January 11, 2017

The Murrow Boys and the Birth of Celebrity Journalism

"Modern Celebrity Journalism is Born" by Stanley Cloud and Lynne Olson
Edward R. Murrow and his team of war correspondents who covered D-Day at a photo shoot in London in 1944. Murrow is seated. From left to right: Bill Downs, Charles Shaw, Charles Collingwood, Richard C. Hottelet, Larry LeSueur, Bill Shadel, Gene Ryder (source)
The authors of this article wrote The Murrow Boys: Pioneers on the Front Lines of Broadcast Journalism (1997). Article from The American Enterprise, March 1996, pp. 32-33:
Modern Celebrity Journalism is Born

By Stanley Cloud and Lynne Olson

Between the 1920s (when "yellow journalism" declined) and the 1960s (when the "new journalism" began), public support of journalists rose steadily. Over the past decade or so, however, general opinion of the press has taken a nose-dive.

There are many explanations for this, but much of the blame must go to the corrupting effects of commercial television. In the past, reporters were much like other Americans—a little more curious, perhaps, maybe a little luckier in the kind of work they did. But their pay was hardly lavish. The big bucks in journalism tended to go to publishers and executives. The working stiffs in the newsroom got by on scraps.

Not so in TV news (or for that matter among today's more prominent print journalists). Despite cutbacks in news budgets, TV anchors, correspondents, producers, and local news "personalities" are paid on a scale so lavish that it undercuts their on-camera pose as ordinary people speaking to, and for, ordinary people. It is thus not surprising that average Americans, who get most of their news from TV, think of top journalists today as "elitists" hopelessly out of touch with middle-class life.

Modern celebrity journalism was born, like many other aspects of our modern era, during World War II. Edward R. Murrow and the correspondents he oversaw for CBS during the war, collectively known as "the Murrow Boys," were the first reporters to achieve fame in broadcast journalism. They included Eric Sevareid, Charles Collingwood, William L. Shirer, Howard K. Smith, Richard C. Hottelet, Winston Burdett, Bill Downs, Larry LeSueur and Cecil Brown. These were the patron saints of electronic reporting, and in their brilliant careers can be found many early warning signs of the dangers posed by superstar journalism.

All of these correspondents had first worked in print (except for Murrow himself, who had no journalism experience whatever before CBS sent him to London in 1937), and were well-grounded in the tradition of reportorial anonymity that existed at the time. Murrow and his Boys soon discovered, however, that the impact and reach of radio exceeded anything they had ever known as reporters for newspapers or wire services.

The first time Eric Sevareid first truly grasped this was on a warm fall New York afternoon in 1949. He had just returned to the United States after covering the early stages of World War II, including the fall of Paris, the Battle of Britain, and the London Blitz. Standing on a street corner in Manhattan waiting for the light to change, he suddenly heard the voice of Larry LeSueur, one of his CBS London colleagues, echoing through the skyscraper canyons.

After a moment's confusion, according to his autobiography, Sevareid understood: LeSueur's voice was pouring out of the open windows of every radio-equipped car and taxi in New York. Until then, Sevareid had considered radio to be just "a pantomime in an empty room." You sat in some dank and windowless little studio in London or Paris, spoke into a microphone, and your words vanished into thin air. But now, standing on that Manhattan street corner, Sevareid realized that people were listening. Millions of them! Every day! Standing there, he wanted to shout back to London: They're out here boys! They can hear you! The potential influence and glamour of his position sunk in.

Just three years after heading off to Europe as a green, 25-year-old kid from Velva, North Dakota, radio had made Sevareid a celebrity—hounded by other reporters, toasted in nightclubs, mentioned in gossip columns. Like any star journalist today, Sevareid hired agents, went on the lecture circuit, and was exhibited at cocktail parties and teas. He tried (unsuccessfully) to write a play, and submitted a movie "treatment" to Warner Brothers. Handsome but painfully shy, he was pleased to discover than women other than his wife were eager to share his company.

Others of the Murrow Boys had similar experiences. Thanks to his "This-is-London" broadcasts during the Blitz, Murrow himself became internationally famous, counting prime ministers, cabinet officers, generals, and presidents among his friends. William Shirer, who had been covering the Nazis' rise to national and international power from Berlin, returned home in 1940 and learned the same lesson Sevareid had about the difference between doing good and doing well. He wrote a non-fiction book, Berlin Diary, which became an instant best-seller, and won his own CBS program of news commentary, finding himself a darling of Manhattan society. Although Shirer, whose later books included The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, is most often remembered as an ace war correspondent, the fact is he covered World War II for a total of less than two years before discovering the joys of mass popularity back home. From 1940 to 1945, he never returned to the combat zone for more than a few days at a time.

As with their media successors in the 1990s, power and fame sometimes fed the vanities and personal peccadillos of the Murrow Boys. Charles Collingwood, a first-rate reporter, took to floating among the glitterati, married a movie actress, and gambled and drank heavily. Both he and his wife ended their days as deeply saddened alcoholics. Ed Murrow and Bill Shirer started out as once-in-a-lifetime best friends, but after the war fell into a titanic, jealous quarrel that lasted until the end of their lives—to Murrow's great regret.

The fame enjoyed by the Murrow Boys was to a considerable degree justified by the extraordinary quality of the work they did. LeSueur spent an entire year in the Soviet Union covering the Eastern Front, and was in the second wave to hit Utah Beach on D-Day. Sevareid and Richard C. Hottelet had to parachute from crippled aircraft. Murrow was among the first to report the conditions found by Allied troops in the Buchenwald death camp. They almost always broadcast live (albeit from scripts they carefully wrote beforehand), inventing on the fly standards of quality that have rarely been equaled since.

So the problem wasn't that the Murrow Boys were undeserving of the intense celebrity radio conferred on them. The problem was that celebrity helped blur the already thin line between news and entertainment. The Boys expressed certain misgivings about this, but most of them became addicted to the medium's star-making power. "Spoiled we were," said Eric Sevareid many years later, "by the privilege of the microphone, the pay, the quick notoriety; a few rotten spoiled, but only a few."

Though they didn't realize it, the Murrow Boys were careening into a future that would spell their professional doom, and the name of that future was television. For a few years after the war, radio continued to dominate news broadcasting. Between 1948 and 1952, however, television completely took over, and the thin line between news and entertainment became thinner still. Murrow and the Boys saw the dangers. They hated and feared TV, with its increasing reliance on pictures instead of words, its heavy and intrusive equipment, its extraordinary costs, its showbiz trappings. They could see that in television, what did and did not get on the air was more often determined by behind-the-camera producers than by the reporters who covered the story. At one point Murrow grumbled that he wished "television had never been invented."

Soon, however, Murrow and most of his team adapted. They realized—as do print journalists who participate in shouting-match TV shows today, that without TV a modern journalist will rarely achieve great fame. Murrow, Sevareid, Charles Collingwood, and Howard K. Smith were especially successful on TV. Murrow even allowed himself to become host of a lighter-than-air celebrity interview show, "Person to Person," which made him rich but added nothing to his journalistic reputation.

To some degree, the money, perquisites, and fame of television troubled all of the Murrow Boys, but they probably troubled Sevaried most of all. A radical leftist during his days at the University of Minnesota during the 1930s, Sevareid agonized over what he saw happening to broadcast journalism. During the war, he once expressed ethical doubts about the extra "fees" paid by sponsors to broadcast journalists. "You'll get used to it," Murrow said. And get used to it Sevareid surely did. He died quite well off in 1992, but it bothered him that his career hadn't lasted long enough for him to enjoy the multimillions of a Peter Jennings or a Dan Rather.

Today, it is virtually impossible for a TV celebrity-journalist, beset by autograph-seekers and paparazzi, to go out and "cover" a story without changing the very nature of that story. The reason top TV journalists are paid like entertainers is because more and more they are essentially entertainers. The public has reacted accordingly. And it all began with Murrow and the Boys back at the birth of the modern news era—great journalists who made a pact with the devil and lived to regret it. Or did they? For all their complaints about the burdens of celebrity, they loved the attention they received. Some of them may not have understood how much they loved it until they had lost it.

After Sevareid's retirement from CBS, he had lunch one day at the Harvard Club in New York with the network's former president, Frank Stanton. When they were seated at their table, Stanton noticed that Sevareid seemed glum. "Is something wrong?" he asked. "I walked through this whole damn room," said Sevareid, "and nobody recognized me."

Stanley Cloud and Lynne Olson are authors of The Murrow Boys, forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin. Cloud was formerly Washington bureau chief for Time. Olson, previously an Associated Press and Baltimore Sun correspondent, teaches journalism at The American University.