History Day award winner -- Murrow, Edward R. (1908-1965): One Man, One Microphone, One Murrow by Katie Bailey

  • By Katie Bailey
  • Posted 9/30/2009
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10224

Katie Bailey, a sophmore at Kentridge High School, was a freshman when she won a History Day essay award with this account of the life and accomplishments of famed newsman Edward R. Murrow. Murrow's radio reports from London during World War II's blitz transfixed American listeners, and after the war he went on to pioneer investigative reporting in the new medium of television. Murrow was never afraid to tackle difficult and controversial topics, and his television documentaries and commentaries often represented the plight of America's poor and powerless. His persistence in the search for truth and his high ethical standards inspire journalists to this day.

Baptism by Fire

It’s a regular September day in 1940. An average American family crowds around their vacuum-tube radio; a person turns the main dial. He turns the dial slowly, until he finally hears a stern, but calming voice, “This ... is London.” 

That stern voice was Edward R. Murrow reporting from London, England, during World War II. With bombs falling around him, Murrow would vividly describe the calamitous surroundings during the German bombing blitz. Murrow mastered this style of spot-on news coverage and would later go on to create and perfect other new mediums of reporting, including documentaries and investigative reports. Murrow’s traits of perseverance, charisma, and honesty enabled him to change the nature of broadcast journalism and led to a new style of reporting that remains prominent today.

From Polecat Creek to London

On April 25, 1908, Egbert R. Murrow was born to a family of farmers in Polecat Creek, North Carolina. His family eventually moved to the town of Blanchard, Washington, when Murrow was young. In 1926, he attended Washington State College in Pullman, majoring in speech. By the time he graduated in 1930, Murrow had changed his name to Edward.

After graduating, Murrow moved to New York City to run the National Student Federation of America. In 1935, he was hired by the Columbia Broadcasting System to be the Director of Talks and Education. In 1937 CBS sent Murrow to its European bureau to investigate and report on the rising tensions unfolding in the year 1937.

Two years later, in 1939, World War II broke out. Murrow would often take life-risking chances in order to provide a better listening experience for the American people as to what the war was like. Murrow, who was stationed in the city of London, took to the rooftops and reported via radio to the American public about the mass bombings striking the city. Doing such fieldwork at the time was extremely dangerous, and Murrow’s office was bombed at least four times.

For six years, Murrow reported from Europe, primarily London, while his popularity grew among American listeners. His highly detailed accounts of the blitz earned him praise along with the sympathy and adoration of wartime America. Murrow would often try to connect with the common citizens of Britain to express his personal analysis to the listeners. Never before had Americans heard such detailed reports. Near the end of the war, Murrow explicitly revealed the horrific details of a concentration camp in Germany:

“We proceeded to the small courtyard. The wall was about eight feet high; it adjoined what had been a stable or garage. We entered. It was floored with concrete. There were two rows of bodies stacked up like cordwood. They were thin and very white. Some of the bodies were terribly bruised, though there seemed to be little flesh to bruise. Some had been shot through the head, but they bled but little. All except two were naked. I tried to count them as best I could and arrived at the conclusion that all that was mortal of more than five hundred men and boys lay there in two neat piles” (Betka).  

From Radio to Television

Murrow returned to America in March 1945, near the war's end, and was surprised that he was hailed as a star among the American people. Murrow served as CBS's vice-president in charge of public affairs from 1945 to 1947 and was elected to the board of directors in 1949. In 1950, he began working alongside his associate, Fred Friendly, to produce and host CBS’s new radio program, Hear It Now. For this, Murrow traveled to Korea to cover the Korean War. Murrow’s portions of the program were often centered on interviews with the common soldier, exposing listeners to the grim ambience of life at the front, reinforced by the eerie sound of artillery fire in the background. The American public was more than intrigued when photos of Murrow interviewing soldiers deep within trenches were released.

Hear It Now proved to be exceptionally popular. However, television was steadily increasing in popularity in America. CBS saw an opportunity to benefit from this new medium, and Murrow was asked to convert Hear It Now to a television format. Although initially reluctant, he finally accepted the idea, and the television program, entitled See It Now, premiered on November 18, 1951. It continued until July 7, 1958.

See It Now proved to be a faithful adaptation of the radio program. The show’s areas of interest would often center on people of Murrow’s own background and segments of society often ignored by the mainstream press: the poor, farmers, African Americans, immigrants, and the everyday man and woman. These topics, though taboo according to then-present standards, sparked interest among viewers. American audiences continued to watch these reports, due partly to Murrow’s truthful analysis and compelling presentation. Television had proved itself a very powerful ally to Murrow. The visual aspect of the medium presented imagery and evidence that radio was unable to muster.

A concept born from television and Murrow’s programming was the television documentary. Fieldwork was still often used, and was prominent in the reports Murrow gave for these documentaries. One notable episode included the 1952 special entitled "Christmas in Korea." In the episode, Murrow spent Christmas Day interviewing American soldiers who were assigned to fight for the United Nations’ combat brigade.

Another documentary on See It Now was "Harvest of Shame," which focused on the harsh living conditions of migrant workers. Other notable episodes tackled issues like the link between lung cancer and smoking, poverty, and the desegregation of schools in 1954. However, all of these were overshadowed by one of Murrow’s most controversial broadcasts.

Taking on McCarthyism

This exposé centered on Joe McCarthy, the then junior senator from Wisconsin. McCarthy had been long under attack by the press and newscasters for his inequitable prosecutions against alleged communists. The major hurdle for reporters was that they were unable to find definite proof that McCarthy had made false and unjust accusations. Murrow himself found it difficult to find a reliable source that could be used to attack McCarthy’s persistent “witch-hunt.”

Murrow became obsessively engaged in researching the case and eventually tracked down one of McCarthy's innocent victims. A broadcast in October 1953 foreshadowed Murrow's later exposé of the senator. This first broadcast focused on a man named Milo Radulovich, a former Air Force lieutenant who was relieved of his position after accusations that his family included communist sympathizers. After the broadcast, Radulovich’s case earned much-needed publicity. He was awarded a proper hearing, won his case, and was reinstated into the Air Force.

Immediately after this airing, Murrow became aware that McCarthy was now targeting him as a presumed communist contact. Murrow, who had compiled a collection of information about McCarthy over the course of several years, began forming a program out of it. This episode would later be followed up by a whole broadcast dedicated solely to McCarthy, shown on March 9, 1954. The show was composed entirely of clips of the senator’s television appearances and speeches. Rather than exposing the supposed danger posed by McCarthy's alleged communists, Murrow chose to represent the far greater terrors presented by McCarthy’s actions. These excerpts, compiled together, painted a picture of McCarthy that showed him contradicting his own statements and interrogating witnesses in a manner that exposed his crude and illogical methods.

McCarthy, upon the airing of the show, demanded a chance to respond on-air, and he appeared in person on See It Now on April 6, 1954. McCarthy’s rebuttal, in the words of Murrow, "made no reference to any statements of fact that we made" (See It Now).  McCarthy's appearance eliminated any opportunity he may have had for redemption and further eroded his already declining popularity.

This exposure of McCarthy’s actions proved to be the lead for the eventual censure of the senator by his senate colleagues. However, the controversy surrounding this case, along with various other episodes, led to CBS ultimately discontinuing the show as a weekly program in 1958.

An Enduring Body of Work

Murrow continued to work for CBS until 1961 and worked on his other weekly program, Person to Person, until 1959. Person to Person started in 1953 and focused on interviews with notables like Marlon Brando, Senator John F. Kennedy, and John Steinbeck. In contrast to his gruff yet calming nature on See It Now, Murrow demonstrated friendliness, inquisitiveness, and sincerity when hosting Person to Person, and it surpassed See It Now’s ratings by a considerable margin.

In 1959, Murrow also hosted Small World, a talk show in which political opponents met for one-on-one debates. While that show soon ceased to exist as a weekly program, special broadcasts sponsored by the See It Now crew, including Murrow, continued to air on CBS. These specials were titled CBS Reports, and were full-length television documentaries that redefined the term. One of his last programs with CBS would be a remake of "Harvest of Shame," which aired in November 1960. Like the See It Now broadcast of the same name, it focused on the rough plight of migrant agricultural workers.

Murrow resigned from CBS in 1961 to take up an offer by President John F. Kennedy to be the head of the United States Information Agency. Murrow had the job for only three years before he was diagnosed in 1964 with lung cancer, due to life-long smoking. Murrow died on his New York farm on April 27, 1965, at the age of 57.

A Lasting Legacy

Although Murrow’s death was a tragic loss to the world of journalism, the legacy left by him lives on. His charisma, perseverance, and honesty proved to future generations that those traits could lead to great achievements in the fields of broadcast journalism and investigative reporting. Numerous academic resources have been dedicated to Murrow, including Washington State University’s Edward R. Murrow School of Communications.

His principles have inspired many shows of today, including 60 Minutes. Don Hewitt, the late creator of 60 Minutes, claimed that the program was a combination of the “higher Murrow” (Murrow as seen in See It Now) and the “lower Murrow” (Murrow as seen in Person to Person). The 60 Minutes show has been running on CBS since 1968, and has itself spawned other TV news shows, including NBC’s Dateline and ABC’s 20-20.

In many ways, Murrow changed the way we hear and see the news. He was a master of his craft. 


Sources: "Senator Joseph R. McCarthy: Reply to Edward R. Murrow," See It Now (CBS-TV, April 6, 1954), transcript available at Media Resource Center, University of California, Berkeley, Library (http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/MRC/murrowmccarthy2.html); Hannelore Suderman, "Don Hewitt," Washington State Magazine (Fall 2008) available online (http://wsm.wsu.edu/s/index.php?id=145); Mark Betka, "Edward R. Murrow: A Life" (reprinted from a U.S. Department of State publication, Edward R. Murrow: Journalism at Its Best), America.gov website (http://www.america.gov/st/democracyhr-english/2008/June/20080601085135eaifas3.513736e-02.html).

Related Topics:   Biographies | Media

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You