Edward R. Murrow: the Great American Reporter

Cover of Edward R. Murrow: His Life And Times

Edward R. Murrow: the Great American Reporter

Book Review: Murrow: His Life And Times; A.M. Sperber

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review Editor

On January 21, 1950, a former State Department official and Carnegie Endowment director named Alger Hiss, long the subject of Congressional inquiry over his alleged spying, was convicted of perjury—by some historical lights setting the tone and hue for the decade that would follow. The infamous televised confrontations between Hiss, the young California congressman Richard Nixon, and the writer Whittaker Chambers had made for dramatic headlines and TV, but the affair had been very ugly. Bitterness—on both sides—about the treatment of the two antagonists, Hiss and Chambers, lasted for decades. Though it was never conclusively proven that Hiss had been a communist (Hiss himself never admitted to spying for the Soviet Union), anti-communism had become a potent element in the political and social fabric, and Americans of the 1950s came to understand—rationally or irrationally—that there may be communists and fellow travelers among them, perhaps even in the hallowed marble halls of government. Alger Hiss went to jail, and Richard Nixon’s career trajectory was set in motion, thanks in part to the power of television—still in its infancy—to capture the drama.

A few weeks after Hiss was sentenced, the junior U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, then almost entirely unknown outside of the Badger State, gave a short speech to a crowd in Wheeling, West Virginia, and in his remarks—almost as an aside—he mentioned that he had in his possession a list which purported to contain the names of communists or former communists currently employed by the U.S. State Department and other key agencies. Within a few days, his claim—which proved to be tenaciously vague—became the spark which ignited a firestorm bigger even than the Hiss-Chambers affair.

McCarthy had a knack for the theatrical, and was known for spending time palling around with several newspaper reporters close to him. The gathering had been small in Wheeling, but he soon repeated the claims to much larger crowds in Reno and Salt Lake City, and as expected, the headlines grew larger. McCarthy remained oblique about the names of communists, but what quickly became clear was his intention to make this self-created brouhaha into something larger. Some reporters, hungry for more of the same drama and intrigue sparked by the Hiss-Chambers affair, went along for the ride.

The “list” itself became controversial (and eventually infamous) for its illusiveness, but McCarthy had set in motion a domestic war of words and accusations which would further divide many in the political and cultural establishments. McCarthy’s personal problems—deep, relentless narcissism; manic depression; alcoholism—would eventually contribute to his unraveling and his departure from politics, but at the time many reporters were drawn almost inescapably toward the conflagration, a high stakes gambit now thrust into the national conversation. The era of McCarthyism was just beginning.

Watching the tempest gain steam was an already well-known reporter, Edward R. Murrow.

Murrow had been thrust into the national consciousness as a young journalist when, in early September of 1940, the German military had begun its fearful air attacks on London, sending waves of heavy bombers and fighters across the English Channel to wreak havoc on the ports, docks, industrial centers and even densely packed civilian areas. Over 600 Luftwaffe bombers had been used on the first and second nights alone. Murrow, a correspondent for CBS, reporting from England to Americans listening on radio back home, delivered vivid, wrenching and literate accounts of the horrors that Londoners faced each night. One thing Murrow could not be fairly accused of was timidity or cowardice.

Years after the war, by the time Joseph McCarthy’s crusade loomed large in the American political processes and in the newspaper headlines, Murrow—chiseled with lines but ruggedly handsome and with a voice as evocatively American as the sounds of wagon wheels on a frontier trail—was already a household name. It seemed even then that a confrontation must occur between the two men of such divergent styles and tones.

Murrow was arguably the most important journalist of the 20th Century, rising to the top his profession first in radio during its golden age, then, ascending to the top of the pyramid of television while the medium was still in its infancy. A.M. Sperber’s Murrow: His Life and Times is the definitive biography of the North Carolinian of Quaker stock who, by the mid-1950s had practically single-handedly established the journalistic canons of television news, crafting the template which others would follow for decades—Howard K. Smith, Walter Cronkite, Eric Sevareid, Bob Trout, Don Hollenbeck, David Brinkley, Chet Huntley, Frank Reynolds, John Chancellor and others.

Further, Murrow’s invention of the form—often through collaboration with producer and early TV pioneer Fred Friendly—cast a long influence which would shape even the careers of reporters and producers whose rise to national attention came long after Murrow’s death: Don Hewitt, Ed Bradley, Dan Rather, Bob Schieffer, Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, Leslie Stahl, Diane Sawyer, Mike Wallace.

Sperber’s massive book (not including the extensive notes, bibliography and citations it runs over 700 pages) is monumental and thorough, leaving few gaps in the long professional life of Murrow. Though the sheer size of the biography may intimidate some readers, Sperber’s story-telling style easily disarms such fears. Using the perspectives and memories of hundreds of direct sources, her writing still manages to move us quickly and comfortably through Murrow’s rich life.

Murrow came to CBS radio in the early 1930s and made it his permanent professional home. In Europe, as talk of war was gaining momentum, he and his American colleagues—William Shirer, Bob Trout and others who were known during the war as "Murrow's Boys"—had seen first-hand Hitler’s audacious bullying of Germany’s neighbors, including the annexation of Austria, and Murrow had reported live from Vienna in what amounted to the first-ever template for a live broadcast using all technologies available at the time. Though primitive by today’s high-tech and glitzy standards, Murrow’s broadcasts were dramatic and powerful. Later, in London, after war broke out across Europe and the Nazi’s swept into neighboring countries, Murrow’s reports from the besieged London during the Blitz raised the bar even higher. The signature audio bumper and signoff heard even today on CBS (This...is CBS) was the invention of Murrow, who had developed the unique inflection for the start and close of his live broadcasts during the bombings—“this…is London.”

Sperber’s book tells the story of Murrow’s rise to prominence in the national consciousness, and the reporting canons he developed with the backing of the top brass at CBS, including the support of the indomitable William S. Paley, a pioneer in the electronic mediums. During the war years, Murrow and his colleagues back at CBS in New York established the gold standard for intelligent journalism. With Murrow acting as unofficial dean, the CBS campus of correspondents included names of reporters—through most died many years ago—still revered to this day: Bob Trout, Charles Collingwood, Richard C. Hottelet, Charles Shaw, and others.

By the time of his return to New York after the war, Murrow was an institution within CBS, and though he lived modestly, he had become one of the highest paid journalists of his day. Stepping into the unknown arena of television—still regarded as a novelty by many in the journalism community—Murrow brought with him the same reporting standards he had insisted upon as a radio correspondent. Here we find Murrow working at the height of his career, developing a literate, unblinking criteria for television journalism at a time when there were only a few thousand TV sets in most large cities, but prodded forward by the visionary Paley and the innovative Friendly. Murrow’s trophy would be his See It Now, a radical and experimental venue for its time, and a program which, despite its occasional technical problems, brought into play broadcast devices now familiar and routine: the “anchor,” multiple locations (live or taped), multiple screen images of reporters in the field, interactive conversation between talking heads, and direct interviews with well-known people. Though the show seems mild by today’s pro wrestling standards of TV combat, See It Now had—for the 1950s—an edge about it, flirting occasionally with confrontation and challenge, but always in Murrow’s familiar gentlemanly style.

As Sperber takes us through the complex and rarified inner world of CBS (and occasionally its closest competitor, NBC), where the professional social order and the office politics could be brutal, we watch as Murrow navigates the harshly competitive waters through increasingly shark-infested conditions. Still, by the force of his personality and reputation Murrow had, by the early Fifties, largely established his own shop.

Against the backdrop of the Korean War McCarthy was generating headlines, and though some journalists were appalled (or said they were appalled) and though some were willing to grumble both privately and publicly about McCarthy’s methods, the Wisconsin Senator made good, reliable copy. McCarthy, a shrewd operator among members of the press, was known for taking reporters into his confidence quickly, especially when those reporters needed a story. And many of those reporters were more than willing to play along with McCarthy’s intrigues in exchange for something new in the war on domestic communists. McCarthy also had his allies in the press, though they were fewer in number than those who expressed moral outrage at his tactics. Among the editors and newspapermen who supported his crusades were the Hearst papers as well as—initially at least—the more conservative Luce publications and their editors and editorialists at Time and Life. McCarthy also had the support of Colonel Robert McCormick, owner and publisher of the Republican-leaning Chicago Tribune.

The print venues of Henry Luce were of particular importance, for Time magazine in those days reached nearly two million readers, and the iconic Life reached over five million. Time and Life were generally supportive of McCarthy in the earliest days, for his crusade fit neatly into Luce’s view of the world as shaped by the growing divide between the communist world and the world of the U.S. and its allies—and especially by the loss of China to Mao in what seemed like an institutional unwillingness on the part of Truman, Acheson and others to support Chiang. Later, however, the Luce press cooled in their assessments of McCarthy, and in a cover story describing the Wisconsin senator as a demagogue, Time editorialized that McCarthy possessed “no regard for fair play, no scruple for exact truth.” When it came to fighting communism, Luce and his editorial writers preferred the savvy, thoughtful machinations of Richard Nixon to what Time called the “groin-and-eyeball fighting” of McCarthy.

These examples aside, McCarthy’s ongoing quest eventually sparked resistance among some in elite journalistic circles.

Thus, in one of the most notable media confrontations of the era, a bitter struggle developed between McCarthy and Murrow. Murrow had long been discussing the idea of a special show on Joseph McCarthy. But Murrow and Fred Friendly were unsure and hesitant. Up to that point in the still-evolving world of television, magazine-type programs and feature venues had remained not only uncontroversial, but had stayed at a safe distance from politics entirely. As author and political biographer Robert Slater points out, “this was long before Vietnam, long before Watergate, long before it would become acceptable for someone to appear on television and denounce the people in Washington.”

But Murrow had seen several of his closest friends wither into defeat under the harsh light of the hunt for communists, and he felt as a matter of pride and journalistic innovation that the time was right to take on Senator McCarthy.

After much careful consideration and a long process of copious, painstaking editing, Murrow and his staff assembled a special See It Now program devoted entirely to Senator Joseph McCarthy. Bracketed at the beginning and the end with an introduction and a brief close by Murrow, and using primarily film or videotaped footage of McCarthy himself—in his own words—the program was ostensibly neutral, but peppered strategically with Murrow’s own retorts and rebuttals to McCarthy’s words. Murrow ended with a few minutes of closing monologue and editorial content, in which Murrow intoned that the Senator’s chief achievement had been in confusing, in the public’s mind, the differences between the threat of internal communism and external communism. “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends on evidence and due process of law.” The effect of the carefully selected and heavily edited footage was jarring, and it shed a mostly negative light upon the Senator.

First reactions to the program were overwhelmingly positive. That night CBS was flooded with phone calls followed by a blizzard of congratulatory telegrams and letters the next morning. CBS affiliates around the country experienced similar outpourings of approval from viewers. Many in the mainstream press praised Murrow and the efforts of his team at CBS, and rival network NBC piled on with accolades. Even a few voices in the moderate-to-conservative press applauded the show’s effectiveness, while not specifically endorsing the decidedly anti-McCarthy tone. McCarthy was oddly silent for a couple of days and in his few appearances appeared to be on the defensive. Meanwhile, Murrow and his colleagues at CBS were riding high on the wave of positive press coverage.

After days of uniformly bad press for the Senator from Wisconsin, McCarthy struck back, demanding equal time, a reaction Murrow and CBS fully expected. With the consent of CBS’s top management, including direct approval from CBS chairman William Paley, Murrow offered airtime for a McCarthy rebuttal. Some media critics who disapproved of McCarthy had begun to note that the original program had been craftily edited in order to take some of the Senator’s words out of their original context, meaning that in practice Murrow’s crew had engaged in the same sort of manipulation and selectivity for which they were so cavalierly accusing McCarthy. Gilbert Seldes of the Saturday Evening Post blasted the Murrow show for its high-minded claim of neutrality when in fact it was nothing less than a slick, carefully crafted attack, sugar-coated by Murrow’s popularity and shielded by his insulated position within CBS.

Finally, in the televised McCarthy response, the Senator railed against the members of the press he termed “jackals” and suggested that despite the illusion of neutrality, Murrow’s program had in fact been carefully rigged for maximum distortion and bias. The war of words and threats between Murrow and McCarthy became bitter.

CBS, after several days of riding on the high tide of positive reaction, then began to face pressure from within and without. Murrow, as it turns out, had in his younger days sought access to a summer school program in which students could travel to Moscow, a fact of his youth not fully disclosed on his otherwise impeccable resume, nor in his employment files at CBS, and a few reporters and columnists began to note this publicly. Though the Moscow student program was explained away as a trivial, fleeting page in Murrow’s past life (in fact after much lobbying and wrangling to get admission to the summer school, Murrow did not attend the Moscow program), to some it had revealed an instance of hypocrisy and deception on the part of CBS. Suddenly, Murrow and his allies at CBS were the one who found themselves on the defensive.

Further complicating things for CBS, the coldly amoral mechanisms of television were proving fickle, even for those who worked in the business of TV: partly out of political caution, CBS had done very little in advance to promote the original Murrow special on McCarthy; but weeks of heavy publicity, newspaper headlines and editorial debate since the original broadcast had raised the national interest substantially, and McCarthy’s rebuttal show was watched by a much larger audience. In some markets, in fact, McCarthy’s response drew double the viewers of a typical See It Now, allowing hundreds of thousands of people to see and hear Joe McCarthy outside of the context of the original program. The result, perversely, was positive spin for McCarthy—an eerie premonition of a medium of the future in which bullies, charlatans and hucksters often gain forward traction despite moral outrage. Though the network still thought of itself as occupying the high ground, CBS had clumsily stabbed itself with its own sword.

Murrow and his editors and researchers at CBS had in fact engaged in exactly the sort of carefully selected and copiously screened hatchet job on McCarthy that Murrow and his allies had been routinely complaining were the selective methods employed by McCarthy. Some observers saw this as nothing less than hypocrisy—the double-standard often used by members of the journalistic elite who claimed nobility in their use of well-crafted distortions or egregiously heavy-handed tactics. The retelling of the incident entered into the media legend of anti-liberals, and contributed to the perception which persists to this day of a press corps generally hostile toward conservative—and in some cases—middle American attitudes and beliefs. The incident also damaged Murrow’s previously sterling relationship with his chiefs at CBS, most especially Stanton and Paley.

Though CBS took incoming fire from some quarters as a result of the McCarthy program, Murrow outlasted his Senate nemesis. McCarthy’s alcoholism and obsessive bullying were approaching the downward curve of self-destruction. After his censure by the Senate, McCarthy faded into a brief period of political irrelevance before his death in May of 1957. Murrow’s career would continue, though with a degree of irreparable damage within the CBS organization.  Nevertheless, Murrow would be widely remembered for having succeeded in landing the first harpoon into the political whale that was Joe McCarthy simply by asking Americans to reconsider the Senator's tactics and half-truths.

Though not for the light reader, Sperber’s massive book is a sweeping and indispensable history for anyone who wants to fully understand the development of radio and television news at their apogee at the middle 20th Century, and why Edward R. Murrow became central to our understanding of how news is gathered and delivered, and why this great reporter’s shadow still looms over TV news.

Other sources used to research this article include: Biographical Directory of the United States Congress (website: bioguide.congress.gov); The Senate: 1789-1989 Historical Statistics, Volume Four, Robert C. Byrd, U.S. Government Printing Office; Joseph McCarthy: Re-examining the Life and Legacy of America's Most Hated Senator, Arthur Herman, The Free Press; This...Is CBS: A Chronicle of 60 Years, Robert Slater, Prentice Hall

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