Edward R. Murrow
And the Birth of
Read by Bob Edwards
Some of us recall the palmy days of Edward R. Murrow's Hear It Now or See It Now. We were there. Some of us even had the good fortune to hear Edward Morrow's astonishing broadcasts from London during the Blitz.
He was eloquence itself, with a superb sense of rhythm and pause: one of the best elocutionists pretending to be a newsman. Those of us lost in the vale of years recall shots of him in trenchcoat, broadcasting from some dark street somewhere, a cloud of smoke from bombs, or fires, or his own cigarettes --- or perhaps all three --- drifting across his visage.
Murrow came up from the bottom. He worked in pre-depression Washington logging camps. With endless energy, he charmed and wrangled his way through school, through the educational bureaucracy, into radio and finally to the top of the field he helped to invent ... broadcast journalism
His ability to find new journalists --- "Murrow's boys" they were called --- amounted to magic. But he was not enchanted, this haunted man; he had his dark moods. He could be murderous to old friends he thought had betrayed him. He also seemed to have the desire to murder himself with cigarettes. He was a three-packs-a-day man. Mad magazine once did a droll take-off on "See It Now," Murrow shown with eight cigarettes stuffed into his craw, his face completely obscured by smoke.
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Bob Edwards of NPR fame cooked up this book about Morrow and, in this Tantor recording, can be heard reading it aloud. When I say "cooked up" I mean it. It has the smell of bacon and eggs, a quick breakfast squeezed off before going to work. The phrasing may be Edwardian as in "Bob Edwards," but it's not Edwardian as in "Edward R. Murrow." It is, in a word, new-speak NPR stuff. And Edwards didn't do his research.
He dwells on Murrow's problem with the FCC's "equal time" provisions. In "See It Now," Murrow did documentaries on the Bricker Amendment to the Constitution, the plight of the small farmer, and the debate over whether Hawaii --- on the edge of being admitted as a state --- was too Communist (as averred by some of our more enlightened representatives).
But "equal time," in regulatory practice, applied only to political races. If you interviewed one senatorial candidate, you had to give an exact and equal amount of time to all the other major candidates. On the other hand, when discussing public issues, broadcasters were required only to give "time to reply." It may be a small footnote, but it was one that made the Fairness Doctrine work for a half-a-century, at least until the Reagan administration cold-cocked it.
Still, Edwards has a heartfelt appreciation for what Murrow did, and tried to do, and failed to do. He tells us that Murrow created a unique broadcast journalistic style --- honest, dramatic, shit-kicking --- a style that lingered until commercial television and radio ate it up and spit it out. According to the writer, that balmy time of serious news and public affairs disappeared the day Walter Cronkite got retired from CBS.
Murrow also invented the kind of technically detailed news programs we are so familiar with today: distant feeds converging on a central control room, with a host at the middle of the fray. It first happened in 1938, Edwards explains, the day of the German invasion of the Sudetenland.
§ § §Despite the apparent goodwill and affection of Edwards, Edward R. Murrow comes out skewed. Here we have a narration of the life and times of one of the most original of sound pioneers, but here it is merely Bob Edwards reading the words of Bob Edwards. There are just three recorded examples of the speeches, talks, interviews, and productions of the thousands put out by Edward R. Murrow.These three --- Murrow on a rooftop in London in 1940 during a raid of Germans, Murrow reporting from a Lancaster bomber over Berlin, and a brief excerpt from his denunciation of Joseph McCarthy --- make this reading quite wan. From the paltry examples, we are allowed to hear the unredoubtable drama of Murrow. In two cases, he is speaking to us from a place where, in a matter of moments, he might be dead (he broadcast from the streets of London when it was under direct attack by the Luftwaffe; he made over fifty bombing runs with British crews over Germany at a time when a third of the flights never returned.)
These are examples of what radio can do best: taking words and transforming them --- in our heads --- into vivid pictures. Morrow uses "visuals" of color and light: the startling white flash when an enemy spotlight homes in on a bomber; the blessed darkness when it loses the airplane; the rivers of red in the streets of Berlin when the incendiaries hit. Murrow was always a teacher, and in these and countless other broadcasts, he taught his avid listeners how to see what he was seeing. Bob Edwards' rendition, by contrast, is necessarily meager, and he is no poet with words. The shadow Edward R. Murrow, the historical sound magician, through three brief but lovely passages, has rendered Edward R. Murrow more puny than, perhaps, it should be.
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As far as pure content goes, Bob Edwards may have here overstated his subject's effect on the life and times of Joe McCarthy. I am geezerish enough to remember Murrow's famous thirty-minute attack on CBS as the climax of a series of "See It Now" programs. It was high television art, but probably over the heads of most 1954 viewers.
The Army-McCarthy hearings more probably did the Senator in, for we viewers had to put up with McCarthy's craven eyes and snarling words for almost a month.
Edwards is also wrong about how the hearings came about. He claims it had to do with McCarthy's search for Communists in the Army; that was minor ... it was McCarthy's creepy assistant Roy Cohn's daily nagging of the Secretary of the Army to keep his boyfriend (David Schine) in Washington that sparked the whole uproar, and that pernicious combination of hubris and passion is what toppled the Senator.
Finally, Edwards comes down all too harshly on CBS which had to work with this tiger in the television room. Bill Paley and the advertisers put up with Murrow for almost twenty years, and gave him, mostly, what he asked for. NBC and ABC, the only competitors at the time, never had the courage to hire a Murrow-type for their news programs; in fact, their public affairs programming was a scandal, --- it was consistently more 1990s than 1950s. CBS did the best they could with what they had, for far longer than might be expected, and should be honored for it.
That spirit remained at CBS long after Murrow was gone. I had a chance to have personal experience of it. One of the stations I was associated with was threatened with loss-of-license by the FCC because of a powerful civil rights program we broadcast in 1968 (James Bevel speaking to students, claiming that they did what they did not because they "had any nuts," but because they wanted to "freak out your mothers.")
When government hearings over license renewal began a couple of years later, the only broadcaster in a country of 7,500 broadcasters to file an amicus to the expensive hearing was CBS. The point they made was that the FCC should have praised us for courageous programming, not threatening us with licensee death.
On top of all this, and despite a jillion years as a broadcaster, Bob Edwards is not all that hot as a reader, even of his own words. He doesn't have the Murrowesque power nor rhythm needed for such a task. Ironical, no? That a long-time broadcaster should do such a mediocre job in telling us about one of the great broadcasters of all times.--- Lorenzo W. Milam