Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Mimsy Review: Murrow: His Life and Times

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, February 8, 2015

The right of dissent, or, if you prefer, the right to be wrong, is surely fundamental to the existence of a democratic society. That’s the right that went first in every nation that stumbled down the trail toward totalitarianism.

Edward R. Murrow inspired generations of journalists with his reports from the London blitz on radio and, later, his reports on McCarthyism on television.

RecommendationWorth reading
AuthorA. M. Sperber
Length809 pages
Book Rating7

A.M. Sperber basically frames her 1986 Murrow biography with his 1958 speech at the Radio-Television News Directors Association. That speech was, in her telling, the end of Murrow’s career with CBS. It took a couple of years to wind down, but his friendly relationship with Bill Paley of CBS pretty much ended then.

The speech, if it was original at the time, has been the theme of journalism’s insiders ever since. The same arguments still are made today, and it seems as though there are no solutions.

The problem, basically, was that television and radio needed money. They got that money from sponsors. Sponsors demanded more viewers. So television and radio played what viewers wanted rather than what newsmen thought the viewers needed. In Murrow and others’ view, radio and television were falling down in their primary job of lifting people up to a greater level.

Unlike many who complain that viewers don’t know what they want, however—including many of Murrow’s friends—Murrow was not a socialist. He did not believe that more government interference was a good idea.

“A telephone call or a letter from the proper quarter in Washington is treated rather more seriously than a communication from an irate but not politically potent viewer.”

Part of the problem was that shows back then were often sponsored by a single company. He didn’t see an alternative to that, and suggested that sponsors should “tithe” a portion of their profits to support shows sight unseen.1

Because Murrow tended to hang out with, and make friends with, people in the political and intellectual elite, he was often disappointed by people. For example, he supported FDR’s “deploring the growing concentration of governmental power” when FDR ran for office. He often, despite his well-deserved courage in other areas, seemed afraid to voice opinions counter to his friends. Murrow grew up in rural North Carolina and Washington, and seems in this account to have been both proud of and embarrassed by his roots. Even back then, provincialism was a go-to insult for journalists.

Murrow made his name in London in World War II, and he was a brilliant campaigner in favor of the West against Germany and the fascists. For example, from before the United States entered the war:

We are told today that the Germans believe Londoners will rise up and demand a new government, one that will make peace with Germany. It’s more likely that they’ll rise up and murder a few German pilots who came down by parachute. The life of a parachutist would not be worth much in the East End of London tonight…

On the evening of Pearl Harbor, he waited outside the Oval Office, watching people go in and out to talk to President Roosevelt. He suspected that Roosevelt was playing him; he played along.

Murrow returned to London, and impressed CBS head Bill Paley, who, on being escorted around London by Murrow, said that Murrow had

a wealth of knowledge and good intuition about situations… He was greatly admired, completely trusted… probably the most important American there.

He didn’t just report from London. He, as did many journalists of the time, went along on bombing runs over Germany, and reported on it with some self-effacing humor:

Last night some young men took me to Berlin.

The war over, he followed the army into Germany, and, with several other journalists on their way to visit Weimar, they came into Buchenwald. So many of the people there were the kind of people he had personally tried to get to America before the war, knowing that they were soon to be persecuted. He even met the former Mayor of Prague, who he advised to run. Murrow warned him that the communists wanted to “liquidate” him once they took control of the area.

Murrow was not enamored of government policies that tried to change human nature, and worried, during the war, about the tendency of government officials to make policies from wishful thinking. Writing to a friend in New York about the “American policy of snubbing De Gaulle while treating the Vichy puppet regime as the heir to the Third Republic”, Murrow said:

That policy is not going to work, and the only people who believe it will appear to reside in Washington.

And on the possibility that the Allies would meet to divide post-war Europe for peace between the West and the Soviet Union, he wrote,

I refuse to believe that three or even four Heads of State can sit down and make an agreement that will ensure that it never rains on Sunday or that a pint tankard will always be full.

For all this, Murrow seemed always to be insecure in his beliefs. Sperber gives us the impression of a patriotic American who, however, hung out with so many leftists that he didn’t believe that America could succeed. He recognized that there would be “competition” between the Soviet Union and the United States. He believed that the American system was best. But, ultimately, he did not believe it would prevail, and that in the interests of peace and harmony among nations, Americans would have to give. He urged Americans to “give up their national sovereignty in favor of a world community.”

He didn’t have the courage of his convictions, so he believed that we needed to concede to totalitarianism in the interests of peace.

Part of this was that he believed the static analysis of the intellectuals in his circle of friends.

“A nation’s capacity for compromise decreases as its re-armament increases,” he broadcast weeks before the death of Stalin. “In seeking to create the will to fight, do we not thereby destroy our ability to negotiate?”

Murrow was far from a pacifist, but here he makes the same static-analysis mistake that pacifists do when calling for unilateral peace: you do not have peace when only one side refuses to fight. Murrow knew that the Soviets were unable to be satisfied. He joked that “They’ll settle for the world” just up the page. And yet he didn’t seem to understand that America’s virtues would make a difference, that we could outlast the Soviets, as long as we didn’t just give them the world first.

The ability to negotiate requires someone willing to negotiate with you—it requires the will to fight, or otherwise all you’ll get2 are continued requests for concessions and no negotiations, only demands. Except for the United States, strong opponents do not negotiate with weak ones. In removing the will to fight, we destroy our ability to negotiate, because if all options are off the table except negotiation, there is no need for our opponents to compromise; our only option when they refuse is to continue negotiation.

And Murrow did understand that it was necessary to fight, even after World War II. After North Korea3 crossed 38th parallel, he said, on Edward R. Murrow with the News, that:

“We were caught in a position where we had to shoot or put down the gun. If we had put it down, our friends and allies would have done likewise, until in due course they would have been awakened in the dark of the night by Communist gun butts hammering on the door…”

On November 18, 1951, he went on television with “See It Now”. His first show included footage of soldiers in Korea, talking to the newsmen in the field, and then a list of casualties—and an appeal for blood donations. Sperber doesn’t mention it, but according to Howard Lester Rose, “Over the next few days, hundreds of thousands of viewers turned up at Red Cross centers to donate blood.”

Murrow felt the same way about the Berlin Wall, that even just a little resistance on the part of the West would have stopped the Soviets from building it:

Murrow had just happened to be in the old capital that Sunday in August, as East German workers threw up the wall while the other side gaped, caught off guard. Returned to Washington, he had raged about the lack of response: a bunch of workers with trowels and shovel—anyone could have stopped them, nipped it in the bud. Dammit, a little girl with a lollypop could have stopped them! Well, the West had lost its nerve and they would pay for it.

The death of Jan Masaryk of Czechoslovakia hardened his attitude to the Soviet Union, and afterward, he could write that “I regard communism the way I do a virus.”

He had lesser epiphanies back at CBS in New York. They moved the leftist commentator Bill Shirer to 11 PM and put leftist commentator Joseph Harsch in his place. Liberal groups wanted to claim it was to silence a liberal voice—but Harsch was as liberal as Shirer. Freda Kirchway, editor/publisher of the Nation, complained in person that:

“You make it difficult for us to contend that there’s an issue here of liberal persons.”

Murrow later wrote that,

“Out of the whole unfortunate incident I learned one thing: that is the willingness of so-called liberals such as Freda Kirchnway and Archie MacLeish, to rush into print with anguished howls of condemnation without bothering to inform themselves of a single fact.”

No discussion of Murrow, of course, is complete without a discussion of Senator McCarthy.

One of the craziest things reading this mid-eighties account of McCarthyism is how often—at least for the high profile cases, the ones so crazy they couldn’t be true—McCarthy was right. Harry Dexter White was a spy. He believed that a planned economy was superior to a free market—that Russia’s “socialist economy in action… works!”—and that the Soviet Union would thus engulf the United States on the world stage.

Harry Dexter White was known by President Truman to be a spy, but kept on in his administration for over a year.

Lawrence Duggan, a friend of a friend of Murrow, who committed suicide? Yes, turns out Duggan really was a spy. We know this from the Venona decrypts and Boris Bazarov.

Even Murrow knew that there were spies. He believed that the Rosenberg case was rightfully decided, that the state had in fact proved its case.

McCarthy was by no stretch a harassed seeker of truth. But it is somewhat disconcerting that his random attacks hit successfully at high levels of government and news as often as they did. A stopped clock is correct twice per day—but only because those two times inexorably come round due to the nature of daily time and how we measure it. Is there something in government service and in the news that attracts socialists? That attracts partisans of top-to-bottom government planning?

In government, that’s understandable, if disappointing. People who like government go into government. But why should it be true of news?

What we now call McCarthyism in the government was often egregious. Milo Radulovich’s case, for example, epitomizes the spurious and egregious cases of harassment based on imagined connections to socialism. But reading the names of McCarthy’s targets and then following up in 2015, it’s amazing how often McCarthy himself was right. I wondered, reading this, if more responsible people had taken the threat of spies seriously, it might have not left a void to be filled by a demagogue.

The See It Now McCarthy episode was praised by his colleagues immediately, literally so. Don Hollenbeck, following See It Now on the 11 O’Clock news, said that he was in “total agreement with what Ed Murrow has just said.”

John Crosby of the New York Herald Tribune wrote that

“Now it takes great courage to attack Sen. McCarthy in the first place… but it takes far greater courage to look you and me in the face and say it’s our faults.”

And Alistair Cooke said simply that “Mr. Murrow may yet make bravery fashionable.”

There was criticism as well, even among his friends.

Gilbert Seldes, once of CBS, an avid fan and personal friend… accused Murrow of stacking the deck and setting a dangerous example, best not to have done the show; reflecting Murrow’s concerns, if not his conclusions…

(A few days later, Murrow, coming on Seldes at the Century Club, fixed him with a glare: “You sonuvabitch! You’ve made me think about a lot of things I thought I’d settled—but God bless you.”)

Murrow feared television in its infancy, before he could possibly understand it, as in a letter from December, 1950, only a few months before starting See It Now, in which he expressed the hopes that “neither one of us has to try to make a living in television.”

Murrow’s main problem with television appeared, from an unpublished Atlantic Monthly article, to be with editorial control. In print, “editorial judgement has been largely pictorial… most news is made up of what happens in mens [sic] minds as reflected in what comes out of their mouths. And how do you put that in pictures?”

Elaborating on this in Television and Politics, he wrote that:

“Simplicity communicates itself more easily than complexity… This is by no means a boon. It surely is essential to have abstruse and complex ideas simplified so that many can understand them. But we live in an age in which intelligence may not be able to simplify truthfully…”

Murrow was often accused of editorializing on the air, and it’s hard to argue that he didn’t. But while…

Murrow could say with some accuracy, as he did to another listener, that he had “engaged in no editorializing.” Yet given the writing, the selection of material, the reading, almost every broadcast was an editorial, it was the standard end run around company restraints on opinion—editorializing through the report itself.

CBS hired statisticians to investigate Murrow’s bias by comparing him to other news editors.

Murrow’s news judgment coincided with that of some of the best editors in the country; it raised no echoes at 485.

Sperber seems conflicted about Murrow’s politics.

For all his [Murrow’s] image as a liberal, an underlying old-American conservatism drew him emotionally to the long-term pros in Congress…

Murrow initially liked Ike. The war hero was an internationalist and, like himself, a Europe-first man…

Only about five pages later,

…the Murrows were instinctive Democrats—enough so to be startled when Casey, 6, came home from his prep school sporting a button saying he liked Ike.

Murrow agreed, “in a radical departure from his usual practice” to help Adlai Stevenson against Ike in 1956. What was odd wasn’t, even that, that a reporter volunteered to help the Democrats, but that he chose to do so openly. Sperber quotes Marietta Tree, Volunteers for Stevenson:

Of course, she added with a twinkle, the situation was not at all unusual. “Newsmen often do what they can, behind the scenes.”

Murrow ended up leaving CBS, after his RTNDA speech, partially because of a controversy ginned up by CBS President Frank Stanton. Frank Stanton comes across as awfully disingenuous. In the context of the game show scandals, he had brought up that Person to Person should include a disclaimer, too, since Murrow didn’t really go into someone’s home unannounced. It seems strange that Stanton would want to taint a good CBS show with a bad one—unless you also know that Stanton and Murrow didn’t like each other.

When Stanton says,

“In Person to Person Ed walked into the home, by camera… there was no way that couldn’t be prearranged. And all I was suggesting was… that that point be made. Ed felt that it demeaned the program and his integrity, to insist on that kind of a disclaimer.”

Stanton is conveniently forgetting that Murrow felt it demeaned his integrity to require that disclaimer in the context o the quiz show scandal. Stanton had been asked about what CBS was going to do about lying to the public, and Stanton had responded, basically, by saying he was going to stop Murrow from lying. Of course Murrow felt it demeaned his integrity.

Murrow left CBS in 1961 to work for President Kennedy at the United States Information Agency, parent of the Voice of America. He died in 1965, at 57, and after a prolonged illness.

Marvin Kalb, a friend and colleague of Murrow at CBS, wrote to Murrow to let him know why he was staying in news, after Murrow invited Kalb to follow him into the Kennedy administration:

“You set an example not only for me but for every journalist in radio and television… You embodied radio-TV news with a dignity that is awesome—and you gave CBS News life, and the Murrow tradition. I want to follow that tradition…”

The letter, Murrow replied, was “one of the few letters that I shall keep. It will serve to warm me when the chill winds of criticism begin to blow.”

If you are interested in Murrow and his contribution to the history of television journalism, this is a comprehensive book, and worth taking the time to read.

  1. The real solution came later: selling ad minutes on TV and radio lessened the power of advertisers: unlike the single sponsor of an entire show, no single advertiser had the clout to silence a reporter.

  2. As we see today with Iran.

  3. I wonder, in retrospect, what those calling for withdrawal from South Korea would or do say today—with the North living as communists do, and the South in full bloom.

Murrow: His Life and Times

A. M. Sperber

Recommendation: Worth reading

If you enjoyed Murrow: His Life and Times…

For more about CBS News, you might also be interested in Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News and A Reporter’s Life.