February 24, 2017

Edward R. Murrow: A Giant of Broadcasting and Voice of History

Review of "Prime Time" by Alexander Kendrick
Edward R. Murrow on board a military plane during his time covering the Korean War in the early 1950s (source)
Below is historian Eric F. Goldman's review of the biography Prime Time: The Life of Edward R. Murrow by Alexander Kendrick. From The New York Times, September 28, 1969:
Edward R. Murrow, a Giant of Broadcasting Who Was Often the Voice of History


Who of us with gray in our hair can fail to remember—and remember with a rush of emotions—the crisp, measured voice over radio telling of the clomp of Nazi boots into Vienna, "This is London . . . London is burning, London is burning," then the voice and the creased forehead and the curling cigarette smoke on "See It Now," "This is Berlin," "This Is Korea," the magnificent night when a TV celebrity looked grimly into the camera and read Senator Joseph R. McCarthy a lesson in rudimentary decency, evening after evening the news reports and trenchant commentary going out to millions, and always "Good night and good luck." The career of Edward R. Murrow is entwined with the experience of a whole generation. Now, happily, this biography proves worthy of its subject—a richly informed, incisive, pungent book, admiring and affectionate but not forgetting the Murrow canon that candor is a high form of devotion.

Alexander Kendrick, a veteran journalist who knew his subject intimately as one of the "Murrow boys" at C.B.S., does not stint on the intriguing vignettes resulting from Murrow's endless connections with the important figures of his era: Winston Churchill, asked to redo his greatest speech for radio transmission, repeating "We shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight on the beaches . . ." then cupping his hand over the microphone and adding, "we'll hit them on the head with beer bottles, which is all we have to fight with"; Robert Kennedy, formerly an aide of the Joe McCarthy committee, appearing at a dinner after Murrow had tongue-lashed the Senator, and getting up and ostentatiously walking out when Murrow rose to make the principal speech; President Franklin Roosevelt on the evening of Pearl Harbor, talking to Murrow past midnight over sandwiches and beer in the White House, his face gray with fatigue, pounding fist on table as he told of the Japanese destruction of American planes "on the ground, by God, on the ground!"

Murrow glided to success in the mass media. He came along just when radio was undergoing rapid expansion and television was being born. Both were wide open to talent, and he had assets galore—not only a compelling voice and a videogenic face but superb reportorial instincts and a sure sense of the men to gather around him. Yet Murrow's swift rise is hardly the real story. He was not only a great success but one of a particular kind, and this came from resources within him and bred into him.

Like so many Americans of the early 1900s, the Murrow family picked up and went West—in their case, from a farm on Polecat Creek, North Carolina, to the lumber areas of the state of Washington. Unlike most Americans, the Murrows lived with a goad, the Quaker variety, not so much the placid father, a railroad man for the loggers, but the tiny, bustling Mrs. Ethel Lamb Murrow. She kept an untiring eye on the character development of her three boys, perhaps most especially her youngest, Egbert (she never really approved of his changing the name to Edward).

At a little cow college in Pullman, Wash., the youth came under the influences of a second fervently idealistic woman, Prof. Ida Lou Anderson, polio victim with an iron determination to install personal independence and a love of learning in her students. She adopted Murrow as her "masterpiece," and he reciprocated the devotion in full kind.

All the while he was responding to the Washington of the second decade of the 20th century, where the winds of progressive politics and radical agitation blew strong. And then there was the young man himself, with the thin, earnest face, the driving energies, the conscience-lashed attitudes. His mother picked him as the one of her boys to become a preacher, and the high school classbook prophesied he would return to reunions a professor, delivering lectures on social reform.

The mature Edward R. Murrow was hardly a saint, as Mr. Kendrick makes clear. He could take his pleasure in the trapping of status, and he was not immune to the blandishments of money, as when he interpreted high principles one way when they concerned him and another way when they affected a colleague. He was not particularly liberal in the broad sense of the word. Yet beneath all this was a quite special product of genes and external influence.

Basically, as a friend remarked, Murrow was a man of "almost mystical integrity," and in his reserved, faintly skeptical way he had the courage of a lion in defending it. Basically, too, he was an unreconstructed and unreconstructible Jeffersonian. He thoroughly respected the individual and individuality, ideas and the men who deal in them, controversy and dissent. He had an equally strong conviction that the communications media of any era bear an inescapable responsibility to provide the public with facts in meaty abundance and with unfettered comment on these facts, and that the American people, given such reportage, would respond by healthier public policies.

That was the nub of the increasing abrasion that developed between the television and industry—more and more profit-minded and managed by an insensitive bureaucracy—and its star public affairs man. Mr. Kendrick goes at the problem with thoughtfulness and vigor, but here his strengths bring weaknesses. Moved by a sense of social responsibility, he delays getting to the biography by a 31-page indictment of the television industry, the points of which are much better made by the narrative he has to tell. Anxious to underline how TV has submitted to the terror of Joe McCarthy, he makes his second chapter the account of Murrow's exposure of the Senator, which pulls it out of context and deprives it of considerable flavor. Angry and justly angry, he fails to analyze with sufficient care how the managers of television themselves became prisoners of a system.

Be that as it may, this biography raises again—and in a movingly human way—the all-too-familiar issues clustering around American radio and television. Can a system organized to produce profits for shareholders ever provide the extent and kind of public affairs programming a democracy needs and deserves? Will noncommercial media find the money or, having acquired it from Government sources, the freedom and the impetus to do the job? The comments on these points offered by the book are often suggestive, but they bring no great comfort. Murrow himself seems to have come out of his embattled experience uncertain—and lugubriously uncertain—whether the problem was more effectively approached from inside or outside the commercial networks.

He escaped C.B.S. by accepting the invitation of President Kennedy to head the United States Information Service, and to a degree he was leaving the frying pan for the fire. The United States has never been comfortable with the idea of Government propaganda; it has not thought through what it wants and does not want from an "information chief." Murrow's tenure was notable in important respects, but was disturbed by President Kennedy's wavering over what he sought from U.S.I.A. and even more by President Johnson's totally unconfused insistence that he wanted a merchandising of Administration policies.

There is poignance in the Murrow story. A man who lived so rich a life and achieved so much, he never really found a congenial niche. Yet that was the essence of the son of Ethel Murrow, Professor Anderson and the rambunctious Washington of the early 20th century; if he had been happy with the worlds in which he found himself, he would not have brought so much to them. And as fatal illness seized Murrow in the later U.S.I.A. days, he was leaving a memory consisting of no mere sentiment, and perhaps in his unpretentious way he knew it.

The other Washington, the national capital, is accustomed to the deaths of the celebrated. A Presidential statement written by a weary aide, a decent round of encomiums, then back to the business at hand. The death of Edward R. Murrow in 1965 brought a touch of something different, up and down the status scale and in the case of people of widely varying ideologies. After Murrow put on his McCarthy telecast, technicians in the nether regions of the network sent him several collective letters. He had made them "proud" to work for C.B.S. Perhaps what Washington was feeling at the news of his death—and what readers of this fine biography will surely feel—is that for a few golden years the United States had a TV leader somehow bursting through the cant and money-grubbing, a believably troubled man, who spoke to and for us the best in the national tradition.

Mr. Goldman was the moderator of a TV panel, "The Open Mind," and author most recently of "The Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson."