Edward R. Murrow (1908–1965)

Edward R. Murrow is the most distinguished and renowned figure in the history of American broadcast journalism. He left an indelible mark on the industry in the early days of radio and television news, creating a format that is still used in newsrooms across the United States today. He commanded the respect of his peers with his reputation for ascertaining the truth, rather than just reporting generally accepted ideas about current events. By transforming the news to live coverage from event-centered, prerecorded programs, Murrow broke new ground in the news business and changed the face of broadcast journalism forever.

Two years after being hired by the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) in 1935, Murrow left his desk job as director of talks and education, and went to London to report on the war. From there, he kept Americans glued to their radios during World War II and likewise to their televisions in the 1950s straight through the McCarthy hearings with his innovative, first-person approach to reporting the news. His 25-year-long news reporting career was exclusively with CBS.

He made his name as a radio correspondent during World War II, delivering daring news reports live from a London rooftop as bombs fell around the city. With his deft use of language, he could place a radio listener on the scene as he witnessed the bombs dropping from the sky. Anyone who listened to Murrow’s matter-of-fact-sounding voice on the radio in those gloomy days will never forget the line that became his signature sign-on: “This... is London.”

Following is an excerpt from Murrow’s radio report on September 21, 1940, as the Germans were bombing London:

I’m standing on a rooftop looking out over London. At the moment everything is quiet.... Off to my left, far away in the distance, I can see that faint-red, angry snap of anti-aircraft bursts against the steel-blue sky, but the guns are so far away that it’s impossible to hear them from this location. About five minutes ago the guns in the immediate vicinity were working. I can look across just at a building not far away and see something that looks like a flash of white paint down the side, and I know from daylight observation that about a quarter of that building has disappeared—hit by a bomb the other night.... I can see a single red light and just faintly the outline of a sign standing in the middle of the street. And again I know what the sign says because I saw it this afternoon. It says, DANGER—UNEXPLODED BOMB. Off to my left I can see just that red snap of the anti-aircraft fire.... Earlier this evening we heard a number of bombs go sliding and slithering across to fall several blocks away.... The searchlights now are feeling almost directly overhead. Now you’ll hear two bursts a little nearer in the moment. There they are! That hard, stony sound.




Edward R. Murrow was one of the most highly respected journalists in broadcast history, both on radio and on television.





Edward R. Murrow was one of the most highly respected journalists in broadcast history, both on radio and on television. (Library of Congress)

In addition to the phrase, “This... is London,” Murrow is most notably remembered for his quick and to-the-point sign-off, “Good night and good luck,” which he used to end almost every one of his radio and television broadcasts.

While in London, Murrow assembled the most comprehensive group of journalists to report the war as it was happening, where it was happening. The group became the backbone of CBS abroad, bombarding the airwaves with live coverage of World War II from London, Germany, Paris, Italy, and other key locations.

Because Murrow had handpicked each reporter, the group eventually became known as the Murrow Boys. His right-hand man was newspaper correspondent turned radio reporter William Shirer. Among others, he also hired Eric Sevareid, Charles Collingwood, Howard K. Smith, Mary Marvin Breckinridge, Cecil Brown, Richard C. Hottelet, Bill Downs, Winston Burdett, Charles Shaw, Ned Calmer, and Larry LeSeuer. Murrow had assembled a group of reporters to rival any other in Europe, including the National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC), who until then had dominated the industry for the United States abroad.

In 1946, Murrow returned to the United States from London and became vice president of new operations for CBS. It was barely 18 months before Murrow grew weary of executive tasks and went back to reporting. He resumed his reporting career on the radio with a nightly news show called Edward R. Murrow with the News. It was carried by 125 network stations and heard by an audience of millions for 13 years. While still maintaining a radio presence, soon Murrow would be breaking the ice in the television industry, leaving as deep an impression as he had on radio.

In 1951, he and longtime coeditor and producer, Fred Friendly, transformed the popular radio show Hear It Now into a television version called See It Now. See It Now, a series of news documentaries based on current events, essentially created the prototype for the television documentary used today. The show ran from 1951 to 1958.

Murrow’s most-celebrated piece on See It Now was his March 9, 1954, report. Senator Joseph P. McCarthy, the junior Republican senator from Wisconsin at the time, had commandeered an investigation into government employees’ backgrounds. The Cold War with then-Russia broke out, and “McCarthyism,” as it came to be known, was an effort to root out those in positions of power who were Communists, or thought to have Communist ties. The effort quickly ballooned into a nationwide frenzy of Americans accusing other Americans of Communist activities. Anyone with known Russian heritage or friends might be suspected of fraternizing with the enemy.

Murrow, oozing with confidence, went on the air that night, criticizing McCarthy for his tactics, using the senator’s own speeches and proclamations to point out where he had contradicted himself. This flew in the face of other networks, which had treated the emotionally supercharged issue gingerly. Many believed this to be the beginning of the end for McCarthy’s efforts. Although three weeks later, McCarthy went on air at CBS to defend his position, in December of 1954, the Senate “condemned” him. McCarthy died less than three years later, in 1957.

Murrow’s television career also included less controversial, lighter shows, such as Person to Person, which ran from 1953 to 1961. In this forum, he chatted informally with a variety of celebrities, such as Harry Truman, Marilyn Monroe, and John Steinbeck.

In his show, Small World, which ran from 1958 to 1959, Murrow used simultaneous hookups around the world to facilitate live, unrehearsed discussion among international opinion leaders. He also was involved, to a lesser extent, with one other television show, CBS Reports, in 1961. Murrow’s last major television milestone was reporting and narrating the CBS Reports installment, “Harvest of Shame,” a report on the plight of the migrant farmworkers in the United States.

Murrow was born Egbert Roscoe Murrow on April 25, 1908, in Polecat Creek, North Carolina. Born to Quaker parents, he was a mixture of English, Scottish, Irish, and German descent and was the youngest of three brothers. A fourth brother, who would have been the eldest, Roscoe Murrow Jr. had lived only hours.

His family moved to Blanchard, Washington, from North Carolina, where Murrow grew up. He worked summer vacations on a survey gang in the timberlands. Murrow went to Washington State College in Pullman, Washington, where he majored in speech and was a member of the Kappa Sigma fraternity. He changed his first name to Edward in his sophomore year and moved to New York City after graduating in 1930.

In 1932, while working as assistant director of the Institute of International Education, Murrow met Janet Huntington Brewster of Middletown, Connecticut. Two years later, he married the Mount Holyoke College graduate in her hometown. They had one child, a son named Charles Casey Murrow. In 1935, he got a job as director of talks and education at the CBS, the beginning of his long career with CBS.

Through his years in radio and television and his rise to international recognition, Murrow kept his humility in check, being known to have once said, “There is a danger that the individual comes to believe that, just because his voice is amplified and reaches halfway around the world, he is therefore more intelligent, more discerning, than he was when his voice only reached from one end of the bar to the other.”

When Murrow finally left CBS, it was to accept an invitation from President John F. Kennedy to become director of the United States Information Agency (USIA), the nation’s chief department defending against the war on propaganda. When health problems forced him to resign from the USIA in early 1964, Murrow was invited to return to work at CBS, but he declined.

Among the accolades awarded to Edward R. Murrow during his lifetime were:

In addition, there is a large thoroughfare named Murrow Boulevard in the heart of Greensboro, North Carolina, near where Murrow was born. And, there is an Edward R. Murrow High School in Brooklyn, New York.

The many popular culture references to Murrow include:

A heavy smoker all his life, smoking three packs or more a day, Murrow was rarely seen on television without a cigarette and may have been the United States’ best-known chain-smoker. When he died on April 27, 1965, at the young age of 57, it was no surprise that the cause of death was lung cancer.

President Lyndon Johnson said that all Americans “feel a sense of loss in the death of Edward R. Murrow... he dedicated his life as a newsman and as a public official to the unrelenting search for truth.”

The prime minister’s office in London issued a laudatory statement, with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) suspending its scheduled programs for half an hour to do a special program on Murrow. “He died a great figure in the United States—and a much loved one here,” said Richard Dimbleby, the BBC’s principal news commentator.

Both NBC and American Broadcasting-Paramount Theaters, Inc. (ABC) issued statements.

NBC said “his accomplishments as a reporter, his courageous devotion to duty so often at such great personal risk, and his loyalty to his ideals can never be forgotten by his friends, his colleagues and his associates and his competitors.”

Leonard H. Goldenson, president of ABC, said, “The Murrow imprint of electronic journalism is indelible and will last as long as the medium itself.”

Murrow set new standards for television journalism. To this day, he is cited as the example for how a broadcast journalist should function, despite the fact that many in the industry today never saw or heard one of his live broadcasts. As late as 1977, more than a decade after Murrow’s death, Dan Rather wrote in his autobiography, The Camera Never Blinks, that “it was astonishing how often his [Murrow’s] name and work came up. To somebody outside CBS it is probably hard to believe... Time and again I heard someone say, ‘Ed wouldn’t have done it that way.’ ”

—Jane Tolman

References

Ambrose, Stephen E. and Douglas Brinkley, eds. Witness to America: An Illustrated Documentary History of the United States from the Revolution to Today. New York: HarperCollins, 1999. Print. CD included, narrated by Dan Rather.

Bernstein, Mark and Alex Lubertozzi. World War II on the Air: Edward R. Murrow and the Broadcasts that Riveted a Nation (includes CD). Naperville, IL: Source, 2003. Print.

“Edward R. Murrow—Biography.” The Biographicon. January 4, 2008. Web. March 3, 2011. http://www.biographicon.com/view/ivksz/Edward_R_Murrow .

“Edward R. Murrow, Broadcaster and Ex-Chief of U.S.I.A., Dies.” The New York Times—Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. The New York Times Company, April 28, 2010. Web. March 8, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/bday/0425.html .

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Edwards, Bob. Edward R. Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2004. Print.

“Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005)—IMDb.” The Internet Movie Database (IMDb). Web. March 16, 2011. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0433383/ .

“MURROW, EDWARD R.” The Museum of Broadcast Communications. Web. March 3, 2011. http://www.museum.tv/eotvsection.php?entrycode=murrowedwar .

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