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 Cohen.
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 America's incredible slide toward a native brand of fascism. Unbelievable. You had to live through the times to know how fearful -- indeed, terrorized -- people were about speaking their minds. The cold war with Russia, the threat of a hot war with China, security programs and loyalty oaths -- all had cowed the citizens of the most powerful nation on earth into keeping their minds closed and their mouths shut. The Senate of the United States. in order not to appear Red, chose to be yellow. It was the Age of McCarthyism. Edward R. Murrow helped bring it to an end.
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 Alaska to cover the war in Korea, our military aircraft seemed to be circling endlessly in the dark night of the Pacific. The steward came down the aisle, explained that we had already made two passes trying to find the refueling island, and if we didn't make it on the third -- well...."Joe," Murrow said very softly, "that's the best way to go -- in the presence of good companions."
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 Korea, we'd be up before dawn. The first sound I would hear would be a long, long pull on a cigarette. I could almost hear the smoke going down to his toes. Except when the working situation absolutely forbade smoking, I can't ever recall seeing Murrow without a cigarette.
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 Washington after dinner at my Virginia apartment. The air was pleasant, breezy. He was humming some old logging-camp tune and was waving to the trees like a small boy. I never saw him so content, even happy. But I know that if he'd had to go into the studio that night, he'd have had his coffee and would have been ready at the mike.
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 London. I cringed. Nearby, another of "Murrow's Boys" was beaming. I stuttered something about it being beneath Murrow to bawl out a colleague where the troops might overhear him. The second Murrow boy roared with laughter. "The poor s.o.b. deserves a reaming!" he said. A little later, the three of them were laughing and toasting each other again.
* * *
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 3 a.m., 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 America going dark: "Whatever happens in this whole area of the relationship between the individual and the State, we will do ourselves; it cannot be blamed upon [Soviet Premier Georgi] Malenkov, Mao Tse-tung or even our allies." There followed a public outcry. A few weeks later the Air Force announced on See It Now that Milo Radulovich had his commission back.
* * *
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 America; it conducted exchange seminars around the world. Murrow had been a 26-year-old up-and-comer in the I.I.E. and was merely mentioned in the Hearst "expose" of the institute's seminar at Moscow University.
But Moscow!! That was enough for McCarthy. His crowd had dug up "files" on everybody. The implication was clear. Murrow was now a full-fledged McCarthy target for having dared to broadcast the Radulovich story. But how was Murrow on the Soviet payroll? Surine's explanation was simplicity itself: The I.I.E. had to go through VOKS, the Soviet student exchange organization, they paid some of the expenses -- and that put the I.I.E. -- and Murrow -- on the Soviet payroll.
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 America he believed in. He said, "All I can hope to teach my son is to tell the truth and fear no man" And: "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 America." And: "We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty."
* * *
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, March 9, 1954, the night the spear was hurled against the terror that held America in thrall, Edward R. Murrow spoke words that should be handed down as legacy to every generation of Americans:
"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.