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Edward R. Murrow

Edward R. Murrow (April 25, 1908 - April 27, 1965) is viewed by historians as one of the great figures who stood for honesty and integrity in American broadcast journalism during the middle of the 20th Century. His radio news broadcasts during World War II were eagerly followed by millions of radio listeners. As one of the pioneers of TV news journalism, Murrow produced a series of TV news reports that countered the Red Scare hysteria of the 1950s, and led to the downfall of Senator Joseph McCarthy. He was seen as a controversial figure by many, but he left a legacy that still stands as one of the cornerstones of broadcast journalism.

Career

Murrow joined CBS as "Director of Talks" in 1935, after graduating from the University of Washington. He would remain with the network for his entire broadcast journalism career. At that time, CBS did not have a news staff. Murrow's job was to persuade European figures to broadcast over the CBS network, in direct competition with RCA's NBC network. The job turned Murrow, along with his colleague William L. Shirer[?], into one of the inventors of broadcast journalism. During the 1938 Czechoslovakian crisis, Murrow broadcast directly from Prague to the United States via shortwave radio, making history in the process by covering a breaking foreign news story via radio. Murrow and Shirer went on to organize the CBS World News Roundup, which brought together correspondents from various European cities together for a single broadcast. This was considered revolutionary at the time.

Murrow was sent to London before the outbreak of World War II, while Shirer stayed on the European continent, stationed in Berlin. When war broke out Murrow provided live radio broadcasts from the height of the London Blitz. His signature open "This -- is London" electrified radio audiences as news programming never had before. Previously, war coverage had been mostly provided by newspaper reports, and earlier radio news programs had usually been an announcer reading wireservice reports in a studio.

Shirer's coverage from Berlin also brought him national acclaim, and a commentator's position with CBS News upon his return in December 1940. Shirer went on to write a best-selling book, Berlin Diary, based upon his experiences. The relationship between Murrow and Shirer would end tragically after the war, in one of the great confrontations of American broadcast journalism. This fight foreshadowed Murrow's problems to come with CBS founder and CEO William Paley.

But Murrow achieved the greater celebrity as a result of his war reports. He also flew on Allied bombing raids in Europe during the war, providing additional reports from the planes as they flew over Europe (but recorded for delayed broadcast). Murrow's skill in improvising vivid verbal descriptions of visual images, based in part on his college degree in speech, aided the effectiveness of his radio broadcasts.

Murrow's report from the liberation of the Buchenwald extermination camp in Germany provides an example of his uncompromising style of journalism, something that caused a great deal of controversy and won him a number of critics and enemies. He described the exhausted physical state of the concentration camp prisoners who had survived, mentioned "rows of bodies stacked up like cordwood," and he refused to apologize for the harsh tone of his words:

"I pray you to believe what I have said about Buchenwald. I have reported what I saw and heard, but only part of it. For most of it I have no words. If I've offended you by this rather mild account of Buchenwald, I'm not in the least sorry." -- April 15, 1945

After the war, Murrow continued to present daily radio news reports on the CBS Radio network. He also recorded a series called Hear It Now, where he began to work with producer Fred Friendly[?].

As the 1950s began, he was assigned to CBS' brand-new TV news team, to adapt to the new medium of television. His weekly TV news show See It Now began with a segment that is credited with a footnote of its own in television history: it gave the first live simultaneous TV transmission from both the East Coast and the West Coast, as reporters on both sides of the North American continent gave live reports to Murrow, who was sitting in the CBS control room. One of the most popular of these reports was a 1952 broadcast entitled "Christmas in Korea," when Murrow spoke with American soldiers assigned to the United Nations peacekeeping force at the time.

See It Now focused on a number of controversial issues in the 1950s, but it is best remembered as the show that criticized the Red Scare and contributed to the political downfall of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Murrow produced a number of episodes of the show that dealt with the Communist witch hunt hysteria (one of the more notable episodes resulted in a U.S. military officer being acquitted, after being charged with supporting Communism), before embarking on a broadcast on March 9, 1954 that has often been referred to as "television's finest hour."

Murrow, Friendly, and their news team produced a 30-minute special entitled "A Report on Senator Joseph McCarthy." Murrow used excerpts from McCarthy's own speeches and proclamations to criticize the Senator and point out episodes where he had contradicted himself. Murrow knew full well that he was using the medium of television to attack a single man and expose him to nationwide scrutiny, and he was often quoted as having doubts about the method he used for this news report. Nonetheless, this 30-minute TV episode sparked off a nationwide backlash against McCarthy and against the Red Scare in general, and it is seen as a turning point in the history of television. McCarthy provided his own televised response to Murrow two weeks later on See It Now (Murrow had publicly offered the Senator a chance to defend himself against his charges), and his own televised appearances contributed nearly as much to his own downfall as Murrow. Murrow had learned how to use the medium of television, but McCarthy had not.

However, Murrow's hard-hitting approach to the news cost him influence in the world of television. See It Now occasionally scored high ratings (usually when it was approaching a particularly controversial subject), but in general it did not score well on prime-time television. When the quiz show phenomenon began and took the world of TV by storm in the late 1950s, Murrow realized the days of See It Now were numbered. In response to repeated calls to provide more "entertaining" news (and thus score better ratings), Murrow launched a series of celebrity interviews entitled Person to Person with Edward R. Murrow. Just as Murrow had nearly single-handedly pioneered TV news journalism, with Person to Person he also set the standard for celebrity interviews, producing a format that is still followed by such adherents as Barbara Walters[?].

See It Now was indeed cancelled -- with CBS founder Paley complaining the program "gave me a stomachache" -- but Murrow felt that the show had run its course. Now freed from the rigors of having to produce a 30-minute TV show every week, he produced a series of occasional TV special[?] news reports that defined documentary news coverage. Beginning in 1958, he also hosted a talk show entitled Small World that brought together political figures for one-on-one debates. As a further example of Murrow's effect on TV journalism, this form of TV debate continues today with Sunday morning political talk shows such as This Week with David Brinkley.

Murrow's reporting brought him into repeated conflicts with CBS and founder Paley, which Fred Friendly[?] summarized in his book "Due to Circumstances Beyond our Control." After his last documentary "Harvest of Shame", a report on the plight of migrant farm workers in the United States, he resigned to accept a position as head of the United States Information Agency in 1961. President John F. Kennedy offered Murrow the position, which he viewed as "a timely gift."

Murrow was a heavy smoker all his life, and he was rarely seen without a cigarette. His chain smoking resulted in his developing lung cancer, and he died at his home in 1965.

Quote

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. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities. As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age. We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, 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. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn't create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it -- and rather successfully. Cassius was right. "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves." Good night, and good luck.

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