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Seeing Murrow Now

May 2024
6min read

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 have destroyed the superstition that what is done beyond 3,000 miles of water is not really done at all.”

Murrow’s time in London was only the start of his broadcasting career; working in television during the two decades that followed the war, he set standards of eloquence, concision, and probity to which young reporters still aspire. But the London years clearly marked the high point of his life; most of what came after disappointed him, in large part because the institutions for which he worked were never so interested in reporting hard facts as he was.

His most memorable television documentaries—the defense of Lt. Milo Radulovich, unjustly dismissed from the Air Force Reserve as a security risk; the devastating portrait of Joseph McCarthy; pioneering programs on the plight of migrant workers and the fatal link between cancer and smoking—reaped armfuls of awards for him and for his network. But the criticism they drew also made the executives of that network nervous and its sponsors wary; toward the end of his time with CBS, he and his partner, Fred W. Friendly, were paying out of their own pockets to advertise “See It Now” in The New York Times.

Sperber’s book offers a good deal of evidence for what the CBS staffers who formed the clandestine “Murrow is not God club” always knew: that he had his share of quirks. He was tortured by black depressions; had a series of affairs (with Marlene Dietrich, among others); and took himself so seriously that as a young man he pretended to be two years older than he was and consciously tried to spread wrinkles across his unmarked brow because, he said, he wanted people to know that he thought a lot. He was uncomfortable with fame and never overcame the mike fright that made his legs shake and sweat stream down his neck; the unfiltered Camels on which he pulled with such ferocity—up to ninety a day—helped steady him.

He himself helped blur the already shadowy line between news and entertainment; he is best remembered for “See It Now,” but he was also the host of a far more popular weekly program called “Person to Person,” in which he chatted with celebrities—from Marilyn Monroe to Norman Vincent Peale, Sherman Adams to Gypsy Rose Lee—while being shown through their homes. The closest current parallel is, well, “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” Murrow’s efforts to be informal were painful to watch. Herbert Bayard Swope wrote him he thought there was something odd about all these people calling him “Ed”; “Mr. Murrow” would be more fitting. Swope was right.

Murrow, said his wife, was “a sufferer”; a colleague suggested that what he suffered from most was his belief “that we live in a perfectible world.”

It was a muddled confrontation with his boss, Frank Stanton, over programming practices on this show, not one of his uncompromising documentaries, that sparked his final break with the network. Stanton, anxious to assure viewers in the wake of the quiz-show scandals that CBS would sin no more, had promised henceforth to begin each “Person to Person” interview with a solemn disclaimer saying the program had been rehearsed. Murrow felt his integrity had been called into question.

He then accepted John Kennedy’s offer to serve as director of the United States Information Agency (USIA), hoping to bring a new boldness and honesty to its overseas broadcasts—and made a whole new set of superiors nervous. The March, a USIA film on the 1963 March on Washington, for example, came under heavy fire from within the administration for lacking “balance.” “I am unrepentant...,” Murrow told an aide. “It is a good film and anyone...who believes that every individual film must present a ‘balanced’ picture, knows nothing about either balance or pictures.” Murrow also found Robert Kennedy’s penchant for gumshoeing tiresome; according to the author, Murrow once found a stranger going through his desk at the USIA; he slammed the drawer shut on the man’s hand, trapping him, then let him go, and told him—among other, more colorful things—to “tell Bobby if he wants to know something, he can ask Jack!

Cancer, the inevitable product of all those hundreds of thousands of cigarettes, drove Murrow to retire in January 1964 and spread swiftly from his lungs to his brain. He lived just more than a year. A friend remembered calling upon him at the Dakota Apartments on Central Park in New York City toward the end; he was wasted, unable to stand, wearing a red stocking cap to hide the signs of surgery and radiation, but he watched the television screen with something of his old intensity as an administration spokesman offered the official version of prospects for victory in Vietnam. “They’re out of their minds,” he said, covering his face with his bony hands. “They’re lying. How can he say that?”

At the end of his last official speech as director of the USIA, defending the principle of truth telling even when discussing our worst flaws, he reminded his listeners that appearances finally didn’t count for much. “At the end of the day,” he said, “it’s what we are that matters.”

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