Edward R. Murrow, war correspondent and Chief of the European Staff of the CBC. Photograph: Bettmann/Corbis
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“This . . . is London.” With those trademark words, crackling over the airwaves from a city in the midst of blitzkrieg, Edward R. Murrow began a journalistic career that has had no equal. From the opening days of World War II through his death in 1965, Murrow had an unparalleled influence on broadcast journalism. His voice was universally recognized, and a generation of radio and television newsmen emulated his style. Murrow’s pioneering television documentaries have more than once been credited with changing.
In 1937, Edward R. Murrow was sent by CBS to set up a network of correspondents to report on the gathering storm in Europe. He assembled a group of young reporters whose names soon became household words in wartime America, among whom were William Shirer, Charles Collingwood, Bill Shael, and Howard K. Smith. The group, which came to be known collectively as “Murrow’s Boys,” reported the whole of World War II from the front lines with a courage and loyalty inspired by Murrow’s own fearlessness. During the war Murrow flew in more than twenty bombing missions over Berlin, and along with Bill Shadel was the first Allied correspondent to report the horrors from the Nazi death camps.
Returning to America after the war, Murrow was surprised to find that his overseas reports had made him a star at home. With the advent of television, Murrow was approached to host a weekly program. Along with his associate, Fred Friendly, Murrow had been producing a popular radio show, Hear It Now. The television show was to be called See It Now. Joe Wershba, a reporter who worked closely with Murrow, remembers, “Neither of them knew anything about film making or television. All they knew was they wanted to do stories. Important stories.” Television was in its infancy and Murrow and Friendly had to learn the process of filmmaking and the primitive television equipment on the job.
Murrow’s love of common America led him to seek out stories of ordinary people. He presented their stories in such a way that they often became powerful commentaries on political or social issues. See It Now consistently broke new ground in the burgeoning field of television journalism. In 1953, Murrow made the decision to investigate the case of Milo Radulovich. Radulovich had been discharged from the Air Force on the grounds that his mother and sister were communist sympathizers. The program outlined the elements of the case, casting doubt on the Air Force’s decision, and within a short while, Milo Radulovich had been reinstated. This one edition of See It Now marked a change in the face of American journalism and a new age in American politics.
Soon after the Milo Radulovich program aired, it was learned that Senator Joseph McCarthy was preparing an attack on Murrow. As it happened, Murrow himself had been collecting material about McCarthy and his Senate Investigating Committee for several years, and he began assembling the program. Broadcast on March 9, 1954, the program, composed almost entirely of McCarthy’s own words and pictures, was a damning portrait of a fanatic. McCarthy demanded a chance to respond, but his rebuttal, in which he referred to Murrow as “the leader of the jackal pack,” only sealed his fate. The combination of the program’s timing and its persuasive power broke the Senator’s hold over the nation. The entire fiasco, however, caused a rift with CBS, and they decided to discontinue See It Now.
By 1961 tensions had become irreparable between Murrow and CBS and he accepted an appointment from President Kennedy as the head of the United States Information Agency. He was only to have the job for three years before being diagnosed with lung cancer. In 1964 Murrow was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and in 1965 died on his farm in New York. Perhaps more than any reporter before or since, Murrow captured the trust and belief of a nation and returned that trust with honesty and courage. His belief in journalism as an active part of the political process and a necessary tool within democracy has forever altered the politics and everyday life of the American people.
Broadcast from London, 2 September 1945
And now there is peace. The papers have been signed. The last enemy has given up – unconditionally. There is a silence you can almost hear. Not even the distant echo of guns or the rumble of bombers going out with a belly full of bombs. Six years is a long time – and it was more than twice as long for the Chinese.Today is so much like the Sunday six years ago today. There is sun; the streets are empty. People are sitting in deck chairs in the parks. People and chairs are shabbier than they were six years ago. It is a long time, long enough for nations to disappear and be recreated. Long enough for cities that were 1,000 years in the building to be destroyed in a night.But there is a fundamental difference between the atmosphere today and six years ago. Then the assumption was that this war was just taking up where the last one left off. The French had a powerful army; the iron ring of the blockade would strangle Germany. The tired voice of Neville Chamberlain announcing the declaration of war came as something of a relief. The recurring crises were over. The issues were to be fought out. There would probably be some bombing, but it wouldn't be long before the world returned to something like business as usual.There was some talk of total war, but no one really knew what it meant. Few, if any, foresaw what the price of victory would be. The world of six years ago is gone, and there is a realisation that there can be no return.
For tens of millions of people, the whole basis of existence has gone. They are without homes or hope. People who have lived dangerously lose their fear of change. Those who thought this would be an old-fashioned war when it started six years ago do not believe that peace can be made in the old-fashioned mold. It will require daring and perhaps even sacrifice equal to that displayed by the victors in war, and the constant knowledge that victory is no guarantee of peace.We seem to be in a condition where there are few fixed, firm standards. There is even confusion about the meaning of familiar words. For example, General MacArthur said on board the Missouri: "Democracy is on the march today, in Asia as well as in Europe. The unshackled peoples are tasting the full sweetness of liberty and relief from fear. "That is certainly acceptable as rhetoric, but it employed one word that is more in use today than at any previous time and that is subject to more different interpretations. The word is democracy. Russia refuses to help supervise free and secret elections in Greece because such action would be "a violation of democratic principles".The Romanian premier refuses to give up his office and justifies his unconstitutional conduct by saying he is defending the democratic spirit. Democracy is used to defend policies pursued in Belgrade and Sofia and Budapest. It is clear that the word has a different meaning in different parts of the world but is still found useful as a slogan. Maybe we should start by redefining the word and settle for a written constitution, freedom of speech, a secret ballot and no secret police.
From In Search of Light: The Broadcasts of Edward Murrow (Knopf)