Murrow, Edward R. (1908-1965)

  • By Kathrine Beck
  • Posted 7/02/2024
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 23016
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Based in London during World War II, Edward R. Murrow provided American radio listeners with regular live reporting on the rise of Hitler and the war in Europe. Raised in small-town Skagit County and educated at Washington State in Pullman, Murrow was instrumental in developing radio – originally a novelty bringing music and vaudeville entertainment into homes – into a powerful news medium. Later, at the dawn of television broadcasting, he won acclaim for his thoughtful, sometimes courageous coverage of social and political events using the new medium.

A Boy Called Egg

He was born Egbert Roscoe Murrow in 1908 in the Polecat Creek, North Carolina, home of Roscoe and Ethel Murrow. The 1750s farmhouse had been in the family for generations, and the Murrows, who were Quakers, grew corn, hay, and tobacco. Ethel's family had smuggled escaped slaves north and served in the Union army during the Civil War. On his father's side, some Murrows had been slaveowners and Confederate soldiers.

Nicknamed Egg, the baby of the family was often teased by older brothers Lacey and Dewey. He was chubby and small for his age with a large head. His brothers also found his youthful voice, which was oddly mature, hilarious. An uncle later said his foghorn voice could be "heard for miles" (Edwards).

In 1913, having sold the home and most household possessions, the family boarded a train to Washington with two food baskets and a couple of suitcases. They settled in the Skagit County town of Blanchard on Samish Bay about 12 miles south of Bellingham, living at first in a tent on soggy land owned by a cousin. Roscoe Murrow found a job with a logging railroad on Blanchard Mountain. Ethel Murrow became treasurer of the local school board.

As a teenager, Egbert suddenly grew tall, thin, and handsome. At 15 he was driving a school bus. In high school in the nearby town of Edison he sang in the choir, was a debate-team star, played in the orchestra, acted in plays, and was a cheerleader and part of student government. Schoolmates nicknamed him Blowhard, shortened to Blow, for his loud and outspoken voice. In summers, he and his brothers worked in logging camps, operating the whistle on steam-powered winches that dragged logs to a river or a road. He was quickly promoted to surveyors' assistant, selecting the best areas for felling trees. In the camps he was Ed instead of Egbert, a name he hated. He later said he changed it because he didn't want to have to fight every lumberjack on the West Coast.

Washington had been the scene of violent labor struggles, and Ed followed the activities of the International Workers of the World (IWW), or Wobblies, with interest, although his father threatened to break his neck if Ed sang another Wobbly song. Murrow said the radical anthem "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night," composed by Seattle native Earl Robinson, was his favorite song. Later in life Murrow both claimed and denied having joined the IWW, seen by many as radical and unpatriotic.

Ed was the only child left at home when Roscoe Murrow lost his temper and punched his boss at the Samish Bay Logging Company, knocking him out cold. Roscoe landed a new job at Beaver Camp, a logging camp near Forks, Clallam County, on the Olympic Peninsula.

Pillar in Pullman

After graduating from high school in Edison as valedictorian, Murrow spent a year as an axman on a logging crew in Clallam County, saving to pay for Washington State College in Pullman. He was 17 and had reached his adult height of 6-feet-2 when he mailed his college application from Beaver Camp. Along with money he saved, his oldest brother Lacey helped him with more.

In Pullman, he got a job in a sorority house, working as janitor and houseboy and sleeping in the basement. He enrolled in the Business Department and got Bs and Cs in economics courses, but everything changed when he took a course from the youngest member of the faculty, 26-year-old Ida Lou Anderson (1900-1941). A speech instructor with a lovely voice, she taught a humanities course called "Interpretation" and served as a broadcasting coach and advisor to the college radio station. Childhood polio had left her severely disabled, her spine curved and torso twisted. Murrow was her protégé and star pupil. He switched his major to Speech and she also coached him in poetry, literature, and music. They were devoted friends. She called him "my masterpiece" while he said, "She knows me better than any person in the world. The part of me that is decent, that wants to do something, be something, is the part she created" (Sperber)

He left his job at the sorority and moved into the Kappa Sigma fraternity house where Lacey was living. Nicknamed "Tall Timber," Ed was a star debater, had leading roles in campus theater productions, played basketball, and was an ROTC cadet. As a senior he was student government president and headed the multi-state Pacific Students Government Association. He earned college money loading sacks of locally grown wheat onto rail cars and spent summers working in logging camps. When his girlfriend became pregnant he offered to marry her but she declined, and Lacey helped arrange an illegal abortion from a doctor.

Over Christmas break in 1929, Murrow was a delegate to the National Student Federation of America (NSFA) convention at Stanford University. He gave a short stirring speech encouraging students to take an interest in international affairs and spend less time on "fraternities, football, and fun" (Edwards). The NFSA made him leader of its New York-based international program. He had been reluctant to accept the job because it didn't pay, but it did offer a summer in Europe and the opportunity to be part of an international students' meeting. Two weeks after graduating in 1930, he set off for NFSA headquarters in New York. There he somehow got an appointment with Adolph Ochs, owner and publisher of The New York Times. Murrow told Ochs about the upcoming December 1930 NFSA convention in Atlanta, hoping the Times would cover the racially integrated event in the Deep South. Ochs agreed. Ochs sent a Southern-born reporter to Atlanta, and when an angry white student said he and others would quash an integrated convention, the newsman responded that he'd hate having to write a story about a segregated convention in his Yankee newspaper. 

Murrow had made the rounds of traditionally Black colleges, recruiting members to increase the small number of Black students then in NFSA, and organized a pro-integration faction that outvoted the segregationists. The convention contract with the Atlanta Biltmore Hotel called for the event to be racially integrated. But a banquet contract, signed separately with the hotel's dining room, said the hotel wouldn't serve Black people food at the final banquet, so conference organizers came up with a workaround in which the white students handed off dinner plates to the Black students, a process the Biltmore waiters, all African American, found amusing. Thus the Biltmore staff wasn't serving food to Black people as per contract

A Glimpse of Hitler

In July, Murrow traveled to Europe, spending two weeks in Brussels, and visiting England, Holland, France, and Germany, where he attended a speech by the leader of what was then a splinter political party. Murrow didn't understand German but thought Adolf Hitler sounded ridiculous.

Returning to New York, he arranged a weekly stipend from the NFSA and found a place to live. Two weeks later, he also got a low-paying job as an assistant on the CBS radio program The University of the Air, which featured international guests such as Mahatma Ghandi and British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald on remote pickups from Europe.

In 1931, Murrow was hired as an assistant to Stephen Pierce Duggan, director of the International Institute for Education (IIE). Murrow's job included visiting Europe to assess and recruit candidates for American lectureships and report on IIE programs overseas.

In the winter of 1932, he attended a New Orleans NFSA convention. On the train south, he ran into an acquaintance going to the convention – Mount Holyoke College senior and Student Body President Janet Huntington Brewster. They hit it off and, after the convention, he began writing her daily letters. Soon he arranged to hang around her campus, ostensibly on IIE business. By spring 1933, the IIE was focused on Nazi book-burning and purges of Jewish academics. Duggan headed the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced German Scholars, finding jobs in America for those fleeing fascism. Murrow served as this committee's assistant secretary while also carrying out his fulltime IIE job.

On October 28, 1934, Murrow and Janet Brewster were married at her family's house in Connecticut. Afterward, they drove to Guilford, North Carolina, to visit his extended family, and then headed farther south. Murrow sent back his positive impressions of southern New Deal anti-poverty programs, which Duggan forwarded to President Franklin Roosevelt. The newlyweds next headed to Oregon for an awkward visit with Ida Lou Anderson, now living as an invalid with a sister. She was in love with Murrow and clearly upset by his marriage. Finally, Janet and Ed arrived at his parents' company house at Beaver Camp.

After their return to New York, an IIE trip to Europe included a visit to Germany, where Hitler was now in control. Murrow met secretly with European scholars in danger of being sent to concentration camps and arranged for them to continue their careers in the U.S. Only long after Murrow's death was it revealed he had helped many notable refugee scholars escape Hitler.

Prevarications

Back in the U.S., Murrow left the IIE after being hired by CBS as Director of Talks. In applying, he added five years to his age, changed his major to political science, and claimed an MA from Stanford. He had similarly embellished his resume successfully when hired by IIE and unsuccessfully when interviewing at an Illinois women's college, which discovered the lies.

The CBS job entailed recruiting guest speakers and finding topics for on-air staff to cover. No one thought of putting Murrow behind a microphone, except perhaps Murrow. After a boozy Christmas Eve office party, he told announcer Robert Trout that he'd better fill in because Trout had been drinking. Trout said he was fine, but Murrow persisted, and Trout caved because, as he later explained, Murrow was his boss. During this broadcast debut, Murrow either pretended to be or was genuinely nervous about going live on air, but performed perfectly.

In February 1937, Murrow was offered a job in London arranging broadcasts from CBS reporters around Europe and giving NBC, which then dominated overseas reporting, some competition. In early 1938, Hitler's army marched into Austria. CBS, which had been running performances by European children's choirs as its foreign programming, suddenly wanted an hour-long program covering European reaction to the invasion.

Within eight hours, Murrow recruited William Shirer to help him round up journalists to report live on a Sunday-evening program from London, Paris, Berlin, and Rome. They provided news and analysis from the cities, one after the other. Murrow himself was in Vienna, reporting Hitler's arrival in the conquered city as well as violence against Jews he witnessed in the streets. Murrow signed off at 2:30 a.m. Vienna time, 8:30 p.m. in New York. The innovative broadcast was christened a news roundup, and would become a standard part of broadcast news, although usually planning took much longer.

It was such a hit the CBS promotion department quickly followed up with a brochure, "Vienna, March 1938: A Footnote to History." When Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia, CBS repeated similar live coverage from around Europe, and was also there in Munich when British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain appeased Hitler by giving him a slice of Czechoslovakia and promising "peace in our time" to the rest of the world.

"This ... is London"

Germany however, quickly went on to defeat and occupy the remainder of Czechoslovakia, and then Poland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxemburg, France, Yugoslavia, and Greece, all by 1941. That June, Hitler took on Soviet Russia. Britain, surrounded by water, wasn't invaded, but the German Luftwaffe pounded it with bombs. Murrow, in London, covered the Battle of Britain for American radio listeners, beginning each broadcast with the dramatic phrase "This ... is London," which was the brainchild of his mentor Ida Louise Anderson, who also came up with the dramatic pause between "This" and "is."

Murrow described the bombing of Britain live from the roof of BBC headquarters. He roamed the streets at night – daytime in America – describing civilians sleeping in underground subway stations and soldiers trying to dig people out from under rubble. He also covered warfare from the air as an observer on allied bombing raids and reconnaissance missions over Germany, sometimes two or three times a week. CBS colleagues and management thought he was taking unnecessary risks.

In addition, he managed a group of mostly print reporters around Europe and in North Africa who had become broadcasters and were known as "Murrow's Boys" (although there was at least one woman.) Murrow also covered the British Parliament and speeches by Winston Churchill and other politicians. Janet Murrow was busy in London leading Bundles for Britain, an organization sending aid from America, and arranging the evacuation of British children to American foster families.

Ida Lou Anderson, blind and crippled, listened to her star pupil on a radio he had sent her. She also wrote to Janet apologizing for her previous hostility and telling her she had been good for Ed. When Murrow learned Anderson had died on September 16, 1941, he burst into tears.

After Pearl Harbor

In December 1941, Murrow returned to America for a lecture tour. He was surprised by how famous he had become and was stunned by the thunderous applause at a banquet in his honor. On December 6, he and Janet played golf and looked forward to an upcoming dinner with President and Mrs. Roosevelt, to be followed by a private briefing from the President. When Japan struck Pearl Harbor on the December 7, Janet called the White House to see if dinner was still on. It was. Eleanor Roosevelt fed the Murrows scrambled eggs and then Janet went home and Ed waited on a bench in the hall to speak with FDR. After midnight he was ushered into the Oval Office, where Roosevelt appeared calm and steady and told him he thought the attack on Pearl Harbor might convince Americans to go to war against Germany. Murrow never revealed more of the conversation.

Murrow went on to make his scheduled appearances across the country, including his alma mater in Pullman. He was 33, and having listened to his mature, confident voice on air, the public was startled by his youthful appearance. The White House tried to recruit him for unspecified war work, but he insisted he could do more for the war effort by returning to Europe. Murrow did launch a BBC Series called Meet Uncle Sam, in which he educated Britons about American culture.

In April 1942, he and Janet flew back to London. American GIs were arriving in Europe and Murrow worked with the BBC to produce an eight-week radio series for CBS, An American in England. He was also the token American panelist on a BBC show called Freedom Forum. Also, although he didn't go public with it, he was facing health problems related to his three-pack-a-day smoking habit.

By 1943 he was in Algiers, covering the war in North Africa. Back in London, Churchill asked if he wanted to become editor-in-chief of the BBC's worldwide coverage. He flew to America to run the idea by, among others, Roosevelt and Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, and consult a pulmonary expert about his weakened lungs. Murrow declined Churchill's offer.

He was also having an affair with Churchill's divorced daughter-in-law, Pamela Digby Churchill, later Pamela Harriman, U.S. ambassador to France. The affair was apparently broken off when Janet became pregnant. Later, Murrow would have a short-lived relationship with movie star Marlene Dietrich and then a longer one with a CBS mid-level employee, but his marriage remained intact.

In 1944, when Allied forces arrived in France on D-Day, Murrow's pre-recorded voice read General Eisenhower's orders to "Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force" for American radio listeners, and Murrow was on hand in Paris for its liberation. On April 12, 1945, President Roosevelt died. That same day, the Buchenwald concentration camp was liberated. Murrow visited it soon after, viewing piles of corpses and talking to survivors. Dazed and fighting nausea, he kept repeating "The Germans have to see this" (Sperber).

Return to America

In November 1945, after years of trying, the Murrows' only child, Charles Casey Murrow, was born in London. The family returned to America, and Ed became Vice President and Director of Public Affairs for CBS. But he disliked meetings, personnel disputes, and firing people. He and boss Bill Paley agreed that Murrow should be back on air. In September 1947 he was back on radio with Edward R. Murrow with the News. The 15-minute program ran 12 years. In another radio program, This I Believe, he featured notables such as Thomas Mann, Eleanor Roosevelt, Ralph Bunche, and Margaret Mead discussing their philosophies of life.

In 1948, political conventions were broadcast on television for the first time and Murrow interviewed delegates on the floor. That year he went to Czechoslovakia, now under Communist control. When the Soviets tried to drive Western allies out of Berlin, Murrow accompanied pilots who were delivering food and fuel to Berliners. When war broke out in Korea, Murrow covered it. After interviews with shell-shocked American troops, CBS killed Murrow's reporting, saying it could give comfort to the Soviet-backed enemy.

Back home, fear of communists led to red-baiting and blacklisting, zealously promoted by Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy. CBS, to avoid trouble with the now-powerful senator and his allies, circulated a questionnaire ostensibly designed to flush out communists, and required employees to sign a loyalty oath. When an indignant colleague told Murrow he would refuse, Murrow said he didn't have a choice and pointed out the questionnaire was silly because an actual communist agent would simply lie on it.

In the summer of 1951, Murrow was approached by the search committee looking for a new president of his alma mater, Washington State. He flew to Spokane and interviewed for the job, but soon cabled the committee he'd changed his mind.

From Radio to Television

CBS ended Murrow's Hear It Now radio program and replaced it with See It Now on television. It debuted in November 1951 and millions of Americans who knew his voice saw him for the first time. Camera crews provided film shot all over the world. Each program ran from three to six stories, and Murrow hosted from studio with cameras and other equipment visible. The program got rave reviews and won awards for its in-depth reporting. In 1952, Murrow brought See It Now to Korea, where war continued. He believed America shouldn't be involved in a land war in Asia. "Christmas in Korea" was broadcast December 28. There were no battle scenes. It simply covered daily lives of an infantry regiment in a frozen landscape.

October 2, 1953, Murrow debuted Person to Person, a half-hour program in which, from a television studio, he interviewed celebrities in real time as they were filmed in their homes. Each program had two interviews. The first show featured baseball star Roy Campanella, who had played in the Negro Leagues and had just hit the winning home run in the Dodgers' World Series game, and then symphony conductor Leopold Stokowski and his wife Gloria Vanderbilt. An early visit was also made to the home of recently elected Senator John Kennedy and his new bride Jacqueline. Some friends considered Person to Person lowbrow, but the show, in which Murrow had some ownership, made him rich.

On March 9, 1954, "A Report on Senator Joseph R. McCarthy" ran on See It Now. McCarthy had become powerful conducting what was often called a witch hunt, alleging America was under siege from Communist agents and ruining the careers of many innocent people in the process. Murrow introduced the report noting it would be "told mainly in [McCarthy's] own words and pictures," and at the end summed up, "The actions of the junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn't create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it – and rather successfully" (Transcript).

Murrow had offered McCarthy the opportunity to appear on the program, but McCarthy declined. By 1:30 a.m., CBS had received more than 1,000 telegrams of approval, and 2,000 telephone calls – running 10 to 1 against McCarthy and swamping the switchboard for 19 hours. On Fifth Avenue, walking back from lunch the following day, Murrow had to escape by taxi from a mob of enthusiastic pedestrians. Others had taken McCarthy to task, but Murrow's fame, voice, and television presence played a significant role in the beginning of the end of McCarthy's reign of fear.

CBS invited McCarthy to rebut Murrow's charges on See It Now. The senator said he was busy, but a young man named William F. Buckley could step in for him. Murrow said no. It had to be McCarthy himself. Meanwhile, McCarthy was trying to show Murrow was a communist party member, including allegations that Ida Lou Anderson was a leftist influence on the young Murrow. McCarthy's people brought rebuttal footage they had produced to CBS just before it was to run. As CBS staff watched it live on monitor they were amazed at its poor quality. McCarthy was caked in makeup, plodded through his script, and had a nasal, whining voice and high-pitched giggle. In December 1954, McCarthy was censured by Congress.

See It Now ended in 1958. Quiz shows where contestants vied for thousands of dollars in prizes were now dominating American television and CBS head Bill Paley said he was tired of dealing with blowback from controversial issue-oriented programming.

Taking Leave

Murrow retained his news program, but was disillusioned and also seriously ill. An interview program featuring international conversations among intellectual celebrities and world leaders, Small World, launched in 1958 but drew small audiences. Shortly after its debut, Murrow addressed the Radio and Television News Directors Association, characterizing radio and television as driven by greedy advertisers concerned only about "the largest possible audience" without seeming to care that the medium can "teach, it can illuminate, it can even inspire" (Edwards).

His doctors suspected he was suffering from emphysema and he was observed putting his head on his folded arm and weeping. In July 1959 he began a year-long leave of absence, setting out on a round-the-world trip with his wife and son. By 1960 he was back at work covering political conventions. He threw himself into a new project, the highly-praised documentary Harvest of Shame describing terrible working conditions endured by migrant laborers in Florida.

In 1961, President Kennedy named Murrow director of the U.S. Information Agency (USIA). He moved to Washington, D.C., for the job, which paid $22,750 a year (he had been making $200,000 to $300,000). USIA had 12,000 employees in D.C. and 84 countries. It ran student exchanges and American libraries abroad, produced exhibits, and wrote press releases for foreign media. Murrow advised Kennedy to start training Black astronauts, made a long tour of USIA operations in Africa, and arranged for USIA to produce a film of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.

In September 1963, Murrow had a cancerous lung removed. That November, after Kennedy's assassination, he resigned. In 1964 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest U.S. civilian honor. Queen Elizabeth named him an Honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire shortly before his death. He was also honored by the governments of Belgium, France, and Sweden. Murrow died on April 27, 1965, two days after his 57th birthday.


Sources:

Stanley Clous and Lynne Olson, The Murrow Boys: Pioneers on the Front Lines of Broadcast Journalism (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1966); "Inspiring Courage," Edward R. Murrow College of Communication, Washington State University website accessed June 4, 2024 (https://murrow.wsu.edu/inspiring-courage/); Bob Edwards, Edward R. Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2004); Edward R. Murrow, This Is London (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1941); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Lacey V. Murrow becomes Director of Highways on March 20, 1933" (by Kit Oldham), www.historylink.org (accessed June 4, 2024); Joseph Persico, Edward R. Murrow: An American Original (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1988); A. M. Sperber, Murrow: His Life and Times (New York: Freundlich Books, 1986); "See It Now: A Report on Senator Joseph McCarthy," Television Academy Foundation, The Interviews website accessed June 3, 2024 (https://interviews.televisionacademy.com/shows/see-it-now-a-report-on-senator-joseph-r-mccarthy); Gil Troy, Ed Murrow and Marlene Dietrich's Secret Affair, Daily Beast website accessed June 4, 2024 (https://www.thedailybeast.com/ed-murrow-and-marlene-dietrichs-secret-affair); Transcript, "Edward R. Murrow: A Report on Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, See it Now (CBS-TV, March 9, 1954)," UC Berkeley Library website via Internet Archive accessed June 26, 2024 (https://web.archive.org/web/20151110194223/http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/MRC/murrowmccarthy.html). 


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