Seeing Murrow Now

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One Sunday afternoon thirty-six years ago, in Chicago, I sat with my parents in front of the family’s brand-new television set, with its small, round-cornered screen, and watched the first of a new kind of program on CBS. It was called “See It Now,” and while most of what was shown during that first half-hour has faded from my memory, two things remain vivid. At one point a pair of monitors simultaneously showed New York Harbor and the Golden Gate—both a little wobbly, as I remember, and in black and white, of course, but each unquestionably live. (No technical achievement since—not even the sight of the first moon walkers, eighteen years later—has ever seemed to me so miraculous.)

Beyond that there was the extraordinary presence of the baleful host, squinting into the camera through a writhing blue-gray scrim of cigarette smoke, his voice, low, authoritative, a little weary, conveying the sense that there was very little in the world he hadn’t seen or heard or thought before.

From that moment, whatever Edward R. Murrow told me, I believed, and whenever he was scheduled to appear, I watched, wondering sometimes just what sort of man he really was.

Murrow: His Life and Times, A. M. Sperber’s mammoth biography recently published by Freundlich Books, has trouble answering that question. It received better notices than it deserved, I’m afraid; in its 795 pages pointless anecdotes get as much attention as crucial ones; the author stumbles in and out of her characters’ inmost thoughts; and Murrow himself frequently disappears within thickets of tangential facts.

To be fair, another biography, Prime Time: The Life of Edward R. Murrow, written by one of Murrow’s former CBS colleagues, Alexander Kendrick, and published eighteen years ago, while far better written and organized, got no closer to the man behind that extraordinary voice. And part of the problem lies with Murrow himself. In her index, under “Murrow, Edward R., character and personality of,” Sperber lists “charm,” followed by “as child,” “conscience,” “death wish, self-destructiveness,” “guilt and sense of sin,” “loneliness and isolation,” “as maverick,” “need for security,” “pessimism and fatalism,” “reticence, guardedness, privateness,” “self-distrust,” “shyness,” and “temper.” Not an easy man to get to know.

 

Still, despite the clumsiness of this telling, Murrow’s tale is worth your time; I can’t imagine anyone who remembers him and the events through which he and we lived together not being moved by it.

Murrow had a reporter’s healthy cynicism about politicians and political rhetoric, but a stubborn naiveté about what might be done for the public good through radio and television. He was “a sufferer,” his wife remembered, and his late colleague Charles Collingwood once suggested that what he suffered from most was his belief “that we live in a perfectible world.”

Murrow was born on a North Carolina dirt farm in 1908, the descendant of dissenters—southern Quakers who opposed slavery and supported the Union. He was a Big Man on Campus at Washington State College (where he swapped Edward for the hated Egbert) and became a bigger one as president of the National Student Federation of America, assistant director of the Institute of International Education, and European director for CBS—all before the age of thirty.

His reporting of the rise of Hitler and the early days of the European war made him famous—and helped make broadcast journalism more than a novelty. Murrow was a brave and tireless reporter; German bombs blasted three CBS offices out from under him in London, and direct orders from New York could not keep him from going along on bombing runs over Germany. (A friend once asked him why he ran such risks. “I have a peasant’s mind,” he said. “I can’t write about anything I haven’t seen.”) He assembled an extraordinary reporting team—William L. Shirer, Collingwood, Eric Sevareid, Larry LeSueur, Cecil Brown —and all were proud to be known as “Murrow’s boys.”

Above all, he had a rare ability to make distant listeners see what he was seeing. Here he looks across London from a rooftop while the bombs fall: “I think probably in a minute we shall have the sound of guns in the immediate vicinity. The lights are swinging over in this general direction now. You’ll hear two explosions. There they are! That was the explosion overhead, not the guns themselves. I should think in a few minutes there may be a bit of shrapnel around here....Earlier this evening we could hear occasional—again, those were explosions overhead. Earlier this evening, we heard a number of bombs go sliding and slithering across, to fall several blocks away....Now you’ll hear two bursts a little nearer in a moment. There they are! That hard stony sound.”

“You burned the city of London in our houses and we felt the flames...,” Archibald MacLeish told Murrow in 1941. “You laid the dead of London at our doors and we knew that the dead were our dead...were mankind’s dead without rhetoric, without dramatics, without more emotion than needed be...you have destroyed the superstition that what is done beyond 3,000 miles of water is not really done at all.”