I first learned about Edward R. Morrow when I watched George Clooney and Grant Heslov’s Good Night, and Good Luck (2005). Haven’t seen it? Go watch it right now . . . it’s on Netflix!
I am interested in the origins, especially the ethics of broadcast journalism. I worked on my high school and college newspapers and even entertained the idea of majoring in journalism, on my way to work as a print journalist. Obviously, I picked a different path, but the idea of writing and speaking as a public service still captures my imagination with the grand possibilities. Murrow’s high standards — as David Strathairn portrays them in the film — inspired me and became part of how I view modern-day politics and reporting (for better or worse).
When I started teaching The Crucible by Arthur Miller in American Studies, I used clips from Good Night, and Good Luck to illustrate the courage it took for people like Murrow to stand up to people like Joseph McCarthy during a time of fear, hysteria, and propaganda. I see Murrow’s elegance and skill in few reporters today, but greatly admire those who emulate him and hold themselves to similar high standards — Richard Engle, Christiane Amanpour, and Bob Woodward, for example.
Murrow’s biography by Bob Edwards (of NPR) was on my “to read” list for a long time. I finally bought a copy; only used copies were available on Amazon. Edwards’s book came out in 2004, but it is still one of the few titles that come up if you search for reading material on Murrow.
The long time it took for me to finally read this book was worth it; I learned that I admire Murrow even more than I thought. Imagine the little thrill I got when I read that Murrow almost became the president of Rockford College in 1934:
“Ed had been offered the presidency of Rockford College, then a woman’s school in Illinois. The deal fell through when the good ladies of Rockford discovered Ed was only twenty-six years old and didn’t have the credentials they thought he’d had”Edwards 24
I can’t help but wonder how different our world would be if Murrow took the job at Rockford College instead of going on to work as a radio news reporter in Europe at the beginning of World War II!
It was fitting that I read this biography in September because my Dual Credit English 12 class spent the month composing This I Believe essays, a format that Murrow himself piloted. American Studies, at the same time, learned about the parallels between the McCarthy Era and the Salem Witch Trials and we talked about how it takes people like Murrow, Arthur Miller, and John Proctor to stand up for what’s right.
The most enlightening part of this read for me was about Murrow’s radio career. I was particularly intrigued by his reporting on the Anschluss (annexation of Austria) in 1938, how he brought WWII into the homes of Americans via the radio, and how he created a new style of broadcast journalism known as the “round-up” and the “roundtable,” which Edwards describes as a spot where “correspondents in different cities held a conversation rather than take turns reading scripts” (Edwards 44). This style is on the news all the time, now; but before Murrow and his peers, the news probably sounded very dry and perpetuated the isolation Americans felt from the rest of the world at this time.
The most moving part of this book was Edward’s reprinting of Murrow’s report on his visit to the concentration camp Buchenwald in 1945.
Ironically, Murrow broadcast the rumors and information that came out about ghettos and concentration camps two-and-a-half years before allies liberated the camps:
“One is almost stunned into silence by some of the information reaching London. Some if it is months old, but it’s eyewitness stuff supported by a wealth of detail and vouched for by responsible governments . . . . millions of human beings, most of them Jews, are being gathered up with ruthless efficiency and murdered . . . a picture of mass murder and moral depravity unequalled in the history of the world”Murrow qtd. in Edwards 64
Murrow’s broadcast about Buchenwald is worth reading in its entirety, which you can do with Edwards’s book. Murrow, of course, reported words that are difficult to find anytime we approach the subject of the Holocaust:
“Let me tell you this in the first person, for I was the least important person there, as you shall hear . . . .There were two rows of bodies stacked up like cordwood. They were think and very white. Some of the bodies were terribly bruised, though there seemed to be little flesh to bruise. Some had been shot through the head, but they bled but little. All except two were naked. I tried to count them as best as I could and arrived at the conclusion that all that was moral of more than five hundred men and boys lay there in two neat piles . . . .For most of it I have no words. Dead men are plentiful in war, but the living dead, more than twenty thousand of them in one camp. And the country round about was pleasing to the eye, and the Germans were well fed and well dressed. American trucks were rolling to the reader, filled with prisoners, soon they would be eating American rations, as much for a meal as the men at Buchenwald received in four days. If I’ve offended you by this rather mild account of Buchenwald, I’m not in the least bit sorry . . . . Many men in many tongues blessed the name of Roosevelt . . . . [they] did not know that Mr. Roosevelt would, within hours, join their comrades who had laid their lives on the scales of freedom. . . .If there be a better epitaph, history does not record it”Murrow qtd. in Edwards 83-89
It should not surprise me the way it does, coming from the man who took on McCarthy with words just as fierce. But, it does in the way that words about the Holocaust always take me by surprise, perhaps because I still struggle to form my own words about something that happened forty-three years before I was born.
Another fascinating part of this book is the Afterword. Here, Edwards claims that Murrow could not last in today’s world of broadcast journalism because we live in a time when broadcast media works for profit, generates entertainment for the sake of ratings, or even relies on the government for money in the case of public broadcasting, creating a conflict of interest Murrow wouldn’t stand for.
I didn’t want to agree with Edwards’s claim because in this time of fake-news and propaganda, I believe we need journalists like Murrow. I want the “breaking news” notifications on my phone to stop masquerading as earth-shattering when they’re not and for people to stop shouting at each other over the anchor on CNN or FOX. It’s unwatchable slop.
But, I see good reporting happening, too. Anytime I see Richard Engle reporting from Syria or see some of my friends reporting on the local news, I know Murrow’s influence is at work. Edwards says of Murrow’s legacy,
“If we expect the broadcast media to inform us, educate us, and enlighten us, it’s because Edward R. Murrow led us to believe that they would”Edwards 166
I do expect broadcast media to inform, educate, and enlighten because it’s possibly the most beautiful think about the First Amendment. The freedom of the press is extremely important, and I never want to live in a nation without it; but, with freedom comes responsibility. I know now that Murrow took this responsibility seriously, led by example, and set a magnificent precedent.
I definitely recommend this book if you want to learn more about Murrow’s legacy. My only complaints are about Edwards’s tendency to idolize Murrow (as I’m sure I’ve just done in this blog post) even though he says in the introduction that Murrow had his own set of flaws. He never mentions, for example, that Murrow carried on an affair with Winston Churchill’s daughter in-law. Additionally, Edwards slips into the passive voice far too much for my liking, especially for a journalist. If you ever took a class with me, you know how I feel about passive voice! Is it too much for me to expect the host of Morning Edition to write in the active voice?
But, as the reprinting of Murrow’s reports and speeches in this book showed me, Murrow, too, slipped into the passive voice from time to time, so perhaps I’ll just get off the passive voice soap box now and enjoy some reporting by Richard Engle (my future husband* . . . in case anyone wanted to know).
*Just kidding . . . he’s already happily married. And Collin probably wouldn’t be too happy if I went off and married Engle.
Trigger Warnings: war