Monday, April 28, 2008

Murrow at 100

Edward R. Murrow, 1908-1965 (CBS photo)

Over the years, some towering figures have passed through the CBS Broadcast Center on West 57th Street in New York City. The list reads like a veritable who's-who of broadcast journalism; Walter Cronkite, Mike Wallace, Dan Rather, Charles Kuralt, Harry Reasoner, Howard K. Smith, Morley Safer, Ed Bradley, and yes, Katie Couric, are among those who've anchored programs from the broadcast home of CBS News.

But one figure still towers above them all, forty-three years after his death. In the lobby of the network broadcast complex, there is a plaque honoring Edward R. Murrow, the legendary reporter who might be (rightly) described as the progenitor of broadcast journalism. The plaque's inscription says as much: "His imprint on broadcasting will be felt for all time to come."

This month marks the 100th anniversary of Murrow's birth. To mark the occasion, CBS News has posted a glowing tribute on its website, along with clips from his most famous broadcasts. It's a timely and relevant tribute; five decades after his passing, Murrow remains the gold standard for broadcast news, a man who covered the most important events of the 20th Century and set the professional bar for those who followed.

And what a career it was. Murrow joined CBS in the mid-1930s as "Director of Talks," arranging for newsmakers to appear on the network's radio broadcasts. In that capacity, Murrow did not speak on the air, but the former Washington State speech major was intrigued by the medium and its possibilities. He sought broadcasting tips from another CBS legend, Robert Trout, who was the primary voice of the network's newscasts in the 1930s.

Murrow got his break as a broadcaster in March 1938. Working as director of CBS's European Division, he received a call from the network's recently-hired Vienna correspondent, William L. Shirer. Hitler's annexation of Austria, the Anschluss, was underway. Shirer had an eyewitness account, but with the Nazis in control of Vienna's broadcasting facilities, he couldn't put the report on the air.

As CBS's senior executive in Europe, Murrow quickly arranged for a charter flight to London, where he provided a dramatic description of the German occupation. Shirer's temporary replacement in Vienna? None other than Ed Murrow. On 13 March, at the height of the crisis, Murrow organized a revolutionary broadcast, providing live reaction to events in Austria from the United States and European capitals. The program was a sensation; radio audiences, accustomed to announcers reading news copy in a studio, now listened as history unfolded over the airwaves. Over the months that followed, Murrow and Shirer led CBS's coverage of events in Europe, as the continent rushed toward war.

Murrow was in London when World War II began and remained there for the next two years, a period that included the worst of the German Blitz. If the Anschluss established his reputation, then Germany's bombing campaign against British cities made him a star. Murrow's calm, commanding voice and the signature opening for his reports: " London," became a part of broadcast lore.

After the war, Murrow moved slowly (and reluctantly) into television, convinced that the new medium was only a fad. While devoting much of his time to radio, Murrow began producing and hosting a series of landmark documentaries for CBS in the 1950s, under the banner "See It Now." His most famous broadcast aired on 9 March 1954, offering the first serious examination of Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Fifty-four years later, Murrow is widely credited as being the first public figure to speak out against McCarthy and his "Red Scare." But that is incorrect; others spoke out well before the CBS journalist, but none had the advantage of a prime-time television slot and millions of loyal viewers.

The brilliance of Murrow's report can be found in its composition and editing. Murrow and producer Fred Friendly turned McCarthy's words against him, highlight the obvious fabrications and distortions in the Senator's accusations. McCarthy's shambling response, delivered three weeks later, sealed his public fate.

Still, there are noticeable flaws in the documentary. Today, thanks to declassified intelligence reports and access to the Soviet archives, we know that there were communist spies in the U.S. government. Murrow's report largely ignores that possibility, concentrating (instead) on the obvious and easy target of Joe McCarthy. As the New Yorker's TV critic later observed, there was nothing particularly remarkable about that accomplishment. Anyone with a TV camera and thousands of feet of film on McCarthy could easily prove the senator was a blowhard and buffoon.

So why did Murrow ignore McCarthy's over-arching charge? As Ann Coulter suggested in Human Events, the reason may lie in an event that happened six years earlier. In 1948, a long-time friend of Murrow, former State Department official Lawrence Duggan, fell to his death from the window of his Manhattan office. Duggan's death, described as a suicide, came only 10 days after he was questioned by the FBI about his role in a communist spy ring. For many years, Duggan's friends and family--a group that included Ed Murrow--lionized him as an early victim of the Red Scare.

But information from Moscow's intelligence archives, released in the early 1990s, confirms that Duggan was a Soviet agent, providing sensitive diplomatic information to his handlers. In fact, Mr. Duggan was considered such an important spy that the Russians ordered the murder of at least one defector, to protect their mole in the State Department.

While such information was unknown outside counter-intelligence circles, Murrow had easy access to the highest levels of American government. President Eisenhower was a friend, as were numerous cabinet and other senior-level government officials. With those contacts--and a little digging--Murrow might have discovered substantiation for McCarthy's charges and produced a more revelatory film. But apparently, he had other designs for that episode of "See It Now."

In some respects, the McCarthy documentary represented Murrow's high-water mark at CBS. Bowing to commercial pressures, See It Now ended as a weekly series in 1955 and by decade's end, the documentary franchise aired infrequently. That led to a well-publicized dust-up between the journalist and CBS founder William S. Paley. Murrow left the network in 1960, accepting President Kennedy's offer to run the U.S. Information Agency. He resigned after JFK's assassination and was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1964, the product of years of heavy smoking. He died the following year.

With his passing, Murrow moved quickly into the pantheon of journalism, making it even more difficult to separate the man from the myth. His reputation has been further burnished over the years and more recent books on the man and his life are little more than hagiography. For our money, two of the best studies are an early biography of Murrow, written by his former colleague, Alexander Kendrick, and Air Time, an unofficial history of CBS News, published by Gary Paul Gates in 1978.

The Murrow that emerges in the pages of those book is certainly a man worthy of admiration--even adulation. But Kendrick and Gates also depict a man with human faults that have been largely forgotten amid efforts to canonize the founding father of broadcast journalism.

Indeed, if Murrow deserves credit for setting high standards for broadcast news, then he also gets a share of the blame for its less attractive aspects. As a student of drama and speech, he understood the importance of tone and inflection in his voice, creating a degree of excitement in his live reports. He actually consulted with a former professor on the "right" introduction for his early World War II reports, decided that the pause in " London" would add a theatrical flourish. In that sense, local TV reporters who breathlessly relay details of a local brush fire, are merely following in the footsteps of the CBS legend.

Murrow's lofty ideals were also tempered by a populist streak and a willingness to make a buck. Long before Gerald Rivera peered into Al Capone's vault, Murrow hosted TV's first prime-time documentary on UFOs, presenting a strong case for the existence of flying saucers.

He also played a leading role in bringing celebrity journalism to television. During the 1950s, he hosted a weekly celebrity interview series called Person to Person. It wasn't The Insider or Larry King Live, but it was a far cry from See It Now. When a colleague accused him of whoring, Gates writes, Murrow smiled and replied, "Yes, but look at all those voyeurs."

Murrow also tried to justify his participation in the chat-fest by saying he did the program to "help his writers pick up a little change." But, as Mr. Gates revealed in Air Time, Murrow later sold the program rights back to CBS for $1 million--a fortune in those days.

He was also concerned--some might say preoccupied--with the appearance and image of his reporters, decades before "consultant" became a dirty word in TV newsrooms. Charles Collingwood, one of the original correspondents hired by Murrow, quickly learned that his boss put a premium on well-dressed correspondents--something that almost cost Collingwood a job at CBS.

Years after he joined the network, Collingwood learned--from Murrow himself--that the great man had reservations about hiring the young journalist. Murrow didn't question Collingwood's academic qualifications (he had been a Rhodes Scholar), or his reporting skills; rather it was those "God-awful argyle socks" that the applicant wore to his CBS interview. More amazingly, Charles Collingwood was anything but a rumpled reporter. He had a well-deserved reputation as a dapper and urbane man during his long stint at CBS' London bureau.

While many hailed him as a thoughtful and generous man, Murrow was also capable of casting aside friends and co-workers, when it suited his purpose. In 1947, his friendship with William L. Shirer suddenly ended, reportedly over Murrow's refusal to find a new sponsor for the correspondent's Sunday news program. Without advertisers, Shirer saw a substantial reduction in income, since part of his compensation package was based on the program's commercial fees. Shirer left CBS a short time later and struggled for years, until publication of his epic Rise and Fall of the Third Reich in 1960. Murrow made no effort to repair the breech until 1964, after his cancer diagnosis. Shirer rebuffed Murrow's overtures.

Such anecdotes remind us that Edward R. Murrow was human, given to many of the same traits and weaknesses that afflict us all. He created a profession and set demanding standards for that craft, but sometimes fell short of those ideals. There is certainly no shame in that, and it does not diminish his reputation. If anything, the subsequent trials of broadcast news suggest that Murrow's heirs have missed his mark by an even wider margin.


lgude said...

Nicely balanced piece. I'm a great admirer of Murrow and believe he was right that the difference between radio and TV was significant. Obviously he was wrong about TV being a fad. TV in general and TV news in particular is even more dramatic than radio because the picture portion of the medium drives and dominates it transforming the content from factual reporting to theater. The truth is no longer out there in the world to be reported on - it is whatever the picture is. As a very small boy I listened to Murrow at my father's knee and understood he was out there somewhere reporting facts about what was happening in London. Now we think we are experiencing the facts in the footage while the narrator describes them when what we are actually experiencing is an edited dramatic presentation. As the Eagles put - "it's the same old murder movie - we just call it the news.

Brj said...

Enjoyed your Murrow piece. Here's another from the blogoshere: