Edward R. Murrow became famous first as a radio broadcaster from London during the German air onslaught (commonly referred to as the Battle of Britain) during the Second World War; later, as a radio commentator and presenter of critical commentary and news contemporary at the time; still later, as the foil of Senator Joseph McCarthy (effectively portrayed via a 2005 movie on the subject); and finally, as a conflicted actor in the Kennedy administration. Through all of this, he revealed himself to be, chose to become, a person for whom truthfulness and concern for justice were touchstones in leading a life of personal integrity. This, in turn, imparted a specific tone and emphasis in his work first, in radio, and later, in television; his was one of the first–and most outspoken–voices to warn against the bowdlerization of media in a slide from being informational and educational, to becoming a mere commercial portal and propaganda highway.
I recently finished reading a book (1) about Murrow, from which extracts appear below.
Murrow confessed his despair of remaining on the air much longer. All “they” wanted was “hate Russia,” and if you didn’t talk that, then you were quote a dirty Communist. There had to be another way of making a living, and he was making plans for getting out. (2)
Like the rest of post-World War II media, Murrow was subject to the orchestrated anticommunist hysteria that gave rise to the McCarthy era, one of witchhunts and the suppression of the left across America. While not immune, he was almost uniquely positioned to exert and express an independence of critical commentary not tolerated anywhere else in the continuum of corporate newscasting. This was due to the reputation he had established during the war, when he famously broadcast from London during the Blitz and afterwards. He endured real risk during that time, with bombed-out buildings and near misses being a blunt fact of his work environment. Thus, he returned to America as representative of both personal courage and America’s commitment to its allies in defeating Hitler and the Axis.
His despair was due, of course, to the steady drumbeat of pressure to “get the Reds,” and the increasing practice of impugning the patriotism of anyone who didn’t unreservedly get on the anticommunist train. Independence of thought and action was widely viewed by elements of Congress, FBI, and corporate culture as weakness at best, and suspect of being something worse. Nuanced thinking and anything that smacked of sympathy for the devil (anything Russian or leftish) was unwelcome–and shortly became, for too many Americans, a ticket to unemployment and calls to appear before HUAC, the House Unamerican Activities Committee.
The trouble is, “Murrow mourned to a mutual friend, “that a lie can go around the world while truth is getting his pants on.” (3)
In 1949, in an article that Murrow was working on for The Atlantic magazine (but which was never published), he wrote the following in his notes:
“Will TV regard news as anything more than a saleable commodity?…Will they control it or abdicate like AM [radio]?…Financial pressures may induce servility by operators…need to argue this out before patterns become set and we all begin to see pictures of our country and the world that just aren’t true.” (4)
Characteristic of Murrow–and comprehensively absent from the perspective and commentary of any contemporary figure appearing on major media today–was his critical perspective on the societal impact of the industry in which he worked. Today, we can easily regard as farseeing, his implicit warning about “pictures of our country and the world that just aren’t true.” That’s not to say that propaganda wasn’t pervasive then, but that the willful misrepresentation and concealment of facts could–as they have–become routine, with all the consequences that follow for a society made unseeing and deaf in this way. Welcome to the future present.
In 1954, writing about Senator Joseph McCarthy, Murrow made observations immediately relevant to our current moment in events, with obvious applicability to media, Trump, and his recent impeachment:
[He was] in a real sense the creature of the mass media. They made him. They gave nationwide circulation to his mouthings. They defended their actions on the grounds that what he said was news, when they knew he lied…He polluted the channels of communication, and every radio and television network, every newspaper and magazine publisher who did not speak out against him, contributed to his evil work and must share part of the responsibility for what he did, not only to our fellow citizens but to our self-respect… (5)
We don’t need to be told what very recent electoral cycle this illuminates, nor the candidate who got a free ride because “what he said was news, when they [the media] knew he lied.” Again, Murrow articulated then what has come to pass since–and this, of itself, provides us a kind of road sign that shows how we have become increasingly lost.
Relevant to the rise of Trump and the generalized atmosphere of intolerance of which he has been both cause and beneficiary, is this extract from Murrow’s 1960 in-person address at the Guildhall, in London, on the theme of television and politics:
Above all, Murrow feared TV’s ability “to magnify the components of personality,” defects as well as merits, weaknesses brought to light, “which is all to the good. But that is not all that happens, because a public leader in the age of television must be popular as well as sincere…A politician to be popular must not be too complicated…[must] not appear to be too subtle. He must be accessible, must be able to avoid the difficult question without appearing to do so.” (6)
“Not too complicated” could be applied to any number of public figures on the stage, as could not appearing “too subtle”; politicians of the sort we have come to expect–those who are produced and offered via established power–are variably cynical, but if they are not to begin with, the pressure of needing to appear accessible and approachable–even lovable–militates against thoughtfulness, reserve, and especially any appearance of uncertainty. Too often, it is the better elements of human character that get suppressed in the more-or-less misguided attempt to become “marketable” to an electorate who have themselves been fed a steady diet of super-shiny heroes and inhumanly flawless sex objects. This is fertile manure for the stuff that grows cynicism.
In 1956, Murrow tried to file a friend of the court brief in support of a media colleague who had had his passport withdrawn due to political pressure. In the brief, Murrow wrote that
“The right to information is not an abstract right…Democratic government cannot survive unless the electorate has at its disposal all available information on which to reach intelligent conclusions…A leadership responsible only to an uninformed or partially informed electorate can bring nothing but disaster to our world.” (7)
Think here for just a moment about Edward Snowden. He is in exile from The Land of the Free® precisely because he risked all to remove the comprehensive blinders placed on the American electorate by the NSA’S secret surveillance and data-collection programs Snowden exposed. The result has been something less than an outpouring of gratitude from free, unafraid citizens glad to be made aware of what “their” government had been doing…and lying to them, in the process. It’s well to remember that then-president Obama did not even reprimand James Clapper, who lied when media put to them the question about whether Snowden’s allegations were accurate. Later, Clapper excused himself for lying by saying he had said “the least untruthful” thing he could. I wonder what Edward R. Murrow would say about the standard of “least untruthfulness” employed by Clapper and the rest of the US government.
In 1961, speaking to a meeting of the Radio and Television Executives Society, in what had been characterized by subsequent news reports as “an abrasive voice,” Murrow said
There can be no real…democracy unless the people understand the basic political, social and economic issues upon which their welfare depends…
If a deceived or confused public is betrayed into creating or allowing to be created an America in which it loses faith, democracy will not survive…If the people finally come to believe either that they cannot grasp or they cannot cope with America’s problems, or that those who inform…and those who act are inept or malign or both, then distrust, dissatisfaction, fear and laziness can combine to turn them in desperation to that “strong man” who can take them only to destruction…. (8)
Is there a better summation of our situation at this moment? And does not “Cheeto Benito,” as our own knock-off version of Mussolini has been waggishly dubbed, fit the bill for our gangster-style “strong man”?
Whether we will be taken–or take ourselves–to destruction, is also the question of our time…and of all time. Without government that functions with integrity–honesty, principle, forthrightness, and translation of these qualities into effective action–our own society and beyond it our world, are cast into the whirlpool of climate destruction. What Edward R. Murrow highlighted as the challenge to his industry, and beyond that, to our society, is the challenge of our time. Integrity, integration of all forces and values that can assist us in the struggle to avert climate catastrophe and global extinction of life, is both the answer and the question laid before us.
(1) All extracted material is taken from the book Murrow: His Life and Times, by A. M. Sperber; Freundlich Books, New York, 1986.
(2) pp 306-7
(3) p 320
(4) p 354
(6) p 572
(7) p 512
(8) p 613