Edward R. Murrow is the most distinguished and renowned figure in the history of American broadcast journalism. He was a seminal force in the creation and development of electronic news gathering as both a craft and a profession. Murrow’s career began at CBS in 1935 and spanned the infancy of news and public affairs programming on radio through the ascendancy of television in the 1950s, as it eventually became the nation’s most popular news medium. In 1961, Murrow left CBS to become director of the United States Information Agency for the new Kennedy administration. By that time, his peers were already referring to a “Murrow legend and tradition” of courage, integrity, social responsibility, and journalistic excellence, emblematic of the highest ideals of both broadcast news and the television industry in general.
David Halberstam once observed in The Powers That Be that Murrow was “one of those rare legendary figures who was as good as his myth.” Murrow was apparently driven by the democratic precepts of modern liberalism and the more embracing Weltanschauung of the American Protestant tradition. In Alexander Kendrick’s Prime-Time: The Life of Edward R. Murrow, for example, Murrow’s brother, Dewey, described the intense religious and moral tutelage of his mother and father: “they branded us with their own consciences.” Murrow’s imagination and the long-term effects of his early home life impelled him to integrate his parents’ ethical guidelines into his own personality to such an extensive degree that Edward R. Murrow became the virtual fulfillment of his industry’s public service aspirations.
Ed Murrow’s rich, full, and expressive voice first came to the attention of America’s listening public in his many rooftop radio broadcasts during the Battle of Britain in 1939. In words evocative of America’s original founding fathers, Murrow frequently used the airwaves to revivify and popularize many democratic ideals such as free speech, citizen participation, the pursuit of truth, and the sanctification of individual liberties and rights, that resulted from a broader liberal discourse in England, France, and the United States. Resurrecting these values and virtues for a mass audience of true believers during the London Blitz was high drama—the opposing threat of totalitarianism, made real by Nazi bombs, was ever present in the background. Ed Murrow’s persona was thus established, embodying the political traditions of the Western democracies, and offering the public a heroic model on which to focus their energies.
Edward R. Murrow, of course, was only one of many heroes to emerge from World War II, but he became the eminent symbol for broadcasting. The creation of the Murrow legacy and tradition speaks both to the sterling talent of the man himself and the enormous growth and power of radio during the war years. Murrow hired a generation of electronic journalists at CBS, such as Eric Sevaried, Charles Collingwood, and Howard K. Smith, among many others, for whom he set the example as their charismatic leader. As late as 1977, in fact, 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.’”
Murrow’s initial foray into television was as the on-camera host of the seminal news and public affairs program, See It Now (1951-58). This series was an adaptation of radio’s popular Hear It Now which was also co-produced by Murrow and Fred W. Friendly. See It Now premiered in a half-hour format on 18 November 1951, opening with Murrow’s characteristic restraint and directness: “This is an old team trying to learn a new trade.” By 20 April 1952, See It Now had been moved to prime time where it stayed until July 1955, typically averaging around three million viewers. After that point, See It Now was expanded to an hour but telecast more irregularly on a special-events basis.
Through the course of its run, See It Now was awarded four Emmys for Best News or Public Service Program. Many of its broadcasts were duly considered breakthroughs for the medium. For example, “This is Korea… Christmas 1952” was produced on location “to try to portray the face of the war and the faces of the men who are fighting it.” Murrow’s most-celebrated piece was his 9 March 1954 telecast, in which he engaged Senator Joseph R. McCarthy in a program “told mainly in [McCarthy’s] own words and pictures.” In the aftermath of this episode, the descriptions of Edward R. Murrow and his tradition quickly began to transcend the more secular cast that appeared in response to his championing of democratic action and principles in Britain during World War II. In his review of the now legendary McCarthy program, for instance, New York Times’ TV critic Jack Gould reflected an ongoing canonization process when he wrote that “last week may be remembered as the week that broadcasting recaptured its soul.”
Edward R. Murrow also produced lighter, less controversial fare for television. His most popular success was his hosting of Person to Person (1953-61) where he chatted informally with a wide array of celebrities every Friday during prime time. Murrow remained with this program through the 1958-59 season, “visiting” in their homes such people as Harry Truman, Marilyn Monroe, and John Steinbeck. Murrow, in fact, won an Emmy for the Most Outstanding Personality in all of television after Person to Person’s inaugural season. He received four other individual Emmys for Best News Commentator or Analyst as well, with the last coming in 1958, the year he excoriated the broadcasting industry in a speech before the Radio and Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) for being “fat, comfortable, and complacent” and television for “being used to detract, delude, amuse and insulate us.”
The tragedy of Murrow’s rapid enervation at CBS after this latest tumult was implicit in his apparent need to ascribe higher motives to his own profession. Murrow had long reveled in his role as broadcasting’s Jeremiah. His urgent and inspirational style of presentation fit the life-and-death psychological milieu of a world war, as it was later appropriate for the McCarthy crisis. By 1958, though, the viewing public and the television industry were less inclined to accept yet another of his ethical lambastes, especially since his RTNDA speech was directed at them and their shortcomings. As the business of TV grew astronomically during the 1950s, Murrow’s priorities fell progressively out of step.
There is still a small plaque in the lobby of CBS headquarters in New York City which contains the image of Murrow and the inscription: “He set standards of excellence that remain unsurpassed.” During his 25-year career he made more than 5000 broadcasts; and more than anyone else, he invented the traditions of television news. Murrow and his team essentially created the prototype of the TV documentary with See It Now, and later extended the technological reach of electronic news gathering in Small World (1958-59), which employed simultaneous hookups around the globe to facilitate unrehearsed discussion among several international opinion leaders. Most of Murrow’s See It Now associates were reassembled to produce CBS Reports in 1961, although Murrow was only an infrequent participant in this new series. Over the years, he had simply provoked too many trying situations for CBS and the network’s hierarchy made a conscious decision to reduce his profile. The apparent irony between Edward R. Murrow’s life and the way that he is subsequently remembered today is that the industry that finally had no place for him now holds Murrow up as their model citizen—the “patron saint of American broadcasting.” —Gary Edgerton
EDWARD R. MURROW (Egbert Roscoe Murrow). Born in Greensboro, North Carolina, U.S., 25 April 1908. Attended Stanford University and the University of Washington; graduated from Washington State College, 1930. Married: Janet Huntington Brewster, 1934; one son. Served as assistant director of the Institute of International Education, 1932-35; began career with CBS as director of talks and education, 1935; became director of CBS’ European Bureau in London, 1937; during World War II, hired and trained distinguished corps of war correspondents, including Eric Sevaried, Howard K. Smith, Charles Collingwood, and Richard C. Hottelet; returned to U.S. as CBS vice-president and director of public affairs, 1946; resigned to return to radio broadcasting, 1947; narrated and produced Hear It Now radio series, 1950-51; brought series to television as See It Now, 1951-58; began Person to Person television program in 1953; moderated and produced Small World, television series featuring discussions among world figures, 1958-60; appointed by President John F. Kennedy to head U.S. Information Agency (USIA) in 1961, and remained in post until 1964. Recipient: nine Emmy Awards. Died in New York, 27 April 1965.
Listen to a portion of Mr. Murrow’s December 3, 1943 CBS radio broadcast about a bombing run he had made the previous night with the RAF to Berlin and back.
1952-58 See It Now (host)
1953-59 Person to Person (host)
1958-60 Small World (moderator and producer)
Hear It Now (host and co-producer) 1950-51.
So This Is London New York: Simon and Schuster, 1941.
In Search of Light: The Broadcasts of Edward R. Murrow 1938-1961. Edited with Edward Bliss, Jr. New York: Knopf, 1967.
Call It Courage: Act on Your Knowledge” (transcript). Vital Speeches (Washington, D.C.) 15 November 1993.
Edgerton, Gary, “The Murrow Legend as Metaphor: The Creation, Appropriation, and Usefulness of Edward R. Murrow’s Life Story” Journal of American Culture (Bowling Green, Ohio) Spring 1992.
Edward R. Murrow Papers, 1927-1965: A Guide to the Microfilm Edition Sanford, North Carolina: Microfilming Corp. of America, 1982.
Halberstam, David, The Powers That Be New York: Knopf, 1979.
Kendrick, Alexander, Prime-Time: The Life of Edward R. Murrow Boston: Little, Brown, 1969.
Lichello, Robert, Edward R. Murrow, Broadcaster of Courage Charlottesville, New York: SamHar Press, 1971.
Persico, Joseph E., Edward R. Murrow: An American Original New York: McGraw-Hill, 1988.
____________, “The Broadcaster and the Demagogue” Television Quarterly (New York) Spring 1989.
Smith, Robert, Edward R. Murrow: The War Years Kalamazoo, Michigan: New Issues Press, 1978.
Sperber, A. M., Murrow, His Life and Times New York: Freundlich, 1986.
Wald, Malvin, “Shootout at the Beverly Hills Corral: Edward R. Murrow versus Hollywood” Journal of Popular Film and Television (Bowling Green, Ohio) Fall 1991.