It’s no secret: Truth and integrity made Murrow a model

April 24, 2018 11:00

If Edward R. Murrow had appeared on “I’ve Got a Secret,” a game show that aired on the same network, CBS, during the same period as his own “See it Now” and “Person to Person” were broadcast, he likely would have had a difficult time deciding which secret to share.
 
On second thought, the word “secret” implies an intentional, perhaps nefarious, attempt to hide something. Perhaps I should say, instead, “little-known fact.”
 
So, on this occasion of the 110th anniversary of the birth of Murrow – to many, the Father of Broadcast Journalism, and to RTDNA, the legendary figure for whom we name our annual regional and national awards for excellence in broadcast and digital journalism – I’d like to share some little-known facts about the man.
 
First, when he was born 110 years ago – April 25, 1908 – in Polecat Creek, N.C., his name was not Edward. His given name was Egbert Roscoe Murrow. And no, he didn’t change his name to Edward because he needed a more broadcast-compatible name. He did it during his second year of college at what is now Washington State University, largely because many of his friends had already taken to calling him “Ed.”
 
He started working at CBS News, where he would spend his entire journalism career, in 1935 but his first appearance on the air wasn’t until March 13, 1938, right after Nazi Germany annexed Austria in an omen for the coming Second World War. Murrow was in Poland arranging to broadcast a children’s choir concert when he heard about Germany’s bold move. He immediately flew to Berlin and then got to Vienna the only way possible, by chartering a Lufthansa passenger plane for $1,000 and flying into the Austrian capital. He arrived just in time to see goose-stepping German soldiers march into the city.
 
That first broadcast on which he appeared, which also featured reports from other correspondents throughout Europe via shortwave radio, came to be known as the “CBS World News Roundup,” which continues today as the world’s longest running newscast.
 
During the early days of World War II Murrow was stationed in London, where many of his dramatic reports during Germany’s Blitzkrieg air raids, usually starting with his iconic, “This…is London,” were part of “London After Dark,” a first-of-its-kind joint venture radio newscast between CBS, the BBC and the Canadian Broadcasting Company.
 
It was during his time covering the London Blitz that Murrow also began using his famous sign-off, “Good night, and good luck.” He had heard several Londoners say that to each other each evening ahead of the nightly German bombing runs; they didn’t know if they’d ever again see the friend or relative to whom they’d said it. He ran the idea by his college speech teacher, Ida Louise Anderson, and she insisted he use it. He did on virtually every broadcast until his career at CBS News ended with his coverage of the inauguration of John F. Kennedy in 1961.
 
During the remainder of World War II Murrow would distinguish himself in many ways, not the least of which were the more than two dozen highly perilous allied bombing raids on which he rode along over enemy territory in Europe, and on April 12, 1945, when he was the first journalist to arrive at the recently liberated concentration camp at Buchenwald. Three days later, he broadcast to the world the horrors he had seen:
 
There surged around me an evil-smelling stink, men and boys reached out to touch me. They were in rags and the remnants of uniforms. Death already had marked many of them, but they were smiling with their eyes. I looked out over the mass of men to the green fields beyond, where well-fed Germans were ploughing... .
 
[I] asked to see one of the barracks. It happened to be occupied by Czechoslovaks. When I entered, men crowded around, tried to lift me to their shoulders. They were too weak. Many of them could not get out of bed. I was told that this building had once stabled 80 horses. There were 1200 men in it, five to a bunk. The stink was beyond all description... .
 
Murder had been done at Buchenwald. God alone knows how many men and boys have died there during the last 12 years. Thursday, I was told that there were more than 20,000 in the camp. There had been as many as 60,000. Where are they now?
 
I pray you to believe what I have said about Buchenwald. I reported what I saw and heard, but only part of it. For most of it, I have no words.
 
If I have offended you by this rather mild account of Buchenwald, I’m not in the least sorry.
 
After the war, Murrow was one of the lucky radio correspondents to transition to television news. As I wrote earlier this year, it was during his television career – especially his March 9, 1954, broadcast of “See It Now,” during which he eviscerated Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s Communist witch hunt – where Murrow did some of his most important work.
 
But that work often rankled Murrow’s boss, CBS Chairman William S. Paley, whom Murrow producer Fred Friendly said complained that every time Murrow covered a controversial issue it gave him a “stomach ache.” And in 1955 “See It Now’s” sponsor pulled out. That relegated the program only to an occasional Sunday afternoon time slot. The program ended for good in July 1958.
 
Three months later, on October 15, 1958, Murrow delivered his famous “wires and lights in a box” speech during the then-RTNDA annual convention in Chicago. Most notable in his remarks that evening was his admonition that, referencing television, “This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and even it can inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise, it’s nothing but wires and lights in a box.”
 
What many overlook is the main point of Murrow’s speech: He was being harshly critical of CBS and other broadcasting companies for cow-towing to advertisers and powerful politicians:
 
One of the basic troubles with radio and television news is that both instruments have grown up as an incompatible combination of show business, advertising and news. Each of the three is a rather bizarre and, at times, demanding profession. And when you get all three under one roof, the dust never settles. The top management of the networks with a few notable exceptions, has been trained in advertising, research, sales or show business. But by the nature of the corporate structure, they also make the final and crucial decisions having to do with news and public affairs. Frequently they have neither the time nor the competence to do this. It is, after all, not easy for the same small group of men to decide whether to buy a new station for millions of dollars, build a new building, alter the rate card, buy a new Western, sell a soap opera, decide what defensive line to take in connection with the latest Congressional inquiry, how much money to spend on promoting a new program, what additions or deletions should be made in the existing covey or clutch of vice-presidents, and at the same time-- frequently on the long, same long day--to give mature, thoughtful consideration to the manifold problems that confront those who are charged with the responsibility for news and public affairs.
 
Murrow had begun his speech by saying, “This just might do nobody any good.” Well, it certainly was no good for his career. Biographers have written that Paley believed Murrow had betrayed CBS and him, personally, at our convention. The resulting ice that formed in their relationship was so thick it would never thaw, and Murrow resigned from the network less than three years later to become President Kennedy’s director of the United States Information Agency (USIA).
 
Here are some other little-known, or little-remembered, facts about Murrow:
  • Despite the fact his office in London was struck by German bombs three times during the early days of World War II, Murrow escaped without a scratch on each occasion.
  • Murrow, who in addition to serving as a correspondent during the war, also served as, essentially, CBS News’ London bureau chief during that time.
  • Murrow instructed his fellow CBS war-time correspondents to stay calm, and never to get excited, as bombs were falling around them. He directed them to describe the events on the air as though they were describing them to acquaintances at a dinner party.
  • He considered his landmark Buchenwald broadcast a failure, because, he said, “The tragedy of it simply overwhelmed me.”
  • For 18 months after Murrow returned to New York following the war he served as a CBS News executive. It was mind-numbingly boring to him, so he went back on the air. “I wanted to be a reporter again because I needed the dignity and satisfaction,” he said.
  • As head of the USIA for three years, Murrow became a close confidant of Presidents Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. So much did Kennedy value his advice that he is said to have remarked that he wished he had sought Murrow’s counsel before ordering the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba.
  • After he resigned from the USIA due to poor health in 1964, President Johnson implored him to return; however, Murrow was just too ill.
  • He won four Peabody Awards during his tenure at CBS News.
  • President Johnson awarded him the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest honor for an American civilian, in 1964.
  • In 1965, Queen Elizabeth II named him an Honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Had he been a British citizen, he would have borne the title “Sir Edward.”
Most people with any knowledge at all about Murrow know that it was his three-to-four-packs-a-day cigarette addiction that almost certainly gave him the lung cancer that killed him on April 27, 1965, just two days after his 57th birthday. But what many don’t realize is that Murrow was well aware of the risks of smoking. He had reported on such dangers long before the U.S. Surgeon General issued the government’s first warning in 1964. In his last few years at CBS, he began appearing on the air more and more without one of his trademark Camels between his fingers.
 
He even at times seemed to rely on gallows humor to deal with the subject. On May 24, 1961, when he spoke to a National Press Club luncheon in Washington, D.C., his introducer said, to the laughter of Murrow and the attendees, “He’s been compared to Joan of Arc…because he’s smoking more now and enjoying it less.”
 
When he presented Murrow with the Medal of Freedom, President Johnson said, “He has brought to all his endeavors the conviction that truth and personal integrity are the ultimate persuaders of men and nations.”
 
After Murrow died, one of his World War II “Murrow Boys” correspondents, Eric Sevareid, said, “He was a shooting star; and we will live in his afterglow a very long time.”
 
There are more secrets – er, little-known facts – about the great Edward R. Murrow than I have chosen to include in this article. I omitted them in the hope that I have piqued your curiosity to the degree that you will research them on your own.
 
Then you can decide which “secret” Murrow might have chosen to disclose if he had ever appeared on that game show.
 
April 25, 2018, is the 110th anniversary of Murrow’s birth and the release of the 2018 Regional Murrow Award winners – more than 700 examples of outstanding responsible journalism demonstrating the excellence that Edward R. Murrow made a standard for the broadcast news profession. Join the celebration of journalism past and present - #Murrow.