Edward R. Murrow achieved what few men have achieved in their own lifetime—legendary status. In part Murrow became a legend because he happened to be in the right place at the right time, the budding Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) network in the late 1930’s and with the emergent CBS television network of the 1950’s. By all rights Murrow could be described as one of the founding fathers of broadcast journalism. He moved in the right circles and had contact with power brokers and the leading politicians of the time, yet he remained somewhat unattracted and unimpressed by the power these individuals wielded. His working-class background and Quaker heritage tempered his enthusiasm for the trappings of power; thus he remained “a conservative farm boy with a sense of justice” and a healthy respect for the truth and fearful of no man. He spent his career doing the best he could do at what proved to be a very interesting job, one that eventually commanded as much public attention as that of the President of the United States. It is this story that A. M. Sperber chronicles in Murrow: His Life and Times.
Murrow was born in the Quaker community in Guilford County, North Carolina, in 1908, and christened Egbert Roscoe. When he was five years old, the family sold the farm and most of their household goods in order to emigrate to the Pacific Northwest, where they settled in Skagit County, Washington. This migration remained in the back of Murrow’s mind and some forty years later would prove influential when he was involved in a documentary about migrant farm workers.
The hard-working area contributed much to Murrow’s development: a respect for the working man, a sense of fair play, and an instinct for just how much the average man could be pushed before he reacted in some manner. Under the tutelage of his mother and a nightly reading of a chapter from the Bible, Murrow had his “first encounter with formal speech, in the strong, rhythmic measures of the King James Version . . . the bedrock of Ed Murrow’s career as a public speaker.” This fostered a lifelong love of the English language, probably influenced his decision to be a speech major later in college, and gave him an appreciation of the power of words to move men. Murrow worked throughout his youth while participating in school activities, especially the Edison High School debating team. Upon graduation from high school in 1925, Murrow went to work in the logging camps to earn the money for college. Within a year he had saved enough money to quit his job and enroll at Washington State College (WSC) in Pullman during the summer of 1926.
At WSC, something of the later Murrow began to emerge. He gradually lost the Egbert and became Edward, though it was not to be official for a few more years. He was very active in campus activities, especially debate. While at WSC, he made one of those chance connections that would greatly influence the course of his life. He had the good fortune to enroll in Ida Lou Anderson’s speech course entitled “Interpretation.” Anderson was speech teacher, broadcasting coach, and critic as well as adviser to the campus radio station. She “introduced him to the world of the classics, to poetry, and encouraged his love of music. Under her influence he became a voracious reader, soaking up what he could, like a sponge, in every possible area, the beginnings of a lifelong curiosity about the world.” Murrow majored in speech and took every course Anderson offered and enrolled in a broadcasting course, the first of its kind offered at a college. His campus activities made him well-known and aided in his election as senior class president and president of the local chapter of the National Student Federation of America (NSFA).
When Murrow was graduated in 1930, the NSFA offered him his first real job as a professional; in addition it offered the opportunity for travel and a means of satisfying some of his curiosity about the wider world. His work involved visiting campuses in the United States and Europe and taught him much about the country and the world during the early years of the Depression. Working for the NSFA also brought Murrow into contact with the career in which he would ultimately spend most of his professional life—broadcasting.
On September 15, 1930, Murrow took over NSFA’s duties in connection with CBS’s University of the Air programming, his first contact with a national network and the first step toward a career in radio. His two years of work for the NSFA resulted in an offer from Stephen Pierce Duggan, director of the Institute of International Education (IIE), to become assistant director of the IIE, a position Murrow accepted in 1932, which meant moving to New York and traveling throughout the United States and Europe, whereby Murrow made additional contacts in the education community and international contacts that would prove useful in the future. Part of his duties involved responsibility for the program American School of the Air on CBS’s educational network, which prompted CBS to offer him a position with the network.
In 1935, Murrow became CBS’s director of Talks, the beginning of an almost lifelong association with the network in his broadcast career. As director of Talks, Murrow was responsible for the selection of topics and speakers for on-the-air discussions (later called public-service programming) broadcast by CBS. His sense of fair play and respect for all points of view became evident in the range of individuals who took part in these talks—Cordell Hull, Senator William Borah, Governor Al Smith, and Communist Party chief Earl Browder—a first. Murrow did not take part in the actual broadcast, yet he was very interested in the process of how a broadcaster worked, the technique used, and what it was like speaking into a microphone without being able to see the audience. He engaged in long discussions along these lines with veteran CBS newscaster Robert Trout and picked up many finer points about the broadcasting process, including a piece of advice Murrow often repeated to his associates: “That thing [is] like a telephone; you just [talk] to someone without facing him; nothing could be easier.” Murrow wanted to try his hand at it, and on Christmas Eve, 1935, after overcoming his natural reticence with the aid of party refreshments, he did the late-night newscast. As Trout watched, “Murrow read through it perfectly from end to end, without a fluff”—a feat that went almost unnoticed except in Murrow’s mind. Given the chance, he thought that he could do it again and would certainly give it his best when the opportunity arose.
The opportunity came in 1936 when Murrow was offered the position of CBS’s European director. The network wanted to expand its operations and coverage of world events while at the same time challenging the near monopoly NBC had on news broadcasts from Europe. It was quite a job to take, and the results achieved under Murrow formed the basis for the Murrow legend. Murrow had been given no precise instructions concerning how to go about building his string of correspondents—only to get the job done. Murrow applied his own criteria: “I tried to concentrate on finding people who were young and who knew what they were talking about, without bothering too much about diction, phrasing, and manner of speaking. . . . A group of reporters who would be steady, reliable and restrained, even though they might not win any elocution contests.” These individuals, who caught not only Murrow’s eye and ear but those of the nation as well, formed the backbone of the CBS news team that covered World War II and moved the network from radio into television news: Howard K. Smith, Richard C. Hottelet, Charles Collingwood, David Schoenbrun, Eric Sevareid, and William L. Shirer. With their assistance, Murrow built a string of correspondents successful in gathering news throughout Europe and rivaling NBC in the quality of broadcasts to the United States. Murrow added his own talents from England to those of his “boys” on the Continent—he interviewed Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden about the state of international affairs and explaining events to the country.
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