Edward R. Murrow: And the Time of His Time

By Wershba, Joseph | The Quill, September 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

Edward R. Murrow: And the Time of His Time


Wershba, Joseph, The Quill


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 would 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 had to go into the studio that night, he would 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. …

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