May 8, 2017

1949. "Murrow Sticks to the News" by Wesley Price

Murrow Sticks to the News
Marquee display for Edward R. Murrow's "This is London" newsreel in 1941 (source)
From The Saturday Evening Post, December 10, 1949, pp. 25, 152-153:
Murrow Sticks to the News


He peddles no gossip, repeats no rumors, exhorts no listener to write his congressman. Yet Ed Murrow has built a huge national audience for his fair-minded radio reporting.

There was a time during the war when Edward R. Murrow, the radio newscaster, suspected that his nerves were flapping. He couldn't ring up a doctor or even tell it to the chaplain, because he was aboard a bomber raiding Europe. But he had this queer symptom; cruising at the frostbite level, he felt hotter than a firecracker. The impression was so vivid that he actually sweated.

Another sign of the whimwhams, as he saw it, was his failure to make a radio transmitter transmit. This was a special rig, installed in a B-17 so Murrow could broadcast a story of flak, fighters and bombs-away. He knew how to use the box. Still, no matter how he twiddled at the controls, he couldn't put himself on the air. All the way to the target he twiddled, and half the way back, until he was persuaded that his wits had scattered. And he had this notion that he was hot. The longer he flew, the hotter he felt. When the bomber landed, Murrow was steaming like a yard locomotive, and ready to go quietly with the man in the white coat.

First to reach him was a radio engineer, who discovered a simple mistake. The transmitter had never been plugged in. There was a plug in the power socket, but it had been shunting current to the wrong place. All the voltage which should have flung Murrow's voice over land and sea had been sizzling through the heating wires of his flying suit. So he skipped the nursing home and prescribed himself a cold tub.

Disconnected and cooled to room temperature, Murrow resolved to try again. On another bomb run he talked to London loud and clear, and was relayed to the Columbia Broadcasting System in the United States. Altogether, he thumbed rides with the British or American air crews on twenty-five combat missions. His war, in great part, was an eyewitness war: Austrian Anschluss back in '38, the blitzing of London, battles and victory in North Africa and Europe. Bomb explosions destroyed three of his London offices and damaged a fourth. He lingered in postwar rubble to report Great Britain's tumble into socialism.

Home at last in 1946, he felt like a stranger. He had been abroad nine years. It took a 20,000-mile tour of the U. S. A. to ease his nostalgia. Microphones awaited him, but he chose silence and a job as vice-president of the Columbia Broadcasting System. He did all right until he recognized the businessman's version of stone walls and iron bars.

"It's the big desk with the telephones," he says, "the IN basket and the OUT basket. Conferences, memos, budgets and tiring people. Who am I to be firing people—the Almighty himself?"

After eighteen months of good behavior he got himself paroled to the custody of a sponsor, Campbell's Soup, and found his voice again. Five nights a week, Monday through Friday, he broadcasts news over the CBS network. The sponsor gets two and a half minutes to inflame listeners with a passion for brand-name foodstuffs. That leaves Murrow twelve minutes.

In this narrow space he packs ten, even twenty stories—what radiomen call the "hard" news—plus an interview, a tape recording, or an expansive think-piece. Current history, capsuled by Murrow and broadcast by 153 stations, wins up to 14 per cent of the national radio audience. Hot or cold, he averages more than 5,000,000 receivers tuned in whenever he goes on air.

Murrow is an actor who cannily underplays his rule, and an intellectual who hides his Phi Beta Kappa key. He once declined the offer of a college presidency, being then twenty-six years old. He has six degrees—two earned and four honorary—and there are enough full professors among his chosen friends to staff a university. His logic can be disconcerting. Some radio talkers, for example, dare not think of the millions listening, lest they be stricken dumb.  So they pretend to themselves that they are chatting with Aunt Susan, a dear old party from Nutley, New Jersey. Murrow will have none of this shilly-shallying. "I talk to the microphone," he says. It comes out thawed, but not cozy.

Murrow enjoys Harry Wade's description of the perfect radio voice: one which has "no substance, no sex, no owner, and a message of importance to every housewife." His own voice is a coppery baritone charged with authority. When he mispronounces a foreign place name, he does it with crushing aplomb. Moscow may rhyme with "toss low" in the dictionary, but he prefers to say Moscow as in Guernsey. It's more comfortable that way. His beveled accent is all-American. Dr. Cabell Greet, the famed detector of regional inflections, says he can't place Murrow at all. "He might come from anywhere. Sounds like a bishop to me—or rather, the way a bishop ought to sound."

This is a shrewd hit. Not only can Murrow read out a grocery list in organ tones worthy of noble Genesis; he is at heart a moralist, troubled by the series of dull thuds which pass for civilization nowadays. Still, he won't preach, because he has vowed to be an objective newsman. In his anxiety to avoid bias, he sometimes reports 2 + 2 without giving the sum, and so leaves dullards groping for conclusions. He will conduct his audience, if need be, to that lost horizon where fact meets comment in a cloud of high-order abstractions. But he takes care to erect a guard rail. "This," he warns, "is one man's opinion."

Murrow joined CBS in 1935 for the same reasons a Salvation Army lass enters a saloon: to do good works and jingle up some money. He had been a low-paid promoter of educational projects. Now he gets $112,000 a year for broadcasting, plus royalties from his best-selling album, I Can Hear It Now. This is a forty-five-minute parade of historic radio news reports and famous voices—Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin, Hitler and others—with running comment by Murrow.

In the good-works department, Murrow's labors are never done. The public service programs of CBS might be less elevated in tone if Murrow had not been an adviser. He now cerebrates as a member of the network's board of directors.

Other CBS brass hats were favored recently with a sort of White Paper written by Murrow on the awful possibilities of television newscasting. In TV's infancy, much can be excused. But what if TV news grew up with an imbecilic squint? Murrow feels that TV newscasting wants a combination reporter-producer-broadcaster. He envisions this superman furnished with John Kieran's memory, Quincy Howe's wit, Walter Lippmann's profundity and Bob Trout's genius for nonstop ad-libbing. Also, he says, superman should be a quick study, a glossy conversationalist and an expert at recognizing famous faces. "No introverts need apply," Murrow adds.

What he dreads is that TV's counterpart of the radio newscaster might be a reckless deceiver of the news-viewing public. "Is it not possible," he asked CBS, "that an unruly head of hair, an infectious smile, eyes that seem remarkable for the depths of their sincerity, a cultivated air of authority, may attract huge television audiences regardless of the violence that may be done to truth or objectivity?"
"Display for Edward R. Murrow's 'This is London' at Fowler Bros. book store," Los Angeles, May 12, 1941 (source)
Murrow's portrait of the knave of the future is an unconscious cartoon of himself. The disarming smile, the forthright glance, the trust-inspiring manner—all are his. No other reporter looks so much like the foreign correspondent of Graustarkian fiction, inevitably tall, lean and dark-haired. Nature has blessed him with a man-of-action chin and a scholar's brow. He is ambidextrous, a crack shot and, as habitués of press camps know to their sorrow, a deadly poker player.

Murrow springs from Irish, French, English and German forebears who colonized the pre-Revolutionary South. His mother's everyday speech was salted with words uncommonly heard since the reign of Queen Bess, and she sang ballads the English have forgotten they wrote. Edward Roscoe Murrow, youngest of three boys, was born in 1908 near Greensboro, North Carolina. The family moved to the Puget Sound region of Washington when he was six. His father, Roscoe C. Murrow, had been a farmer. In the West he became a locomotive engineer.

Young Ed took summer jobs and saved money for college. He postponed matriculation at Washington State College for a year to work in timberlands on the Olympic Peninsula. There he rose from whistle punk on a donkey engine to compass man on a survey gang. He can still pace out a section within 200 feet. It didn't do to tell the buckets and fallers that he was aiming at college. So he said he was "going south to work," and carried an I.W.W. card for protective coloration. The forest gave him summer employment until he was graduated.

A job as president of the National Student Federation took him to New York. The office was in a basement and the pay only twenty-five dollars a week. Fun, though; he ran student tours abroad—once he worked his way on a Dutch liner—brought Oxford debaters to the United States, and visited 300 American colleges. He made speeches everywhere. But two years of this was enough; he didn't want to wind up as a forty-year-old youth leader.

In 1932 he joined the Institute of International Education as an assistant director and a couple of years later married Janet Huntington Brewster, a New England girl. He had jurisdiction over five European capitals. The big effort was to exchange students and foreign teachers between American and foreign universities. After a while he found himself throwing life lines to scholars trapped in the rising tide of Fascism. Hitler had declared war on free thought.

A committee of Americans formed up—liberals, educators, a few rich men—to rescue endangered professors. Murrow compiled a list of savants, helped to raise money and queried the United States colleges about placements. "Just donkey's work for the committee," he says. But he is proud of that work. The committee brought 288 professors to safety in the United States.

When CBS wanted someone to direct a new department called Talks and Education, Murrow was an obvious choice. He was hired in 1935 as an arranger of programs, not as a broadcaster. As of late 1937, when he became European director for CBS, his post was offstage, and his voice was the voice of an interlocutor. The home office wanted European culture: the Vatican choir, nightingales in a Surrey wood, Bernard Shaw "if you can get him." Murrow knew, CBS knew, that war was at hand. But they hadn't figured out what to do about it.

Based in London, the "European director" was CBS's entire foreign staff. NBC had Fred Bate in England, and Bate had a man on the continent, Max Jordan. They made tough competition. Murrow decided he had to have a man on the continent too. The first of many he hired was William L. Shirer, then a little-known newspaperman. Like Murrow, he was supposed to arrange programs. The role of radio correspondent hadn't been invented in 1937. If a hot story broke, it was customary to drag a big name to the microphone—a cabinet member, say, or a distinguished journalist—and let him pontificate. With what authority could mere radiomen speak? Murrow was beneath the notice of the august Association of American Correspondents in London. (Years later he was elected president.)

The revolution in news technique was started by Shirer and Murrow when Hitler invaded Austria in March, 1938. Shirer was in Vienna, an eyewitness to Anschluss, and aching to report the story. But New York seemed more interested in a chorus of Austrian school children. Culture they needed.

Shirer telephoned Murrow, who was in Warsaw drumming up a program of Polish music, "The opposing team has just crossed the goal line."

"Are you sure?"

"I'm paid to be sure," said Shirer.

Censorship forbade Shirer to broadcast from Austria. At Murrow's suggestion, he flew to London, and from there broadcast his I-was-there story to the States. It was a tremendous exclusive. Meantime Vienna was uncovered. Murrow flew to Berlin, but couldn't connect for Vienna. Airline flights to Austria had been canceled. The only plane available for charter was a twenty-seven-seat Lufthansa transport; price $1000. Murrow paid and flew to Vienna in lonely splendor.

The airport swarmed with Nazi guards. No taxicabs were running to the captured city. Murrow rode a streetcar. The censors let him broadcast that night, and the story of Austria's surrender kept him on the air for ten days. He had America by the ears.

Anschluss transfigured Murrow and Shirer into true radio correspondents, the first of a new breed. They knew where to find short-wave transmitters all over Europe. They could get on the air before newspapers could edit cable dispatches. They broke away from the tortuous phrasing of daily journalism and spoke plainly. Since they had no newsstand sales to make headlines for, they didn't have to exaggerate stories. "Keep it calm," Murrow told his men. "If there isn't any news, just say so."

CBS frowned on hyperthyroid reporting. Early in the war Tom Grandin was broadcasting from Paris. The wail of air-raid sirens leaked into his studio. Next day Grandin had a rebuke from CBS in New York for sensationalizing the news.

The rules softened later. Murrow, reporting the Battle of Britain in 1940, carried microphones to the bombed streets. He sent us sounds more terrible than sirens—ominous drippings from stricken buildings and the nervous clop-clop of feet hurrying toward shelters.

"This . . . is London," he would begin. The words, the pregnant pause, took listeners by their throats. This is London and a last-ditch fight. "The English die with great dignity," he said.

A woman wrote a letter of complaint to CBS: "I am not one of the many who believe that your chief European correspondent, Edward R. Murrow, takes money from the English. I think it is much worse than that—I think he likes them!"
Edward R. Murrow and Eric Sevareid reporting on election night, November 2, 1948 (source)
Murrow covered the blitz in style. Shell fragments called for a steel-top auto, but he drove an open car with a canvas deck snapped over all but the driver's seat, leaving him sticking out like an Eskimo in a kayak. He wore the correct costume for a man-about-town being bombed—pudding-basin helmet, gray-flannel trousers and a sport coat made up by a Savile Row tailor in a hound's-tooth check. He and Larry LeSueur, another CBS newscaster, dined nightly in a Soho restaurant that was cursed with a vast skylight. They sat directly under this glassy menace, shunned like lepers. The raid sirens followed coffee.

By good luck, Murrow's flat was never hit. He lived with his wife Janet, who managed the London end of Bundles for Britain, not far from the BBC studios. BBC was a prime target, and the bombs that missed BBC seemed to favor CBS offices nearby. They were bombed out of Langham Place, Portland Place and Duchess Street. Murrow saw the Duchess Street strike while watching the raid from his own roof. He ran to the scene, and found his secretary, Katherine Campbell, miraculously alive. Plaster dust had stiffened her hair-do into a fright wig. Murrow says he found her blown under a rug, but her own recollection differs.

"I was merely blown through an open doorway," she says. "The bombings grew very tiresome. One had to search the debris for petty cash, and clean the typewriters, and hunt up new quarters. We were getting known, and people didn't want to take us in."

The fourth office, on Hallam Street, was also near the BBC. Five days after they moved in, a bomb smashed a synagogue across the street and crashed CBS's windows.

Janet Murrow visited the United States in the spring of 1941 to spur the flow of Bundles for Britain. Ed followed in late November for a short stay. CBS threw him a testimonial banquet with 1000 guests, speeches by bigwigs, and messages of praise from Roosevelt, Hull and Halifax. It was the consensus that Murrow's reports from London had done most to make England's plight clear. The Roosevelts sent word that the Murrows must take family dinner at the White House.

The date set for the dinner was Sunday, December 7, 1941. Murrow spent the earlier part of that day playing golf at Burning Tree with Washington notables. A messenger found them on the fairways. Flash: the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. Who said so? The Reuters news agency.

"Very unreliable," sniffed Murrow.

He visited the CBS studio for confirmation, and stayed to broadcast. Later he telephoned Missy LeHand at the White House to say that, under the circumstances, he expected the dinner was canceled. But it wasn't. The Murrows were to come.

The President was not at table. Mrs. Roosevelt dined with the Murrows, and chatted, and every so often left the room. Each time she brought back the same message: "Mr. Murrow is to wait."

Janet left at 10:30 P. M., and Ed went to sit on a bench outside the Oval Room. Secretary Hull emerged from the sanctum, spoke to Murrow and hurried off. Harry Hopkins came out and asked, "What the hell are you doing here?"

"He told me to wait."

"If he said wait, you better wait."

Hopkins and Murrow had seen a lot of each other in London, and Hopkins had been catching those overseas broadcasts. They went to his room, where they were joined by Jesse Jones. While they talked, Hopkins undressed and put on striped pajamas.

"His body was frail," Murrow recalls, "and he looked like a death's-head. He groaned, 'Oh, God, if I only had more strength.'"

Murrow went out to sit on the bench again. Sometime after midnight he was told to go in to the President. Roosevelt had done everything that could be done in one day. Now he was relaxing with sandwiches and a bottle of beer.

First he fired questions about England, Churchill, the bombings. Then: "Were you surprised by what happened today?"

"Yes, Mister President."

Roosevelt slapped his desk. "Maybe you think we weren't surprised!" He offered Murrow beer and a sandwich, and told him about ships that had been sunk at Pearl, and airplanes destroyed on the ground. "On the ground," he repeated, banging a fist on his desk. The idea seemed to hurt him. Wild Bill Donovan came in, and the talk veered to the Philippines.

When Murrow left, he had the makings of a monumental news beat, which, in honor, he couldn't use. A few in the White House press room knew he'd been with the President, but the only question was a cautious "How is it?" from Eric Sevareid, who stood watch for CBS.

"Pretty bad," said Murrow, swallowing the story of the year. A short lecture tour made him a barrel of money which he handed over to British War Relief and Air Force Comforts. Then it was London again, and the endless air raids. The RAF took five newsmen on a Berlin strike; only Murrow and one other got back. He found his long-sought nightingale in Anzio, and put its sweetness on short wave. In 1944 he was chosen to give the official flash, on all networks, that D-Day had come. His text, assigned him by SHAEF, was General Eisenhower's Order of the Day: "Soldiers, sailors and airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force: You are about to embark upon a great crusade ——" At the end, a year or so later, Murrow walked into the horrors of Buchenwald with a liberating spearhead, and found an old friend, Dr. Petr Zenkl, one-time lord mayor of Prague.

Having seen so much, Murrow regrets that he hasn't seen more. He has encountered Churchill, wept with the late Jan Masaryk, and been snubbed by Senator Taft. But Asia and its political leaders are unknown to him, and there was a Pacific war which he missed entirely. There aren't enough big stories in a lifetime to satisfy him. If Murrow had a Time Machine, he would take off at once to watch Columbus discover America. He admired Goodman Ace for dreaming up a show in which CBS covered, as spot news, re-enactments of the Battle of Waterloo, Lincoln's martyrdom and the siege of Troy.
"Edward R. Murrow seated at his desk in front of the CBS crew" in the 1950s (source)
When World War II was ended he made a painful discovery. "It is much easier to report a battle or a bombing raid," he said, "than it is to do an honest and intelligible job on the Marshall Plan, the Taft-Hartley Law or the Atlantic Pact." Objective reporting? "I am a reactionary, a Socialist, anti-Wallace, anti-Truman and anti-Republican; too radical, too conservative, too serious and too frivolous. And I have letters from my listeners to prove it."

The Murrows serve on a lot of nonpolitical committees linked with education. Mrs. Murrow is a trustee of Mount Holyoke College, her alma mater, and the deft manager of two homes. Failing to find an apartment when they returned from London, they bought a house in Manhattan much too large for their needs. For vacations and week ends they have a handsome cedar-log layout in deep Republican territory near Pawling, New York. Come partisans, says Murrow, and he'll loophole the walls and defend the place.

They were childless for years, and were arranging to adopt an entire family of English orphans, when, lo, Charles Casey was born. He has spoken on two Christmas broadcasts with his father, and expects to give us his childish blessing every year. Good clear voice, but no contract so far.

Murrow has an amiable understanding with his sponsor, Campbell's Soup. They keep hands off his scripts, and he doesn't meddle with their recipe for cream of tomato. He planted in his contract a bit of CBS policy on news programs, and quoted from it on his first sponsored broadcast. The essence of it was that Murrow bound himself to separate fact from opinion, and refrain from telling people how to think. He abhors gossip, rumor, divorce-court tattling and write-your-congressman appeals. The screeching note of omniscience doesn't suit him. He has noambition to "get" anybody. In consequence, he lacks two distinctions: he has never been called a liar by a President of the United States, nor been accused of hounding a Cabinet officer to his death.

So far, Murrow has collected fourteen prizes, awards, medals, citations and pieces of engraved hardware in recognition of meritorious reporting. Last spring he was given his second Peabody Award, radio's equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize. In his acceptance speech he remarked that the microphone alarmed him. Here, he said, was a gadget which could make a man believe that his wisdom increased in direct proportion to the magnified range of his voice. "I confess to a fear of abusing a monopolized opportunity," he said.

The sponsor gets Murrow in a package deal which includes CBS newsgathering resources here and abroad. He makes lavish use of transoceanic telephones, and keeps a staff of five people busy. One of his secretaries is Katherine ("Bombs are so tiresome") Campbell, brought here from London. His chief editor is silver-haired Jesse Zousmer, a wizard at smelting nuggets of hard news from tons of agency copy. Background research is handled by John Aaron, a round-eyed hustler.

One of Aaron's chores is the replenishment of a collection of old saws and wise sayings. They may be taken from Abraham Lincoln, Billy Rose or the philosophers of ancient Greece; just so they fit the day's news somehow. Murrow uses these quotations to give the tail of each broadcast a neat curl. Thereafter they stick in his mind and creep into his conversation, so it's hard to tell where Murrow leaves off and Mark Twain begins.

Zousmer writes much of the hard news himself, subject to Murrow's blue pencil. At Murrow's usual reading pace, 13 lines equal one minute. Room must be left for the larger part, which Murrow writes himself. It's known around the shop as "Ed's piece" or "Whatta you gonna talk about?" Sometimes he can't be sure until an hour or two before the deadline. Then he dictates to Miss Campbell or beats a typewriter. He can't bear to commit himself to a word until he has thought out an entire sentence.

He finishes with thirty minutes to spare. Aaron drops in with a hot one from Mark Twain: "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug." Okay, Ed? Kay Campbell counts lines in the final script, allowing for Murrow's perverse tendency to speed up in spots.

Fifteen minutes to go. The CBS newsroom editor scans the copy for possible errors. Aaron goes to the wire room to watch for late bulletins. Murrow confers with Bob Dixon, the announcer, smoothing the commercials into place. Ten minutes to go. Zousmer, who has been shielding Ed all day from news too sordid to broadcast, now regales him with the best trunk murders. Three minutes to go.

Murrow takes a sip of water, enters the studio, lays his script on a table. Deadline. A wireless key shrieks n-e-w-s in code, Dixon smacks his lips over the sponsor's spaghetti, and Murrow takes his cue. He crouches forward, tie dangling, sleeves rolled up, jiggling his feet and rocking to and fro like an oarsman. He has eight hours of solid work behind him. Now, at the fag end of the day, he must be at his peak.

"This," he begins, "is the news." — THE END