December 22, 2014

1971. Edward R. Murrow's Legacy

Fred Friendly on Edward R. Murrow's Legacy
Fred Friendly (left) and Edward R. Murrow (source)
April 16, 1971
Prepared for delivery at the dedication of the Edward R. Murrow Memorial Room at Tufts University
If you never heard Ed Murrow tell his grape nut story, you missed something. The last time I heard him tell it—with much gusto—was on the occasion of his farewell to CBS newsrooms and affiliate stations. It was my role to introduce him, and Ed thought my remarks suffered—shall we say—from lack of understatement. His response, which still exists on quarter-inch tape, invokes his favorite anecdote about his days as a whistle-punk on Puget Sound:
"That introduction reminded me of a time about 30 years ago when I was working in the woods in Western Washington, and at the end of a long pack trip—and it had rained for four days and four nights—an elderly timber cruiser and myself lay down beside a stream, dug into my pack—the only thing that was left were 2 little package samples of grape nuts, no coffee, no bacon—nothing. As we lay down in the cool night, taking a handful of water from the stream and a handful of grape nuts, the grape nuts tasted like sand. And at the end of about 5 minutes the elderly gentleman rolled over on his side and said to me, 'You know, Ed, I think these here grape nuts has been over-advertised.' I think Fred had just over-advertised me."
"He was a shooting star," wrote Eric Sevareid six years ago this April 27. "We shall live in his afterglow for a very long time." Six years is not a very long time, but we still live and work in that Murrow glow which grows ever more brilliant. That brightness prompts a reassessment from "shooting star" to Polaris, the true North Star by which ancient mariners and modern space voyagers set and correct their course. Today in broadcast journalism it is still the Murrow bearing against which the profession measures itself and occasionally corrects its course.

Often people ask, "What would Murrow have thought about Vietnam now? What would he have to say about Vice President Agnew, about subpoenas of reporters' notebooks, about the Calley trial?" One of Murrow's favorite quotations was Maimonides' "Teach thy tongue to say I do not know." Anyone who would try to put words in Ed's mouth, even Ed's own in a new context, would offend that part of Murrow's conscience which abides in each of us.

In addition to what he caused to come out of the microphone and out of the tube during the Battle of Britain and the Battle of McCarthyism, the legacy of Ed Murrow is what he said and wrote about his profession and its responsibilities. But his most enduring bequest is perhaps the degree to which those he taught and inspired would raise their own voices in their time.

The scripture according to Brother Ed for today is from an unreported 1961 speech that turned out to be his last as a journalist. It was just before President Kennedy appointed him to the post of Director of the USIA. He talked about a dream that he and his teacher, Ed Klauber, had for an Information Institute which would raise the level of media performance and understanding. He listed all the deadly assaults on the press, "including all efforts or factors tending to hamper or limit the purveying of information to the American people, whether legislative, regulatory, or economic...efforts at censorship or suppression by individuals or organized groups." Lest any laissez-faire trade associations attempt to translate that caution into an argument for perpetual, unmonitored license, be reminded that in that same address Murrow recommended that any radio and television station which "welches on its promise" of lofty public service should be penalized by loss of license "like any other purveyor of shoddy goods," as he so indelicately put it.

What Murrow was asking for was more journalism, not less, more documentaries, more news analysis, even if it made the corporation or the body-politic itch, as he liked to paraphrase Heywood Broun. In 1971, the profession and traditions he pioneered again find themselves under siege, this time not just from shrill senators, not just from special interest lobbies, but from the executive branch of government itself.

I am aware that there are those, some right here in this hall, who will challenge that assumption. The President of the United States, they will contend, believes in a free press and never criticizes the news media. They would perhaps point to his March 22nd conversation with Howard Smith in which the Chief Executive said,
"I am not complaining about my treatment from the press...I have never taken on a member of the press individually. I have never called a publisher since I have been President. I have never called an editor to complain about anything, and I never shall..."
Now that's a noble statement. The trouble with accepting it at face value is that it ignores what the President's chief officers were practicing at that precise time.

Indeed, a documentary on the subject might well juxtapose Mr. Nixon's remarks with those of his subordinates. In that same week:

a) Vice President Agnew was denouncing CBS News for the documentary "The Selling of the Pentagon" and the news media generally for a wide variety of "masochistic" sins, including "the movement to plead America guilty...on the war in Indochina, military surveillance of civilians, J. Edgar Hoover's leadership of the FBI, supersonic transport development, and the economy."

b) Herbert Klein, the President's Director of Communications, was telling the National Association of Broadcasters' Convention that the White House believed in strong local stations. Just in case the meaning of this shorthand was obscure, Mr. Klein was reported to have told a CBS station owner, "You fellows do an excellent news job. Why do you rely on CBS News?"

c) Three days after the President's remarks about not complaining to broadcasters, Ronald Ziegler, the White House Press Secretary, was asking, on official stationary, a station manager to outline for him "in the most specific terms what you consider to be the Nixon Administration's 'embarrassing failures at home and in Indochina.'" Instances of other letters to other news organizations are becoming quite frequent, as are personal calls from the President himself to correspondents and producers responsible for broadcasts favorable to the Administration. Can there be any doubt of the number effect on a license holder when critical analysis elicits a disturbed note from the President's Press Officer, while a favorable treatment prompts a personal phone call from the Man in the Oval Office?

d) Shortly after the President's vow of press abstinence, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development George Romney charged the news media with dominating American channels of communication with "all the negatives that can be exploited in this country." He said the President was not getting a "fair break" from a media which makes its judgments "on the basis of style, on appearances...on the manner in which things are done." Meanwhile, Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird continued to charge CBS News with lack of professionalism in "The Selling of the Pentagon."

e) A White House Press Officer arranged for Al Capp to speak to the NAB Convention on the subject of "Youth and Drugs," but when the cartoonist-philosopher rose to speak it was with the news media, and Tom Wicker in particular, who got what Li'l Abner used to give Earthquake McGoon.

Of course, other Chief Executives have had their tiffs with the press. An offended Harry Truman went after the music critic of the Washington Post who had been critical of his daughter; a petulant John Kennedy banned the Herald Tribune and lived to regret his pique, as did Richard Nixon whose fatigue and defeat prompted his 1962 attack on the Los Angeles Times. And there was always the hot hand of Lyndon Johnson on the telephone after the seven o'clock news. But these outbursts were isolated and usually made against the consent of their staffs and families.

What the executive branch of government, led by the second-highest office holder in the land, seems to be systematically attempting to do, with malice aforethought, is to sow seeds of serious doubt about the news media. When Walter Cronkite does sixty hours on space he is a national hero. When CBS does five minutes on a setback in Laos or an hour on the defense establishment, Cronkite and Frank Stanton are attacked. The distrust that the executive branch of government is spreading applies not just to the news media, but to a crucial American freedom. The fallout from the distrust can be as damaging as if the Chief Executive tried to circumvent due process of civil law or military justice.

During and after the campaign of 1968, the credibility of our courts, particularly the Supreme Court, was fair game. Few journalists viewed this trend as anything but another good news story. Now that broadcast journalism is being vilified with half and quarter-truths, the printed press, with few exceptions, has been watching from a false sanctuary of self-righteous neutrality. Even the chilling language of the special House Subcommittee on Investigations demanding "all work prints, out-takes, sound tape recordings, written scripts...a statement of all disbursements of money made by CBS" in the making of "The Selling of the Pentagon" has caused a little outcry from sympathetic senators, representatives, or even outraged citizens who are so sensitive to other forms of pollution. They don't seem to realize that the poisoning of the atmosphere surrounding news reporting may cause a spring as silent and as frightening as Rachel Carson's.

Congressmen have no business in film editing rooms or newsrooms, and if they once begin making judgment on what a documentary left in or out, then it is only a matter of time before they subpoena C.L. Sulzberger's notes on his recent conversation with President Nixon, or the transcript of what President Eisenhower, in a 1961 interview, said about the U-2 incident, or what General Earle Wheeler, in a 1964 conversation, said about Vietnam troop movements, later edited out by me. In both cases, my news judgment may have been faulty, but that was hardly a Congressional Committee's business. In this instance, if Frank Stanton or Richard Salant do not comply with the subpoena of their files, they may well be judged in contempt of Congress, albeit a misguided Congress. But if they yield, and there is no reason to believe they will, they would be in contempt of their own consciences. Stanton and Salant need the support of all who believe that the First Amendment means what it says and what Murrow's life said broadcast journalism could mean. In the days immediately following the Murrow-McCarthy broadcast, we received almost 100,000 telegrams and letters. I consider that this crisis of the subpoenas is no less grave, and I ask what your broadcast friends cannot—a telegram of concern to your congressman or senator. It just might do some good.

"Those who stand idly by"—whether in New York or Medford or Des Moines—together with those at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue who would weaken what Carlyle called the fourth bench of government can't or won't understand that in our kind of interdependent society, that which threatens one estate weakens all.

To his credit, President Nixon said on ABC, "If I fail to communicate, it is my fault." With all its power to communicate, can the government be so insecure about its policies that it must jam the system of searchlights and beacons that are the very safeguards of public opinion? As Walter Lippmann said 50 years ago, "Communications in a free society should make a picture of reality on which men can act." And as Murrow warned in that 1961 address:
"If a deceived or confused public is betrayed into creating or allowing to be created an America in which it loses its faith, democracy will not survive. Neither will it survive if the efforts to inform people, to enlighten them, to argue with them—finally convince them that the nation's problems are beyond their grasp. If the people finally...believe either that they cannot...cope with America's problems, or that those who inform, those who argue, and those who act are inept or malign or both, then distrust, dissatisfaction, fear and laziness can combine to turn them in desperation to that 'strong man' who can take them only to destruction."
It is not my intention to apply Murrow's law to the current attitude of the government alone. There is warning enough there for all of us.
"The more the pattern of information contrives to be confused, distorted, and manipulated, the more likely are these prophets to be right, because cynicism, distrust, and despair will be added to...the fears of the population."
Murrow understood that there were three sides to every controversy, believing with his friend, Walter Lippman, that even "when the editor is scrupulously fair to 'the other side,' fairness is not enough. There may be several other sides, unmentioned by any of the organized, financed, and active partisans." Murrow understood that journalists, like the decision-makers they report, are not infallible. He realized that in the high-pressure dynamics created by those swirling forces that make the news, and by those who must analyze it, some kind of safety valve is essential.

Being an innovator, Murrow provided a partial answer to that need in 1946, when he developed "CBS Views the Press," a thoughtful and critical analysis of New York newspapers brilliantly conducted by the late Don Hollenbeck. The success and the much lamented death of this series convinced Murrow that a continuing critique of all news media was not only possible, but mandatory. In a paper written for the Ford Foundation in the early sixties, he proposed that non-commercial television, the Fourth Network as he called what has since become Public Television, should become "the conscience of journalism...and the mature, discerning gadfly to all the mass media in this country..."

The opportunity to exercise that responsibility for public broadcasting is now, and the need has never been greater. With journalists under attack from all sides and rightfully unwilling to submit to the judgment of the Vice President or to permit Congressional Committees to pour through their out-takes and second guess their editing, some kind of voluntary forum is in order. Newspapers, magazines, and broadcast stations do make mistakes. Correction of these errors and analysis of their news judgment is not what they always do best. As one who has erred in such responsibility, let me state we owe the public an accounting, and what better place for this than on Public Television?

The place to begin is at the local or regional level, where the news media attempts to fill the crucial role of "creating that picture of reality on which men can act." Each Public Television station might experiment with a weekly seminar on the performance of the press in that community. With one of the first and most imaginative public stations in the country, Boston might be the first to try it. I'm proposing a kind of electric journalism review in the form of a one-hour forum where the participants in the news arena would get to "have at each other."
In this freewheeling but structured Boston Press Review, let anyone who feels his ox has been gored, or his quotes taken out of context, seek redress. When the Boston Globe does violence to the SDS or the administration at Harvard or the former city officials of Somerville, or WHDH-TV does an allegedly unfair documentary about Chelsea, or WGBH criticizes the phone company, let the grievance be vented on Boston Press Review. In the case of "The Selling of the Pentagon," they might invite Richard Salant of CBS News, and Dan Henkin, Assistant Secretary of Defense, to come to Boston for a frank discussion as we did at the Columbia School of Journalism.
I am told that some Boston bankers were upset last fall by an NET documentary "The Banks and the Poor." Instead of letting all the charges and counter-charges mount, the way to ventilate the controversy would be to invite producer Morton Silverstein to meet the Boston bankers. Louis Lyons, or that promising new media critic, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, could serve as moderator, and the Fletcher School, Nieman Fellows, and scholars from other institutions might provide valuable inputs. Of course there is no guarantee that it would work, and there might be all kind of disappointments before it jelled. But that might provide this community and eventually others like it with more than just another television show—it could be "the discerning gadfly" that the man we honor here today was seeking.

I have another suggestion that may be in the Murrow tradition. I do not mean to be simplistic in my approach to the problems the First Amendment raises, but there is a difference between newspapers and magazines and broadcast stations. Stations are licensed. By prior restraint, this prevents others from occupying that place on the dial because of the limitations on the electromagnetic spectrum, although in time cable television may provide access to additional news services. The broadcaster feels he is vulnerable to government pressure because of that license. Politicians on the receiving end of documentaries and news analysis feel they are vulnerable because of the power and pervasiveness of television. Truth and wisdom probably do not rest with either of those increasingly polarized positions.

This may well be the time for an independent study specifically on the freedom of broadcast journalism in a licensed industry. The government's implicit need to regulate licensees certainly does not include the regulation of news content. The broadcaster's responsibility to be independent does not give him immunity from accountability on "welching on his promises."

There ought to be a study on how those two responsibilities can be identified and separated. It is a project that license holders, set owners, foundations, journalism educators, and even the Vice President ought to be able to cooperate on.

The last few years of Ed's life were concerned with the United States Information Agency. It was always difficult for me to accept the fact that Ed had gone into the propaganda business until I realized that he really hadn't. He just went on telling the truth about America. At Murrow's confirmation hearing, the senior senator from Indiana lectured the Director-Designate: "Selling the U.S. to the world is like selling a car...or a television set. You don't advertise the weakness." Murrow disagreed. "You must tell the bad with the good...We cannot be effective in telling the American story abroad if we tell it only in superlatives...If the bad news is significant, it's going to be reported abroad anyway. We should report it accurately." He saw his new job as an opportunity "not to capture but to free men's minds." As he said, "It is very difficult to measure success in our business. No computer clicks, no cash register rings when a man changes his mind or opts for freedom."

This too was part of Murrow's legacy. "He revitalized the USIA," as Arthur Schlesinger wrote, "imbued it with his own bravery and honesty. Under Ed, The Voice of America became the voice no of American self-righteousness, but of American democracy. If Ed were here today he would probably quote his old lumberman friend from Puget Sound and say, "These grape nuts are over-advertised." But he would be wrong. That star grows ever brighter, as you are about to observe in a 17-year-old documentary resurrected from another time—or was it?