Edward R. Murrow and the Time of His Time
By Joseph Wershba
Photograph by Lisa Larson
Murrow with characteristic cigarette in hand, 1954.
McCarthy and his accomplice, Roy Cohn.
“The only thing that
counts is the right to know, to speak, to think – that and the sanctity of
the courts. Otherwise, it’s not
By Joseph Wershba
Edward R. Murrow was my last hero. When this nation was drowning in cowardice and demagoguery, it was Murrow who hurled the spear at the terror. The spear was his See It Now television broadcast on Senator Joe McCarthy.
Murrow did not kill off McCarthy or
McCarthyism, but he helped halt
He was the most famous newsman in broadcasting, but he spelled out the limitations of his trade. "Just because the microphone in front of you amplifies your voice around the world," he'd say, "is no reason to think we have any more wisdom than we had when our voices could reach only from one end of the bar to the other."
His writing was simple, direct. He used strong, active verbs. On paper, it looked plain. The voice made the words catch fire. He regarded the news as a sacred trust. Accuracy was everything. And, always, fairness.
* * *
I remember once, flying with him from
When I went to work on a column of numbers, Murrow asked what I was doing. I said I was adding up my assets -- how much I'd be able to leave to my wife and baby daughter. It came to something like $4,000. Murrow's eyes widened. "Washboard," he said, using the nickname given to me in the Army, "you're the only son of a bitch I know who is worth more alive than dead!"
Sharing the same tiny quarters in
I once got an expense account thrown back at me because I had included an extra couple of Scotches at the bar. I appealed to Murrow. "Aren't we allowed a drink at dinner?" I asked. Murrow gave me one of his Churchillian replies: "Any working reporter who does not invade the corporate exchequer for at least one fifth of Scotch each day is not worthy of his hire." I couldn't drink that much -- and neither could he.
The only time I ever saw him under the
influence was the night I drove him home to
This man I worshipped could have his
mean moods too. One night at the bar he chewed out a colleague, the man who
had been closest to him in wartime
* * *
What was it like to work for Ed Murrow? Well, on See It Now you didn't work for Murrow, you worked for the man Murrow called his partner, Fred Friendly. He and Murrow set the agenda. Reporters or field directors like myself would go out with cameramen. We'd case the story, film it in the field, bring Murrow in for key portions. Sometimes Murrow would limit himself to the narration. His voice alone was enough to give power to the piece.
He always gave us full credit on the air. He never exhibited any professional rivalry or competitiveness. After Eric Sevareid appeared as a correspondent on our first See It Now broadcast with a "remote" report from Washington, I told Murrow of a colleague's reaction: She liked the broadcast, yes, especially Sevareid, because "he was loaded with sex appeal." "Well," said Murrow, smiling, "I guess we'll have to keep him the hell off the air." Sevareid, of course, was a Murrow Boy, and with Murrow's backing he became one of the most influential figures in broadcasting.
Friendly knew how honored we were to labor in Murrow's shadow and worked us to the bone. The phone would ring at , wherever the hell we were, scattered around the world. Friendly on the phone: "Joe, Ed wants...." I'd snap to attention and salute. I knew it really was Fred wants, but I also knew that when it came down to the final edit, it would be something Ed would want also.
* * *
When my cameraman Charlie Mack and I sent in our film on "The Case of Lieut. Milo Radulovich," Friendly got on the phone. "You're fired," he bellowed, "I'm fired, Ed's fired, but we're going to turn out the greatest broadcast ever done on television!"
The Radulovich case involved a young Air Force Reserve weatherman who had been dropped from the service in the age of security madness. The Air Force secretly accused his father and sister of holding radical views. There were no complaints against Milo Radulovich. He was given to understand that if he publicly repudiated his father and sister he might get his commission back. Radulovich said that wasn't what Americanism meant to him. He refused to "cut his blood ties."
On the program, Murrow was never more
magnetic in his stark portrait of
* * *
The McCarthy crowd was aroused. McCarthy's chief investigator, Don Surine, came up to me when we were covering the testimony of F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover. "Hey Joe", he said, "What's this Radwich junk you putting out?" I didn't need a road map to tell me there was trouble ahead. I started to say I had to rush off to the airport, but Surine cut me short. "What would you say if I told you Murrow was on the Soviet payroll in 1934?" he asked. "Come on up to the office and I'll show you."
He told me to wait outside McCarthy's
staff office and soon reappeared with a photostat of a Hearst newspaper front
page, dated February 18, 1935, containing an attack on the Institute of
International Education for sponsoring a summer exchange program between
American professors and their Soviet counterparts. The institute had the
support of the leading educators in
I asked if I could show the photostats to Mr. Murrow. Permission granted. "Mind you, Joe," Surine said, "I'm not saying Murrow's a Commie himself....but if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck -- it's a duck."
Then came another weapon in the arsenal -- the threats against a family member. "It's a terrible shame," Surine said offhandedly. "Murrow's brother being a general in the Air Force." I could feel the hair rise on the back of my neck.
The next night, I brought the "expose" to Murrow. He was suffering a bad cold. He looked wan. He scanned the front page, reddened a bit, then a weak grin came over his face. "So that's what they've got," he said. It was the only time I ever heard Murrow privately or publicly concede that the fear with which McCarthyism was poisoning the soul of the nation had penetrated his soul as well.
But the next day, Murrow came up to me at the water fountain. He was over his cold. The pallor was gone. He drew his lips back and his large teeth looked ready to chomp a live bear. All he said was, "The question now is, when do I go against these guys?" Ed Murrow in a suppressed rage was a terrible thing to behold.
Over the next four months, while Murrow
held the reins, Fred Friendly organized the material -- mostly devastating
clips of McCarthy himself -- for the broadcast. What I remember most of that
period were Murrow's comments on the kind of
* * *
When we looked at the near-final cut of the McCarthy broadcast and the staff showed fear of putting it on the air, Murrow spoke a line that landed like a lash across our backs: "The terror is right here in this room." And later: "No one man can terrorize a whole nation unless we are all his accomplices." When someone asked what he would say on the McCarthy broadcast, he replied, "If none of us ever read a book that was 'dangerous,' nor had a friend who was 'different,' or never joined an organization that advocated 'change,' we would all be just the kind of people Joe McCarthy wants."
On the night of the broadcast,
"We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason if we dig deep in our history and doctrine and remember that we are not descended from fearful men, not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes which were for the moment unpopular. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of the Republic to abdicate his responsibility."
Edward R. Murrow, the man I often addressed as "Father," was my last hero.
Veteran journalist Joseph Wershba joined CBS News in 1944 serving as writer, editor and correspondent. He was a producer of the renowned "60 Minutes" from 1968-1988.