Commentary Magazine


Murrow: His Life and Times, by A.M. Sperber

“Some” of the News

Murrow: His Life and Times.
by A.M. Sperber.
Freundlich Books. 816 pp. $22.95.

Television news leaves few clear traces in our collective memory. (Ask a baby boomer to identify Eric Sevareid.) So it is rather remarkable that anyone below the age of fifty should remember Edward R. Murrow at all, that his reputation should be more than just a dusty piece of trivia known only to World War II buffs and lovers of 50's nostalgia. Yet Murrow is still remembered as a touchstone of journalistic integrity—although not so much for his reportorial achievements as for the events which led to his departure from CBS in 1960, a departure whose subsequent conversion into TV legend made Murrow a kind of god of the liberal media.

Not that good reasons are lacking to remember Murrow the reporter. His radio broadcasts during the Battle of Britain and his See It Now television report on Senator Joseph McCarthy influenced public opinion in such a way as to have had a lasting effect on the historical record. But it is the Murrow myth that has stayed with us, and this myth is to a great extent the subject matter of A. M. Sperber's new book, Murrow: His Life and Times, the second full-length Murrow biography to appear since the broadcaster's death in 1965.

Edward R. Murrow, so the myth goes, was a journalist of truth all compact and the first television reporter to speak out about the evils of McCarthyism. (In more extreme versions of the myth, Murrow was the first journalist in America to stand up to the Senator.) These efforts brought McCarthy low, thus proving that you can't fool all of the people all of the time. Murrow's unflinching honesty, however, resulted in the cancellation of See It Now and the ultimate purging of Murrow from CBS by corporate blackguards, thus proving television to be a hopelessly corrupt tool of the capitalists.

The interesting thing about this myth is not the percentage of truth in it (which is surprisingly high, as these things go) but the remarkable degree to which it has taken root in the folklore of television. Apologists for the news division of CBS constantly indulge in noxious cant about the “Murrow tradition.” David Halberstam, in The Powers That Be, called Murrow “one of those rare legendary figures who was as good as his myth.” When HBO recently produced a “docudrama” about Murrow, it chose Daniel J. Travanti, the actor who plays the saintly Captain Furillo on NBC's popular dramatic program Hill Street Blues, to be Murrow; even more revealingly, it chose Dabney Coleman, Hollywood's principal specialist in the reenactment of corporate villainy, to play William S. Paley, the chairman of the board of CBS. Such unanimity is invariably to be distrusted, especially when its object is a journalist, and unfortunately Murrow: His Life and Times does little to redress the balance.

Considered solely as a compilation of raw material, Murrow: His Life and Times is quite valuable. Like most of today's biographers, A.M. Sperber knows how to dig, and the documents are here in abundance. Murrow's widow has provided unrestricted access to previously unavailable private papers; all the relevant archives have been meticulously mined; judicious application of the Freedom of Information Act has forced the government to disgorge an assortment of FBI files pertaining to Murrow, most of them dating from the height of the McCarthy period. If a successful biography is the sum total of its primary sources, then this book is a major effort indeed.

Murrow: His Life and Times is certainly an improvement on Alexander Kendrick's 1969 biography, Prime Time: The Life of Edward R. Murrow, but to say this is merely to emphasize the gross inadequacies of Kendrick's book. Miss Sperber is a poor stylist, with no gift whatsoever for clear, orderly narrative. Her tone is gratingly and consistently informal, full of the kind of vulgar novelistic license that one thought had gone out with Gay Talese:

Wershba saw his boss glance up at him with an oddly sheepish smile, almost embarrassed. He had not been looking good that night when the reporter sought him put after the evening news: rather pallid, obviously going through another one of his heavy colds. . . . Watching Murrow's retreating back, with its familiar hunch, the young reporter felt suddenly sorry for him.

Worst of all, this overweight book is a prime specimen of the New Hagiography, which gives with one hand and pretends to take with the other. (“If Murrow in his broadcasting career understood the American public, therefore, it was because he was of it—sometimes leading, sometimes merely reflecting, typical at all times of that public in its most, and occasionally less, admirable moments.”) A few anonymous quotations hinting at ruthless opportunism and a light sprinkling of extramarital dirt are all Miss Sperber has to set in the balance against hundreds of pages of clumsy, adoring prose.

For all of its deficiencies, however, it is possible to derive from this book some sense of the questions raised by the real career of the real Edward R. Murrow, questions which lie at the heart of the current debate over the role of television news in American public life. Murrow may not have been a spotless paragon of journalistic virtue, but he was certainly an able and influential figure whose pioneering work in television has had a great deal to do with the way the major networks cover the news today. His career is therefore worth a closer look, and this, despite its serious weaknesses, Murrow: His Life and Times does provide.

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Born in North Carolina in 1908, Egbert Roscoe Murrow (the “Egbert Roscoe” gave way to “Edward R.” shortly after he left home) grew up in the Puget Sound region of Washington, working in logging camps every summer and studying elocution and debate in high school. He graduated from Washington State College in 1930 with a B.A. in speech and, after five years spent kicking around the prewar equivalent of the foundation circuit, went to work for the Columbia Broadcasting System.

The American public first became aware of Edward R. Murrow as a result of his rooftop coverage of the Battle of Britain on the CBS program London After Dark, broadcast live from London but heard in the United States during prime time. His reports, which usually began with the words “This . . . is London,” were and are remembered not so much for their content as for their style. The words themselves were direct, even commonplace:

I'm standing again tonight on a rooftop looking out over London, feeling rather large and lonesome. In the course of the last fifteen or twenty minutes there's been considerable action up there, but at the moment there's an ominous silence hanging over London. . . . I can see one or two bursts of anti-aircraft fire far in the distance. Just on the roof across the way I can see a man wearing a tin hat, a pair of powerful night glasses to his eyes, scanning the sky.

But Murrow's dark, grainy baritone and deceptively casual delivery charged his plain journalist's prose with an almost musical intensity, as a comparison of his published scripts with airchecks of the original CBS broadcasts makes abundantly clear, and he soon became one of the best-known radio personalities in America.

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What Murrow did on London After Dark was not exactly straight reporting, but it did fit into a recognized radio category, that of news analysis. In 1921, H.V. Kaltenborn, then associate editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, had begun to broadcast half-hour talks on world affairs over New York's WEAF. Four years after the establishment of network radio in 1926, Kalten-born was hired by the fledgling Columbia Broadcasting System to broadcast once a week on current events. With the approach of war in Europe, the networks began to devote larger amounts of air time to commentary by journalists like Kaltenborn, Quincy Howe, and Raymond Gram Swing, who soon became popular figures in their own right.

As CBS and NBC began to assemble news departments of their own, certain restrictions were placed on their commentators, who had come to be known as “news analysts.” Ed Klauber, who organized the news division of CBS, distinguished “analysis” from explicit editorializing:

What news analysts are entitled to do and should do is to elucidate and illuminate the news out of common knowledge, or special knowledge possessed by them or made available to them by this organization through its sources. They should point out the facts on both sides, show contradictions with the known record, and so on. They should bear in mind that in a democracy it is important that people not only should know but should understand, and it is the analyst's function to help the listener to understand, to weigh, and to judge, but not to do the judging for him.

Edward R. Murrow's prewar broadcasts stretched these limits to the breaking point. Though his words were carefully balanced, their effect on American listeners was another matter altogether. (“You burned the city of London in our houses and we felt the flames that burned it,” Archibald MacLeish said in a 1941 tribute to Murrow. “You laid the dead of London at our doors and we knew the dead were our dead—were all men's dead—were mankind's dead—and ours.”) Whatever was potentially controversial about Murrow, however, was temporarily obscured by America's entry into the war. His famous description of a bombing run over Berlin was a classic example of radio journalism at its most personal and effective. And his April 15, 1945 broadcast describing the liberation of Buchenwald brought the horrors of the death camps home to the average American for the first time:

As I walked down to the end of the barracks, there was applause from the men too weak to get out of bed. It sounded like the hand-clapping of babies. . . . As we walked out into the courtyard, a man fell dead. Two others—they must have been over sixty—were crawling toward the latrine. I saw it but will not describe it. . . . As I left that camp, a Frenchman who used to work for Havas in Paris came up to me and said, “You will write something about this, perhaps?” And he added, “To write about this you must have been here at least two years, and after that—you don't want to write any more.”

After a brief and ineffectual postwar stint as CBS's vice president and director of public affairs, Murrow returned to the air in 1947 as anchorman of Edward R. Murrow with the News, the network's showcase evening news program and one which he would anchor without interruption for the next twelve years. On the first broadcast, Murrow read aloud a labyrinthine section of the contract which defined the function of a news analyst. (“News periods therefore should be devoted to giving the facts emanating from an established news-gathering source, to giving all the color in the proper sense of the word, and interest, without intruding the views of the analyst.”) Then he explained it to his listeners:

Now that's pretty complicated language, the kind that lawyers like to write. My own interpretation of it is that this program is not a place where personal opinion should be mixed up with ascertainable facts. We shall do our best to identify sources and to resist the temptation to use this microphone as a privileged platform from which to advocate action.

Contract or no contract, Edward R. Murrow with the News invariably closed with a commentary on the events of the day in which Murrow's own moderate-to-liberal personal opinions were aired with an explicitness that frequently terrified CBS executives and the program's various sponsors.

_____________

The year 1951 saw Murrow venture into the new medium of television for the first time with See It Now, a weekly documentary series in which the ambiguous boundaries of “news analysis” were at long last both defined and abandoned—an undertaking which ultimately led to Murrow's untimely departure from CBS News.

“This is an old team trying to learn a new trade,” Murrow said in introducing the very first See It Now, broadcast live from the control room of CBS's Studio 41 on November 18, 1951. The new trade was television, and it took the old team two seasons to figure out how to put together “a Life magazine of the air,” as producer Fred Friendly described his original concept for See It Now. Murrow and Friendly were developing the grammar and syntax of present-day television news step by step, in full view of the public, one show at a time. As Miss Sperber writes:

They were dogged by blackouts, loss of picture on remotes, technical failures of all kinds, and in one case a complete breakdown that left Murrow ad-libbing on camera without a show. . . . It was part of the program's Rube Goldberg invent-it-as-you-go amalgam of film, sound tape, and live TV, concocted in the pressure cooker of the Sunday deadline.

But the show immediately attracted favorable attention, winning an Emmy in 1952 as “best public-affairs program.” And the American public soon discovered that Ed Murrow was as effective on television as he was on radio. A chain smoker, Murrow broadcast from Studio 41 in a haze of cigarette smoke, slender and debonair in pinstriped suits, his saturnine good looks a perfect match for the unforgettable voice of the London rooftops.

Recognizing his potential as a television star, CBS soon scheduled a program called Person to Person in which Murrow interviewed celebrity guests in their homes via a television hookup. With See It Now appearing on Tuesday nights and Person to Person on Fridays, Murrow's public exposure was formidable, so much so that when the network logo appeared on screen after each See It Now broadcast, a photograph of him was superimposed on the iris of the CBS eye.

The close identification of Murrow and CBS, however, was deceptive. For See It Now was produced independently of the rest of CBS's news operation, with Murrow and Friendly ultimately responsible only to Paley. Murrow's immense prestige at the network (he was at the time a board member of CBS) made this arrangement possible. Television was still young, and there was no reason to think that the illustrious star of Person to Person would bring anything but glory to the stockholders of CBS. But the independence of the Murrow-Friendly unit was a time bomb, and in the 1953-54 season it finally exploded.

_____________

Having spent their first two seasons figuring out how to do weekly live documentaries with a minimum of technical problems, Murrow and Friendly gradually began to move away from the comparatively benign subject matter of the early See It Now broadcasts in favor of an occasional dose of stronger medicine. They began with “The Case Against Milo Radulovich, A0589839,” a profile of an Air Force lieutenant from Michigan who was discharged from the reserves as a security risk not for any transgressions of his own but because of the alleged radical connections of his father and sister. Murrow's closing comments, read in a tightly controlled voice, moved dangerously close to the far side of analysis:

We believe that “the son shall not bear the iniquity of the father,” even though that iniquity be proved beyond all doubt, which in this case it was not. . . . Whatever happens in this whole area of the relationship between the individual and the state, we will do it ourselves. It cannot be blamed upon Malenkov, Mao Tse-Tung, or even our allies. And it seems to us—that is, to Fred Friendly and myself—that this is a subject that should be argued about endlessly.

The success of “The Case Against Milo Radulovich, A0589839” (the Secretary of the Air Force went on See It Now a month later to announce Radulovich's reinstatement) led to a series of broadcasts dealing with various aspects of what Murrow called “the retreat into unreasoning fear that seems to be part of the climate in which we live.” The most celebrated of these was “A Report on Senator Joseph R. McCarthy,” which Miss Sperber correctly describes as “a virtual half-hour editorial ending in a call to action, the final step from TV news purveyor to TV activist, with all that that implied.” Murrow's closing remarks on this broadcast left Ed Klauber's pristine definition of “news analysis” far behind:

This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy's methods to keep silent, or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. . . . We proclaim ourselves—as indeed we are—the defenders of freedom, what's left of it, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home. The actions of the junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad and given considerable comfort to our enemies. . . .

Up to this point, the editorial independence of the See It Now unit had remained unquestioned. No executive at CBS viewed the Radulovich or McCarthy broadcasts prior to airtime. But with “A Report on Senator Joseph R. McCarthy,” Murrow had taken the network farther than even his enormous popularity could justify. See It Now lost its sponsor in 1955, CBS removed it from the regular prime-time schedule later that year, and Murrow's television appearances became fewer and farther between.

After a long and bitter struggle with network executives, See It Now was finally canceled outright in 1958. No CBS newscast with a comparable degree of editorial freedom would ever take its place. Earlier that year Murrow had deliberately goaded the executives of CBS with a widely publicized speech in which he accused the networks of “decadence, escapism, and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live.” He went on a year-long sabbatical in 1959 and retired permanently from broadcasting—at the age of fifty-two—to become director of the United States Information Agency.

_____________

After Edward R. Murrow's death from lung cancer in 1965, National Review, referring to See It Now, called him “the father of a dangerous art form.” CBS's Harry Reasoner, by contrast, has argued that largely thanks to Murrow's influence, network news

would be responsible, serious sometimes to the point of pompousness and portentousness, and absolutely independent of the influence of the advertisers whose purchases supported it. . . . The correspondent, the face the people saw and the voice they heard, would be not only the central figure to the audience but a figure of substantial influence in what he was asked to do and how he would do it.

These estimates of Murrow's influence, though suggestive, are ultimately irrelevant. The truth is that Murrow's individual approach to broadcast journalism has been ignored for years by the network news divisions, as Fred Friendly pointed out nearly two decades ago in his memoir, Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control. What, then, is responsible for the excesses of opinion and failures of objectivity that enrage right-wing critics of the medium? Could it, paradoxically, have something to do with television's failure to editorialize?

During the mid-50's CBS News put its major production efforts into Douglas Edwards's fifteen-minute nightly newscast. Background coverage and news analysis were left to See It Now, which appeared every week and was put together on short deadlines. Murrow made it perfectly clear on the air that See It Now reflected the opinions of its editors rather than the network. (“And it seems to us—that is, to Fred Friendly and myself—that this is a subject that should be argued about endlessly.”) Nor was there ever any question about what Murrow and Friendly were up to in programs like “A Report on Senator Joseph R. McCarthy” or “The Case Against Milo Radulovich, A0589839.” See It Now took full responsibility for its editorializing and offered equal time to its victims.

The model for network news coverage implied by this arrangement was the radio tradition of news analysis in which Murrow had grown up. “It was the individualist assertion of the radio commentator on TV,” Miss Sperber says of the Radulovich episode of See It Now, “the single focus of responsibility, in contrast with the composite, more diffuse image already characterizing network television.”

But the situation has changed greatly since 1954. Signed commentary on TV has for all intents and purposes vanished from two out of the three network evening newscasts. Prime-time documentary specials are a thing of the distant past, regularly scheduled prime-time documentary series a thing of the forgotten past. The production techniques so painstakingly developed by Murrow and Friendly have been watered down by former See It Now director Don Hewitt into the quasi-entertainment format of shows like 60 Minutes and West 57th. When television news editorializes today, it does so in the guise of reporting the news “objectively.” Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, and Tom Brokaw do not deliver commentary at the end of their nightly newscasts; instead, their opinions are imposed on the news, without the responsibility that signed commentary implies.

_____________

On March 8, 1950, Ed Murrow led off his radio newscast by saying “This is some of the news.” He explained this departure from standard procedure in his regular closing commentary:

We are especially grateful for the friendly communication from an obviously learned gentleman who offers a sound suggestion. He writes, “Many people who like to listen to you are nettled by your announcement ‘This is the news.’ . . . What would you think of graciously surprising us by saying once in a while, ‘This is some of the news,’ thereby suggesting that you do not know everything and are not reporting all the cosmic facts of the universe?” This is certainly sound advice. This has been my effort to follow it, and this has been, as usual, some of the news.

This anecdote suggests the truth beneath the more florid encrustations of the Murrow myth. Edward R. Murrow, for all his failures of objectivity, had the courage both to admit those failures and to compound them by accepting the responsibility of broadcasting regular signed commentary. Today's broadcast journalists, cloaked in the mantle of false objectivity that drapes the airwaves of America at the dinner hour, do not. The distinction is no small one.

Television news today would no doubt still be biased even if William S. Paley had listened to Murrow and Friendly back in 1958. (Bias is the original sin of electronic journalism.) But at least the networks would be more accountable for their points of view—and possibly more open to viewer pressure to provide forums for other editorial viewpoints as well. Would the world end if Messrs. Jennings, Brokaw, and Rather took the trouble to admit that they were in the business of broadcasting some of the news? Rest assured, we will probably never know.

About the Author

Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street JournalSatchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, runs through November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.




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