September 15, 2016

1940. Edward R. Murrow's Beginnings

Murrow the Newsman
Edward R. Murrow (seated in center) at a French cafe with colleagues in the late 1930s (source)
From the Radio and Television Mirror, October, 1940, pp. 19, 68-69:


By Norton Russell
After a blacked-out night, the thing light of dawn is creeping up over the land of England—over the hedgerows and sturdy oaks and grassy meadows of the countryside, over the smoke and grime of London and the huge industrial cities of the Midlands, over the gray, oily ripples of the Thames, over the Channel and over all the big, skyward-pointing guns. It is half-past three in England, and a slender, intense-looking man is sitting in front of a microphone in the Columbia Broadcasting System's London office, saying:

"Hello, America. This is Edward R. Murrow."

It's three-thirty in London. Across three thousand miles of tossing sea, it is ten-thirty in New York—along toward the end of the evening, nearly bed-time for all the folks who must be up and working the next morning. It's nearly bed-time for Ed Murrow too. But unlike his working compatriots in New York, he won't get eight hours of sleep. He'll be lucky if he gets four, and more likely it will be three or even two. Or maybe none at all, if something should happen.

The time when Ed Murrow worried about not getting enough sleep is past—long past. He's pretty well used to it now, and he has more important things on his mind. He might very easily worry about whether the office where he works or the apartment building where he lives will still be left standing, brick on brick, by the time another British dawn rolls around. As a matter of fact, he doesn't worry much about that, either.

Chiefly concerning him at the moment, and at all moments, is his job. For Ed Murrow is European Director for the Columbia Broadcasting System, and he must keep his finger on the pulse of all Europe. He must get the news, he must get it straight, he must write it, he must submit it to the censors, he must clear the time for broadcasting it to the United States, and he must talk it into a microphone. Of course he has assistants, but not as many as you'd expect. And anyway, he's the boss. Seeing that things run right is his responsibility, and no one else's.

It wasn't like this in the old days—away back in 1937 when Ed first went to London as CBS' European director. Then his job, while important enough, was a matter of arranging quaint broadcasts like an interview with a London cabby, or an on-the-spot show which was accurately titled, "Saturday Night in the Spread Eagle Pub at Little Barfield, Sussex." Or he would see to it that George Bernard Shaw or H. G. Wells or the current party whip in the House of Commons was persuaded to say a few well-chosen words for the benefit of American listeners.

No crises, you see, and not much lost sleep.

But although not many people in the world seemed to realize it, even in those days Ed Murrow, and the Columbia Broadcasting System, knew that crises were on their way. Ed knew it because he already had important sources of information in Europe, and CBS must have known it, because they chose Ed for the job.

Ed Murrow was born in North Carolina thirty-six years ago. His family moved westward when he was a boy, and he attended the University of Washington and Washington State University. After that, he went to Stanford and got a Master of Arts degree. He was elected president of the National Student Federation, and in 1932 he became assistant director of the Institute of International Education—a job that sent him traveling around the United States, visiting colleges and arranging debates, lectures, and exchange scholarships. Summers, still as assistant director of the Institute, he guided student tours through Europe, incidentally meeting and talking to foreign members and officials of the Institute.

Knowing all these intellectual and well-informed citizens of Europe made Ed Murrow an ideal representative for CBS. But knowing them turned out, also, to be one of Ed's great personal tragedies. As nation after nation disappeared under the tide of Hitlerism, many of Ed's friends disappeared too. Some of them he has never heard of since. Of others, months later, he has learned that they are dead, in concentration camps, or penniless fugitives.

In March, 1938, Ed was on his way to Latvia and Lithuania when word game to him in Warsaw that Hitler's Germany had finally effected its cherished "Anschluss" with Austria. Ed had to get to Vienna, of course, but the only transportation available was a 23-passenger airplane—so he chartered it and flew in it to Vienna, a lone passenger. At the Vienna airport he found that the German troops had commandeered all buses and taxis, so he made the last part of the journey on foot.

At that, he was lucky. Nowadays there wouldn't be a 23-passenger plane available. Before the war, Ed used to fly a great deal over Europe, co-ordinating CBS activities, but now, naturally, he remains in England.

Through the crisis years he watched communication between himself and his assistants in European key cities get more and more difficult. He always knew when a crisis of some kind was brewing, and where, because for a day or so ahead of time it would be impossible to get long-distance telephone calls through to that particular city. Frequently he had to resort to ridiculously roundabout methods to get instructions through to CBS men in the Axis countries—like sending a cable to Berlin by way of South America.

When you consider all the difficulties Ed Murrow must overcome in getting the news and broadcasting it to America, you're apt to conjure up a picture in your imagination of a hard-hitting, aggressive individual. On the contrary, Ed is very quiet and very diplomatic. When he talks to you he looks directly into your eyes and speaks in a rather hurried, low voice. He doesn't often smile, which is natural enough, but he never loses his temper, which is remarkable, in view of the extreme nervous tension under which he works and lives.

He's a good reporter, but he is mainly interested in the meaning of the facts he reports—likes to look past them to the underlying forces and trends to which they are clues. In the present world, he's like a man watching a volcano erupt—he sees the smoke and flame, but he's busy thinking about the greater chaos beneath the surface of the earth, and trying to decide what caused it, and where it will break out next.

In his broadcasts, though, he sticks to the facts, and almost never editorializes. He did make one blood-chilling remark, though, which becomes more frightening the more you ponder it. "I believe," he said, "that this war is for the control of men's minds."

Ed is married to a very pretty young American woman whose name is Janet, and they live in a flat across the street from the CBS offices and near the BBC building. Early this summer, when CBS made arrangements to evacuate the wives of its correspondents in European capitals, Janet refused to leave. They have no children, and Janet said that her only responsibility was to stay with Ed.

Janet furnished their flat herself, and though she didn't stick to any one period of decoration, she has excellent taste and created a charming home. There are a few New England antique pieces which she brought over with her from the United States, plus some modern furniture purchased in England. Ed's study is filled with American Indian rugs and pottery which he collected as a hobby in the days when he was traveling around the United States.

Janet is an accomplished pianist, and Ed is making a reporter out of her as well. Frequently he puts her on the air with stories about London's food supply or the evacuation of children.

The Murrows haven't much time now for entertaining, but they used to do a great deal. Janet, who does most of the cooking herself, would go to Selfridge's, the big London department store, and buy American ham or bacon, coffee, and maple syrup, and on Sunday mornings they would invite people in for real middle-western American breakfasts. The imported delicacies were expensive, but delicious, since no American living abroad ever gets used to English breakfasts. Ed has managed to cultivate a taste for English cigarettes, but not Janet—she still shops for the American kind.

Home life for Ed and Janet since Germany marched into Holland has been confined to brief meetings at odd moments, and occasionally to nods across the width of street which separates the windows of the Murrow apartment from those of the Murrow office. They are living in the same city and under the same roof, but the times are so far from normal that Janet sees almost as little of her husband as if he were in the army.

In a way, he is. For if you believe as he does, that the war is for control of men's minds, radio, with its command of so many millions of ears, is on the firing line.