September 23, 2014

1970. Bill Downs on Edward R. Murrow's Legacy

Regarding Ed Murrow
"Edward R. Murrow reading a script in a studio" (source)
In 1970 Bill Downs received an inquiry about his thoughts on Edward R. Murrow. Downs offered his take:
To: Prof. Theodore Bilski 
22 Oct. 1970
Dear Professor, 
Please excuse my tardiness in answering your letters regarding Ed Murrow. I've been in the process of transferring from the Pentagon beat to a new assignment called, cryptically, "the Environment." I've been completely absorbed in trying to define the job. 
Anyway, concerning Ed Murrow. He hired me away from the UP London bureau in 1942...after working a few months for him in London, I replaced Larry LeSueur in Moscow. I was recommended to Ed by Charles Collingwood, who also had been in the UP London bureau. 
As you probably know from various books and articles on Murrow, his entry into news reporting was almost accidentala case of being in the right place at the right time. His early training had been in the professional academic field. He mentioned to me a number of times that he wished he had had hard-nosed newspaper or press association experience because he sometimes doubted his own news judgment on some particular event. 
I expressed my personal feeling that news reporting is not something that can be "taught" like the alphabet...that every human being able to communicate with another is a "reporter." Some do it better than others. But the major qualifications, we agreed, was as much backgrounding in history and current affairs as possible; a fanatical regard for the facts; unbounded curiosity; normal compassion and a sense of humor could add up to a top reporter. 
Murrow probably would have added a couple of other thingswhich, incidentally, he possessed to a great degree. One was loyalty to his friends and his causes; the other was to preserveand keep private if necessarythe capacity to hate and despise what he regarded as evil and cheap. 
As an unabashed and card-carrying Murrow-phile, I think Ed proved that news reporting basically is a decent man trying to describe and interpret day-to-day events as lucidly and honestly as his capacity permitted. In the case of Murrow, that capacity was astounding. 
When Murrow took up the microphone in Europe, news broadcasting was in its infancy. The press associations and newspaper syndicates were the experts in telegraph circuits around the world. Their knowledge of the telephone circuits was minimal because of the comparative cost...and for pencil reporters, words just naturally were supposed to go by Morse code. 
I don't know who first had the idea of the world news roundup. Some say it was Paley. I personally think it must have been Paul White, one of the best and most competitive news executives ever to sit in the slot. But to put together a multiple pickup telephone circuit from a half-dozen European capitals when the continent was in the throes of an international crisis, had to be the work of not only Murrow and White but a lot of other reporters and technicians feeling their way in the electronic dark. 
Murrow gravitated to the American foreign correspondents corps when he started out because, simply, they were in place and knew what was going to separate truth from propaganda...and because the American journalistic ethic, unlike the European party press, was the only standard acceptable to a US audience. 
Murrow didn't give a damn if a reporter sounded like Ethel Barrymore or W.C. Fieldsas long as he was understandable and had something to say. He deplored a later tendency by some executives to hire "voices"pointing out that if Homer Bigart, now a NY Times correspondent and one of our generation's best reporters despite a tendency to stutter...Ed said if Bigart was the only newsman on hand to witness the Second Coming, the networks by God would use Bigart, stutter and all. 
As for Murrow's innovations, like all electronic news men, the job requires a certain amount of "ham." Same for politicians. Ed had his I believe some scholastic amateur theater training and extensive collegiate public speaking and debate experience. Murrow was born with his voice and developed his own diction and never lost his delight in the picturesque vernacular of his native North Carolina and the Northwest where he was raised. 
However in the late '30s and early '40s, everyone listened to the BBC, a sane and steady voice penetrating the hysteria of the Nazi and Fascist rantings. To assure immediate identification over Europe's jangling airwaves, the BBC hired a Cambridge professor to train its news announcers (they were not reporters) to mouth the domestic and overseas broadcasts in the same rich Oxfordian tones. (The professor went mad, incidentally, beat his wife to death with a hammer and was sentenced to an asylum. I covered the trial. There's a lesson in there some place.) 
It's my private, unconfirmed theory that much of the so-called "Murrow style" was absorbed from this British approach to the newssomething as if the "news" was a dis-embodied symbol of reverence, no matter what its content. 
One further illustration: The world's leading sports broadcaster of British cricket was the BBC's Howard Marshall, a burly, handsome, pipe-smoking English gentleman who endowed the play-by-play from Lords with the dignity of a Westminster coronation. However since the game of cricket is not exactly a cock fight, Marshall used to hold up his mike so that the eager cricket fans could actually hear the crack of the bat on the intersperse his remarks of "Good show!...Well done!" etc. 
When Murrow put his mike to the ground to pick up the firm, unhurried steps of Londoners seeking shelter during one of the city's first air raids, he was simply adapting Marshall's cricket technique to a much more dramatic situation. As I said, this is my own theory as we all were learning about the electronic possibilities of reporting in those days. 
As for the identity of the "Murrow boys," it's a matter of definition. Ed didn't like the label. Neither do I nor any of the guys concerned. I believe it was invented in New York as part of the stiletto office politics which abound in all network organizations. Since Ed at one time or another employed all, I think, of the men you mentioned on your list, they qualify. 
If you have to have my definition, it would be that nucleus of men who dropped everything to report the war for CBS News and stuck with the company afterward. This would include Shirer, Smith, LeSueur, Costello, Collingwood, Sevareid, Hottelet and myself. Daly and Trout were stateside news announcers when Murrow began broadcasting, I believe. Schoenbrun was hired by Murrow after the war. Ken Downs, Mowrer, Gervasi, Huss and Manning all stayed in the news agency, magazine and newspaper fields. 
Again I apologize for the delay. Hope this makes up for it. 
Bill Downs