Bill Totten's Weblog

Friday, October 21, 2005

Good Night, and the Good Fight

by Neal Gabler

The New York Times (October 09 2005)

Even now, forty years after his death, Edward R Murrow remains the gold standard of American journalism - "the patron saint of my profession", as the radio host Bob Edwards called him in a biography last year. Murrow's vivid reports from wartime Europe for CBS radio brought unprecedented eloquence and immediacy to the medium. His documentaries for CBS television brought an unabashedly compassionate vision to the dispossessed and disempowered. And his famous confrontations with the red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy on "See It Now", chronicled in George Clooney's acclaimed new film, "Good Night, and Good Luck", brought courage and conscience to television news. Murrow was, as a panel on Mr Clooney's film at the New York Film Festival put it, the one mainstream journalist who dared "speak truth to power".

Such is Murrow's legacy that his name is often invoked to demonstrate the shortcomings of contemporary journalism, where it is almost inconceivable to imagine any TV reporter directly challenging the powers that be, or any broadcast mogul supporting him in doing so, as CBS's William S Paley, albeit reluctantly, supported Murrow (which only goes to show that Murrow's bequest is honored more in the breach than in practice).

But Murrow left another legacy, one that has had a much more powerful - and in many ways worrisome - impact on his profession. Beyond anything else, Edward R Murrow brought stardom and dramatic values to the news, not the least of which was a stirring sense of righteous advocacy.

Almost from the moment Murrow began delivering his dispatches from a Europe on the brink of war, he was no ordinary reporter. He behaved differently from other reporters. When war began, he thrust himself in the middle of the action, holding out his microphone so that listeners could hear the explosions during the London Blitz, in the process turning himself into a protagonist of the battle as well as an observer of it.

Murrow sounded different from other journalists, too. He spoke in a rich, deep baritone that added to the dramatic effect, and he had a trademark halting cadence that turned reportage into poetry. He even looked different from the typical bedraggled reporter of "Front Page" yore. He wore bespoke suits and always seemed to have a steely squint in his eye and a cigarette dangling elegantly from his lips or tucked into the crook of his fingers. He was dark, brooding, remote and irresistibly attractive to women - attributes more to be found in a movie star than a journalist. He had a persona.

It was no accident, then, that Murrow enjoyed an instant affinity with television when he moved from radio to the new medium. Television news in its infancy didn't have stars; it had news readers like John Cameron Swayze and Douglas Edwards sitting in the studio, and microphone-holders in the field. Into this void, Murrow brought something for which television hungered: charisma. The camera loved him.

People have always been loath to admit the movie-star component of Murrow's appeal or its centrality to his journalism, even when in 1953 he began a celebrity interview program called "Person to Person". (He justified the show by saying it would help him gain leeway to practice his real journalism.) His admirers were at pains to distinguish it from his more elevated news show, "See It Now". "Low Murrow", one contemporary media critic called "Person to Person", as opposed to "See It Now", which was "high Murrow".

But the distinction may not have been as great as Murrow partisans wanted to think. Both low and high Murrow understood that television was a personality-driven medium, and both traded in the stock of entertainment value, which has always been the primary currency of television, including television news. Essentially, Murrow was as much entertainer as reporter.

When Murrow decided to confront McCarthy, most of his admirers fastened, as Mr Clooney has, on his willingness to sacrifice the pretense of objectivity for the higher realm of truth. This was Murrow at the barricades. Yet as far as the history of journalism was concerned, the way in which the confrontation was staged may have been just as, if not more, important than the content.

Murrow chose to frame himself as the hero, McCarthy as the sinister villain (which, admittedly, wasn't too difficult). But Murrow's terms were not journalistic terms. They were the terms of drama and film. By engaging in a showdown with McCarthy, a political high noon, Murrow had converted news into theater, not incidentally increasing its force. The journalist in Murrow understood this, and was apparently disconcerted by it; a colleague of his at CBS told another biographer, A M Sperber, that "the McCarthy program bothered the hell out of him" and led him to wonder, "Did he or anyone else have the right to use this tremendous power to attack one man?"

Of course, what made Murrow the hero of the drama was his sense of advocacy. He was a journalistic star in large measure because he was also a journalistic Paladin. He wasn't just reporting on McCarthy and righting the senator's record of reckless distortions (other journalists had by then exposed the senator's exaggerations and intimidation), he was righting wrongs.

It was this departure from the typically timid approach of broadcast news that made his attack on McCarthy a signal moment in American television journalism. "This is not the time for those who oppose Senator McCarthy's methods to keep silent - or for those who approve", Murrow intoned on his famous March 09 1954, broadcast of "See It Now". "There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibility". Thus Murrow abandoned the aerie of objectivity to brandish the cudgel of righteousness.

Where Murrow led, others would follow. When Walter Cronkite returned from Vietnam early in 1968 and announced, in an analysis he himself called "speculative, personal and subjective", that the United States was "mired in a stalemate", he was clearly following the Murrow tradition, both because he had developed his own oracular persona as television news's Judge Hardy and because he was willing to editorialize.

Murrow's admirers justifiably celebrate this tradition, and his instincts have been affirmed by history. Mr Cronkite did change the course of the war, just as CNN's Anderson Cooper, Fox News's Shepard Smith and others who challenged the governmental response to Hurricane Katrina forced officials to act. But journalistic crusades can cut both ways. Not every news celebrity is as consistently on the side of the angels as Murrow was, or is as scrupulous in distinguishing advocacy from mere opinion-mongering, showboating and, worse, partisanship. If a line runs from Murrow to Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw and "Nightline", it also runs to Bill O'Reilly, Chris Matthews and "The Barbara Walters Specials".

They are all Murrow's heirs, not because they speak truth to power or because they are guided by conscience or because they adhere to any high-minded principle as he did. They are Murrow's heirs because they all demonstrate an understanding that stardom matters, that news without dramatic form isn't likely to survive. This may not be Edward R Murrow's proudest legacy, but it may very well be his most enduring one.

Neal Gabler, the author of Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity (Alfred A Knopf, 1994), is writing a biography of Walt Disney.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

Bill Totten


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