech which aren’t in the movie, Murrow made it clear that the main pressure on broadcasting to do what he considered the right thing came from the F.C.C. The idea that, in taking on McCarthy, Murrow was “standing up to government” greatly oversimplifies the issue. He was able to stand up to a Senate committee chairman because a federal regulatory agency had pushed CBS and other broadcasters to organize themselves so that Murrow’s doing so was possible.
It isn’t possible anymore—not because timid people have risen to power in journalism but because the government, in steady increments over the past generation, has deregulated broadcasting. The Fairness Doctrine no longer exists. Regulation, license revocation, or reallocation of the spectrum are no longer meaningful possibilities. The advent of cable television brought a new round of debates over government-mandated public-affairs programming, with the result that private companies were granted valuable monopoly franchises in local markets; in return, they were required only to provide channels for public affairs, not to create programming. That’s why cable is home to super-low-cost varieties of broadcast news, such as C-SPAN, local publicaccess channels, and national cable-news shout-fests, rather than to reincarnations of the elaborately reported Murrow shows from the fifties. The rise of public broadcasting has freed the networks to be even more commercial.
On network television, no news star would openly disavow Murrow’s legacy. The standard today is to have smart, competent, physically magnetic people who do straight news gravely and celebrity interviews empathetically, and who occasionally, strategically, display moral passion and then retreat, as Anderson Cooper, of CNN, did during Hurricane Katrina. Everyone suspects them of being lightweights when they first ascend, and then, when they retire, wonders if we’ll ever see their like again. If being in the Murrow mold entails occasionally editorializing on the air, and letting it be known that you aren’t getting along very well with your superiors, there are only a very few Murrow legatees—Ted Koppel and Bill Moyers come to mind, and they’ve left network television.
News that makes money is alive and well; the incentive to present news that doesn’t, like all of Murrow’s great work, is gone. It is difficult for journalists to grapple with the idea that outside pressure—from government officials!—could have been responsible for the creation of the superior and memor-able journalism whose passing we all mourn. But look what has happened since it went away.
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