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Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of The Murrow Boys: The Fleeting Glory of Broadcast Journalism

The “Murrow Boys” were a group of radio correspondents active before, and for a while after, World War II who were considered protégés of the great CBS journalist and smoker, Edward R. Murrow. Together they invented broadcast journalism, watched it become great and then wither under the influence of McCarthyism and the advent of television.

Murrow and the aura of integrity became an icon that modern broadcasters tried to emulate and idolize. Dan Rather “donned the mantle so often in public” that he was asked to tone it down in 1987 by Eric Sevareid, one of the authentic Murrow Boys. “Rather is not Edward R. Murrow,” Sevareid said. Undeterred, Rather and CBS continued to trade on the past, “ignoring the inconvenient parts, such as the fact that Murrow and most of the Boys had been either forced out or sidetracked by the network’s bosses.”

Radio news had been an oxymoron. Those who read the “news” barely knew of what they spoke. Often they were merely shameless shills for sponsors and mouthed the scripts handed to them -- much like TV newscasters today.

Murrow came from a Quaker family. His real name was Egbert; he changed it after being unmercifully hazed by lumberjacks with whom he worked in the northwest during the summers he was in high school. His mother was so religious she refused to answer the phone by saying hello, for fear that she would be invoking the name of the netherworld. Fun was certainly frowned upon.

Radio was still a new medium and Murrow was given a great deal of freedom to recruit. He hired the best newspaper reporters he could find, arguing that regardless of the medium the idea was to write well and provide honest reports. If there isn't any news, just say so. "I have an idea poeople might like that."

He wasn’t concerned about their voices or their mannerisms. He had offered several positions to women, but the New York CBS office was adamantly opposed to such a radical idea. The people he did hire, such as Winston Burdett, Charles Collingwood, and Eric Sevareid,became famous in their own right. A virtual cult developed around Murrow. Unconsciously, many even imitated his style of clothing. He became a sort of surrogate parent; “Murrow chose people who needed him.”
Paul White, of CBS, was the first to codify the concept of objectivity. It was severely tested by the war. Was it possible for a correspondent to "objectively" parrot Nazi propaganda when reporting from Berlin? The notion of objectivity meant different things to different people. To most people today, objectivity simply means agreement with their opinion.

Radio was particularly vulnerable to pressure from government. The airwaves were still considered public property, and some New Dealers wanted all radio under government control. Comments from FDR's press secretary warning the networks to behave were not ignored by the broadcasters. The issue of objectivity was to create enormous rifts in the industry as broadcasters sought to interpret what they knew, to place events in context. When several of the Murrow Boys reported on how the rear echelons were wallowing in luxurious settings and making huge sums from the black market, the generals accused the reporters of ruining morale. Front line troops asked them why they wouldn't report the horrible conditions up front and the disparity with the rear. This same conflict was to bedevil the journalists in Korea and Vietnam. 
Radio brought fame to many of them. They were very good at their jobs. Celebrity was to affect them, too. “As long as a journalist and the outfit he works for are inconsequential, . . . it’s easy for them to believe in and stand for the verities of their craft: truth, reason, independence, freedom and the like. But when the reporter becomes a celebrity, or when his reporting affects masses of people, or when he and his outfit start to earn large amounts of money, then the pressures mount to conform, to protect oneself, to protect one’s income, to protect one’s outfit, to avoid giving offense.” A lesson many of today’s so-called journalists have forgotten or never learned.

The shift to television was to have profound impact on the business of news. After the war, sponsors had become more powerful in dictating the content of news shows they funded. Television’s requirement for larger staff and more expensive equipment made this relationship even more symbiotic. Murrow and his Boys were skeptical. They thought television was lightweight. Images rather than content became important. Nevertheless, Murrow made the transition successfully with his critically acclaimed See It Now program. The transformation to television had been fast. In the three-year period between 1948 and 1951 the nation had moved to television. But even with Murrow running the show, his Boys were appalled when he was heard to suggest that the cameraman was just as important a member of the team as the correspondent. That was part of the radical change. No longer were they independent nor did they have anywhere near the freedom that had existed during World War II. But it was really the money that was making the difference. Eric Sevareid summed it up neatly: "I have been impressed with how timid a million dollars' profit can make a publisher or radio executive, instead of how bold it makes him." How little things have changed.

Television news has become what the Murrow Boys feared, a vast, uninformative wasteland that celebrates image over substance, and happy talk over analysis. The networks cut costs by eliminating foreign correspondents, buying short video pieces from free-lancers and then layering local voices over the top. Broadcasters are hired for their looks rather than their brains. Frank Stanton recalled watching a network news broadcast one night and being appalled by the lack of knowledge of the reporter: "He had the technology, he had the pictures, he had the people to interview, and he asked the stupidest questions in the world. That didn't happen with the Shirers, the Howard K. Smiths, the Sevareids, the Murrows. They had a sense of history. They knew what was going on."

Ironically, CBS continues to extol the Murrow heritage. "It is almost axiomatic that the more an institution breaks faith with those who built it, the more it sanctifies them." This is a wonderful, revealing, impossible-to-put-down book.

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