Bob Edwards visited the Palouse last spring to talk about his book on Murrow at GetLit!, the annual literary festival sponsored by Eastern Washington University and the EWU Press. Prior to his arrival, Mary Hawkins, the program director for Northwest Public Radio, interviewed Edwards for Washington State Magazine.
Mary Hawkins: Why a book about Edward R. Murrow?
Bob Edwards: A book on Edward R. Murrow, because I was asked to do a book for a series from John Wiley and Sons called “Turning Points.” They just asked me to write a book in the series, and I said “Can I write about Murrow?” And they said “Okay.”
Murrow had two important turning points. One was in radio in 1938 covering the war in Europe. It changed the face of radio news. News had been covered completely different before then. It was event-oriented. There was no daily assignment of original reporting, no overseas staff.
He did it again in 1951 on television. There had been a CBS Evening News for three or four years. But it was headlines and very old film. What Murrow did was original reporting, stories that you couldn’t find in the Washington Post or New York Times, and set the standard for what constituted news and how it should be covered.
I wanted this generation to know that we didn’t always do it this badly, that once there was a very high standard, and you didn’t have so-called news that consisted of celebrity gossip and crime and the disease of the week and all the interviews with starlets. That’s what we’re doing now in primetime network magazines.
MH: What Murrow did was go into a place and describe the scene like no one had ever done before. Where did he come up with that?
BE: He was very good at painting word pictures. I’m not very good at that. He was very conscious of the fact that there was a radio audience, and he wanted you to see what he was seeing. And was as good as a novelist in allowing you to do that.
The other gifts, I know where he came by those. He was a speech major at Washington State. So he had the broadcasting part down. He knew how he sounded and knew how to write for the ear, not for the eye, the way a print reporter would.
But I don’t know where he got the journalism, because he was an instant journalist. He had no training, no background. He was kind of thrust on the air in an emergency situation covering Germany’s annexation of Austria in 1938. From that moment on, he was a journalist.
He seemed to instinctively know how to do that, and I really marvel at that.
MH: In a way it was a perfect fit, transforming from a junior executive to a foreign correspondent. And he was sent over there, wasn’t he, to set up live interviews for other people? One of his great gifts was what we call today networking.
BE: Yes, his job was to take some person [whom] CBS in New York wanted to talk with and put that person before a microphone. But he had great contacts. He had worked in [the] student government movement, the National Student Federation, and later . . . for the Institute of International Education, and was responsible for bringing to America some of the greatest minds of Europe escaping the Nazis. So he knew very important people and scholars and politicians of Europe and opposition politicians and the shadow cabinets.
That’s a great background for journalism, knowing the right people and having all of their phone numbers and addresses and what bars they drink in.
MH: Murrow made some fast friends and some fast enemies during his career. Let’s talk a minute about his relationship with Bill Paley. That was an interesting relationship, wasn’t it?
BE: Paley was the founding chairman of CBS, and Murrow was his star. It was in the television era that the relationship between Paley and Murrow was strained, because CBS had changed. It was a much bigger conglomerate—real estate, records, movies—in the end CBS even owned the New York Yankees. And they were the worst owners the Yankees ever had, I’ll tell you.
Being a more complicated, diverse company, more attention was given to the price of a share of stock. More attention was paid to the bottom line. Murrow did very controversial programs post-war on television, and sponsors don’t like controversy. Sponsors want everyone watching the program to be happy and to be pleased and to buy their products. And they got very upset by some of the programs Murrow did on Joseph McCarthy and the anti-communist hysteria of the time. And all the political programs Murrow was doing, that upset Congress.
Paley didn’t like people in Congress complaining about his programs. The FCC and on and on. The relationship grew very strained. Paley told Murrow, “Your programs give me stomach aches.” Murrow told Paley, “Well it goes with the job.” And Paley didn’t think they went with the job. Paley was the boss. He decided what went with the job. So ultimately, Murrow was marginalized at CBS, and their relationship ended very badly. Murrow was so seldom used on CBS, he quit in 1961 and joined the brand new Kennedy administration as director of the United States Information Agency.
MH: Murrow really built the CBS news network. There was a group of people known as “Murrow’s boys.” How did that come about?
BE: He needed people to cover the war. They had no overseas staff, except for Murrow himself and William L. Shirer, a very fine newspaper and wire service reporter. So they started with those two, but they needed many more, for it was after all a world war. Murrow hired people on the basis of their smarts and their contacts. He didn’t care how they sounded, if their voices were pretty or whatever. In fact, he rather liked to tweak his bosses in New York. If they didn’t like somebody because their voice was not so hot, that was a plus for Murrow.
MH: Especially one fellow in particular, right? White?
BE: Right. He was Murrow’s rival, Paul White, who ran CBS News in New York. Murrow won that battle. He was particularly good at stealing people from United Press. Apparently, United Press had a great training program and brought their young reporters up to speed very fast and able to handle any situation.
From United Press, Murrow took Bill Downs, Charles Collingwood, Howard K. Smith.
MH: Where did [Eric] Sevareid come from?
BE: Sevareid came from newspapers in Paris. Before that he’d worked for a Minneapolis paper. He tried to take another big reporter from UP, Walter Cronkite. Cronkite went back and told UP he’d got this offer from Murrow for this radio thing, CBS. United Press gave him a $25 raise and kept him. Cronkite didn’t join CBS until the television era, after the war. Murrow never forgave Cronkite for that. He held a grudge. Cronkite had said no to him. You didn’t say no to Murrow.
MH: He was an interesting man in that regard. He seemed to be fearless. He didn’t care if he made enemies because he knew how to come out ahead. That seemed to be part of the fun for Murrow.
BE: Well, yeah, but also, he was kind of destined to fall on his sword. He wouldn’t compromise, under any circumstances. He wouldn’t compromise in his battles with his employer, and that ultimately cost him. He was a purist. He felt that you do the right thing regardless of the consequences. In the business world, sometimes you have to compromise.
He felt that at times journalistic principles were more important than corporate interests. Obviously, his employers felt otherwise.
MH: Ultimately they did, when the bottom line wasn’t quite going their way.
BE: It really started with the McCarthy broadcast, which was Murrow’s finest h
our, but was also the beginning of the end. Joseph McCarthy was… so identified with the anti-communist cause that they put his name on the whole period, the McCarthy Era. McCarthy was using our fear of the Soviet Union to advance his own political career. He wasn’t the only one to do that—Richard Nixon, of course, and many others did it—but the difference with McCarthy is the way he carried out his hearings. He was a bully, a tyrant. He didn’t care anything about Consitutional rights of due process. If you appeared before McCarthy’s committee, you were guilty until proven innocent.
Murrow didn’t care for those tactics and exposed him on television. There had been newspaper columnists and the like who had taken brave stands, because that was a brave thing to do at that time. But it hadn’t been done on television. To say McCarthy was a bully is one thing. To see it on film, as Murrow showed America in March 1954, was to really bring home to Americans that this was just wrong. That was really the beginning of the end for McCarthy.
It was Murrow’s finest hour, but it just drew more attention to the controversial nature of his broadcast. Two years after his McCarthy broadcast, he lost his sponsor. Two years after that he lost his program. See It Now was the name of the series. Two years after that, he was out at CBS.
MH: You wrote that Murrow should be the standard to which all others should be compared. When you’re the first at something, you get to write a lot of your own rules. Murrow was the right personality, in a way, at the right time.
BE: Yes, he set a standard very high, very early. The problem with Murrow is, when we see what happens to someone who insists that journalistic principles take precedence over corporate interests or any other interests, we see the outcome of that fight. So no one fights it anymore. No one had the clout of Murrow to be able to do the broadcast he did. And knowing how he ended up with CBS, no one cares to make that fight again, because they know the same outcome will occur. If it can happen to a Murrow, it can certainly happen to the rest of us.
MH: Any junior correspondent. In fact, I think nowadays, people don’t think necessarily about being a journalist in the traditional sense of journalism—do you?—in broadcast journalism anyway.
BE: I think public radio has a very high standard of news. It’s more balanced than Murrow was, to tell you the truth. Murrow didn’t care about putting two spinners on and having each spin the opposite version of what the other was saying. That would seem like a waste of time to him. He went out and did his investigations, did all his interviews, and then told you what he felt was the truth. You might disagree with that. But that is what he arrived at. He didn’t carefully number the voices you heard in his reports by ideology.
He arrived at a truth, and that was his broadcast. We just don’t do that anymore. We have 2 minutes, 13 and a half seconds for the conservative and 2 minutes, 13 and a half seconds for the liberal. We call this balance, and I guess it is in terms of air time, but is it really balance, is it the truth?
MH: Well, and Murrow was so incredibly powerful. Nowadays younger people especially don’t realize at that time you just had to beat out NBC. There were only two networks, so the power of an Edward R. Murrow, he was the news. What an incredible mantle to wear.
BE: Yes, he didn’t have to contend with the remote control. Nowadays, there are so many choices, the audience is so divided, that no one has the power, the clout, the command of an audience that Murrow was able to achieve in his day. He did have an ABC, but it wasn’t as developed as it is today. So you’re right, all he had to do was beat out NBC.
MH: He flew 25 combat missions. He was there at the liberation of Buchenwald. He saw some of the most horrific visions of war and genocide. What kind of mark did these things leave on him?
BE: It was very clear in his Buchenwald broadcast, he was very angry. And he didn’t record it until three days later. He was furious, and it really shows in the broadcast. In fact, he says, if anything I have said about Buchenwald disturbs you, I’m not in the least bit sorry. I think he was angry on several fronts, angry of course at the Nazis for what they had done, but I think he was also angry that we didn’t know. He had had some hints of the Holocaust, or the “final solution,” as the Germans called it, a couple of years earlier, and he had broadcast them. He was very skeptical. He said these reports, if they’re true, it just seems too horrific to be true.
Liberating Buchenwald, he not only found out they were true, it was even worse than you could conceive. The other thing was, in the surrounding villages the people looked like they had not been at war. The people were well fed, well clothed, they had suffered no effects of this war so far. They were well inside Germany, and here, just over the fence was the worst man can do to another human being. That upset him, too.
As the armies liberated the camps one by one, the commanding officers of the liberating troops would go round up the Germans in the neighborhood and have them come to see. I think in some cases they put them to work. But mostly they wanted them to see—look, your country did this.
MH: Murrow was a political mover and shaker, not just a reporter. It was like he gave testimony about the war over the radio. Do you think he felt any guilt himself for not knowing?
BE: Yeah, I think that was it. This was hidden from journalism somehow, and they were unable to know this until the end. Yes, I’m sure he found that very upsetting.
MH: It was interesting to me, I enjoyed the book quite a lot, I enjoyed re-reading some of the impact Murrow had. Anschluss was a very interesting time. This was at a time when Europe and Britain were not going to get involved in a war, pretty much let Hitler march through Austria and annex the place. Let’s talk a little bit about how Murrow reacted to that. This was a time when so many journalists were getting together. It was an incredible time in the history of broadcasting. This was when Murrow and Shirer got together.
BE: America was very isolationist at the time. It didn’t want any part of what it called “Europe’s troubles,” because we’d done that, we’d gotten involved back in 1916, 1918, and we weren’t going to do that anymore. Let Europe take care of its own, that kind of head-in-the-sand approach that Murrow knew was ridiculous—that once war broke out in Europe, we would all be involved ultimately. And Britain, of course, tried to appease Hitler. . . that he would stop. And he didn’t.
People like Murrow and Shirer, who were living in Europe, understood what was going to happen, that indeed Hitler was bent on taking over at least Europe, if not more, and that America should know about this. They tried desperately to get CBS in New York to pay attention. They couldn’t even get their own bosses to come to grips with the fact that Europe was about to explode. New York was ordering Murrow to record boys’ choirs and dance bands. In fact they wanted to do a program called Europe Dances, and they would have broadcasts from various European capitals, from ballrooms. That was what New York wanted.
Murrow and Shirer were trying to tell them “Look, the world’s about to blow. Are you interested? Do you think your listeners might want to know about this?” They had a very difficult time. It took the annexation of Austria by Hitler to get New York to pay attention.
MH: Shirer wrote something incredible, page 33 of the book. He was already a pretty formidable character on his own, and he found Murrow such an inspiring guy. How old was Murro
w then, 27?
BE: Close to 30.
MH: Would you like to read that section?
BE: Sure. He wrote this in his diary. I found it in a later memoir. He did a lot of memoirs. They were all fabulous. From The Nightmare Years:
“Murrow had fired me with a feeling that we might go places in this newfangled radio-broadcasting business. We would have to feel our way. We might find a new dimension for reporting the news. Instantaneous transmission of news from the reporter to the listener, in his living room, of the event itself, so that the listener could follow it just as it happened… was utterly new. There was no time lag, no editing or rewriting as in a newspaper. A listener got straight from a reporter, and instantly, what was taking place. The sound of a riot in Paris, of the Pope bestowing an Easter blessing in Rome, or of Hitler and Mussolini haranguing their storm troopers might tell you more than all the written descriptions a newspaper reporter could devise. Going over to radio, I thought, was going to be challenging and exciting.”
MH: Isn’t that amazing. It makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck. You know they were aware they were making history. Maybe that’s another one of Murrow’s great strengths, that he had the vision to understand the vision of his medium.
BE: Murrow wanted to get up to the rooftops in 1940, so you could hear the Blitz. This was 1940. People had heard play war and heard dramatic programs imitating war. I don’t think too many people had heard an actual war unless they had been in one themselves. There were some live broadcasts from the Spanish Civil War battlefields in the late ’30s. But most people had not heard a war. And Murrow took you up to the rooftops of London and opened the microphone, and you heard bombs dropping, you heard the antiaircraft fire, you heard the police sirens and the whistles of the air wardens. Pretty dramatic stuff in 1940. That had to make a real impression.
And that was another important function of Murrow. The British government was going to deny him access to the rooftops, because they thought the German planes could hone in on that radio signal and make the broadcasting house, the BBC in London, make that a target.
Churchill understood that having Murrow do live broadcasts of the Blitz for an American audience—America, remember, was neutral—Churchill desperately needed American help. He realized this was the best propaganda he could possibly have, to have Murrow broadcasting to the United States and having Americans realize what their British brothers and sisters were going through.
And that’s exactly what happened. Churchill cleared the way for Murrow to go to the rooftops, and he later credited those broadcasts with the Lend-Lease, the act by which America broke its neutrality. Roosevelt started helping Britain with old ships and other material, all of this of course prior to the United States entering the war in 1941 after Pearl Harbor.
MH: At that point Europe wasn’t a world away. It was just as far as your radio.
BE: Murrow’s very vivid reporting started waking people up. NBC did a great job, too, and sometimes would beat CBS on a story. But Murrow had everything going for him. There was much more glamour about Murrow somehow.
MH: [He]… was someone you’d recognize as having grown up in the West.
BE: Yes, he grew up in the lumber camps and sawmills of the state of Washington, where his father was a railroad engineer, on a line that served those lumber camps and sawmills. So he grew up singing the work songs and the labor songs, and he was familiar with the migrant workers who worked the fields. He was a working-class guy with more than working-class ambitions.
So he could combine the two. He was at home in any group of swells, politicians, princes, whatever, but he was at heart a working-class guy and was more than comfortable with people who got their hands dirty.
MH: He had a natural elegance… a kind of American aristocrat.
BE: Oh yeah, the photo I chose for the cover was not an accident. It was a publicity photo for CBS. The guy is dashing. He is on the running board of a London taxi. You want to get in that taxi with him.
MH: You get a sense, looking at this photograph, he’s looking you in the eye. He’s sizing you up. He’s got his hat at an angle. He’s about ready to climb in, a man of action and of absolute elegance, too.
BE: He knew that. He was using the visual, too. He was perfect for television.
MH: Let’s talk about the European news roundup.
BE: I read that this had happened a couple of times, but it took months of planning. The technical capabilities of radio in those days were such that it was a real feat to get several world capitals talking with each other. And remember, this is shortwave. Sunspots could interfere with the transmission, all kinds of things could happen. This was really difficult to do, and they did it within a few hours. This was not thought possible. And they did it on a Sunday, in Europe. Sundays in 1930s Europe were a whole different deal. They went to church or picnics in the country. There was no one in the office.
So Murrow had to arrange for broadcasting facilities in four or five capitals. He had to bribe public officials in some cases to get somebody there, to clear broadcast through censorship. It was just an ordeal. And all of it shortwave on a signal through London to New York. And they pulled it off. When they were through, Paley said, “That’s great, let’s do another one tomorrow.” And they’ve been doing them ever since.
MH: After the Second World War was over, where did that leave Edward R. Murrow?
BE: He went to New York and became an executive for a time and hated it. He was responsible for some interesting programming innovation and prepared the network for television. But he was just not happy sitting in boardrooms and meeting with sponsors. He would much rather be on the air and a working reporter.
And indeed I’m glad he did leave it. We wouldn’t have See It Now and Small World and other programs he did on TV.
MH: Was See It Now a natural progression from his radio broadcasts?
BE: Yes, he had a program that started on radio. Actually, it started on phonograph records. He was introduced to Fred Friendly by his agent. Fred Friendly was a guy looking to make sound recordings of the great speeches and great voices of the ’30s and ’40s, through the war—Churchill, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and all. Apparently, no one had recordings of these great speeches. So they collaborated and ended up putting out four records. They were very successful. It was called I Can Hear It Now.
Then they got together on a radio documentary series called Hear It Now. Only six months later they were ready to go into television. So naturally they called it See It Now. See It Now was the prototype of today’s 60 Minutes and all the other magazine shows. Except it was very hard news. There wasn’t a lot of featurette-type material. It was serious news. In the ’50s, that would have been NATO, the rebuilding of Europe, the polio epidemic, the Cold War, McCarthyism, Korea—a lot of things to talk about in the ’50s.
MH: At that time he wore every hat, in a way.
BE: He was co-producer with Fred Friendly, and of course he hosted it and was the principal reporter on camera.
Another interesting program they did—they did two shows on the health effects of smoking. This was 10 years before the Surgeon General’s report. Of
course, Murrow smoked through both programs on camera, as he did every program.
MH: He had bad lungs.
BE: He smoked four packs a day, which I can tell you, as a smoker, it’s just not possible. You would have to light continuously from one cigarette end to another.
MH: So See It Now ended in a kind of battle, didn’t it?
BE: It ended because Murrow kept doing these controversial programs and upsetting Paley, who just pulled the plug on it in the end. It had also lost its sponsor and had been shifted back to what they then called the Sunday ghetto. It had a brief reign in prime time, but after the McCarthy broadcast, it went back to weekends. [That’s where] [y]ou put all the brainy stuff that television did back in those days, like Omnibus, which was a magnificent art series.
MH: Didn’t he feel betrayed? He really thought Paley turned on him, didn’t he?
BE: Oh yeah. He didn’t blame Paley personally though. This is the interesting thing about Murrow. His boogeyman was Frank Stanton, who was Paley’s number two and the president of CBS News. Paley was the chairman. He could not imagine that Paley was doing him wrong, so it had to be Stanton.
Stanton’s still around, by the way. . .
MH: You wrote in your afterword that Edward R. Murrow’s like could really never happen again, because he definitely was a man of his day. If I were a young journalist, and I wanted to, in a way, chronicle news, and have high standards and so forth and wanted to go into broadcast journalism, where would you think would be the best way to go, public radio?
BE: Absolutely, public radio. But I don’t think Murrow could function even in public radio, because his programs would get the managers of public radio in trouble with the chairs of the congressional committees that rule on the public radio appropriations. You would have to have an all-Murrow cable channel, and maybe Murrow would have to own it. And that would be the only way that that would work.
Otherwise, he could write for magazines maybe.
MH: If Murrow were around now, and I realize this in a way may be silly conjecture. But… we’ve got the war in Iraq, we’ve got so many social issues going on, we’ve got sort of a sea change in our federal government’s policies, a huge privatization push going on, so if Murrow were to pop up today and go on assignment, what stories would grab him?
BE: He’d be all over everything you just said. I think the closest to Murrow’s like today is Bill Moyers. Of course, [he retired from his weekly public affairs show Now]. He left it for whatever reasons, or for whatever pressures, who knows? But that just reinforces my notion that Murrow could not function today.
MH: That’s a little sad, isn’t it?
BE: I think he would be the president of a small college and be superb at it.
MH: So he would be the type of guy who would put other people together to do good work. He would have brilliant… maybe salons that he would hold, and he would be an influencer of people.
BE: Yes, and he would be telling young people to challenge authority and work for the Constitution, guaranteeing that people’s rights are protected.
MH: You were a pioneer of sorts. You helped found the news of National Public Radio. You started at All Things Considered, went to Morning Edition. Did you consciously think you were walking in the footsteps of Edward R. Murrow at that time? Is that something that occurred to you?
BE: Well, we all are, in the sense of being broadcasters and having the opportunity to do programs in his spirit. I was maybe helped along in that area by a fellow named Ed Bliss, who was a writer for Murrow and was my journalism professor in graduate school at American University. I got first-hand Murrow stories every day. We were friends for 30 years. Bliss was telling me all the time that I could do this, that Murrow did it this way, and that’s how we ought to do it.
MH: If you were looking [for] a career now yourself, and you were a college-age kid, what do you think you would do, in this climate?
BE: A lot of college people are a lot further along than I am in terms of technology, blogs, and all. I’ve got a couple I go to, but that’s another world for me. A lot of young people get their news there, and I don’t know much about that. I’m sort of stuck in the more traditional world of radio, although the radio I’m in now is a different kind of radio, and may be the future of radio, who knows? I’m really excited about being a pioneer in that, too.
MH: And you get to spend your time interviewing people. This is long-form for you, as opposed to being an anchor and a host in a magazine format.
BE: Yeah, and having a lot of bosses. I’m interviewing the people I want to interview now for as long as I want to interview them. And that’s quite a change.
MH: Quite a change, and it’s got to be quite a challenge.
BE: Yes and a lot more satisfying.
MH: Can I ask you to read a section of the book that touches you or you find most interesting?
BE: In 1959, with Murrow so marginalized at CBS that it was really over for him, he just let it fly. He gave a speech that angered not just CBS, but quite a few other people in the industry. He was arguing for a journalistic presence in prime time. That doesn’t sound very controversial, because now we have it, but it was. He read this indictment of television and what it had done. He felt it had squandered the opportunity to be more than it was.
“Unless we get up off our fat surpluses and recognize that television in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse, and insulate us, then television and those who finance it, those who look at it, and those who work at it, may see a totally different picture too late…
“I do not advocate that we turn television into a 27-inch wailing wall, where longhairs constantly moan about the state of our culture and our defense. But I would just like to see it reflect occasionally the hard, unyielding realities of the world in which we live….
“This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance, and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful….”