Duck Duck Book

57 – edward r. murrow
11.3.2008, 7:30 pm
Filed under: generalities, history & geography

Edward R. Murrow and the birth of broadcast journalism / Bob Edwards.
New York : John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2004.
[MCL call number: B-Mu968e 2004; 4 copies, no holds;
also in audio format at CD- B-Mu968e; five copies, no holds]

In 1937, when Edward Murrow first arrived in London to assume his new post as the European Director for CBS, he tried to join the American Foreign Correspondents Association. They refused his application — after all, they were journalists, and everyone in 1937 knew that radio had nothing to do with journalism. Of course if they had a crystal ball, they would likely have rushed to recruit Ed Murrow, who was soon to be radio’s first news star, the man who brought the European war home to American living rooms, live and out loud. (In fact, in 1944, the Foreign Correspondents Association went beyond recruiting and made Murrow their president.)

Bob Edwards’s biography of Murrow focuses largely on Murrow’s professional life, his effect on journalism, and his work as an innovator in both radio and television broadcasting. Murrow is the person, Edwards argues, who created radio news. In those few years between 1937 and 1944, Murrow had led radio news away from a limited venue for 15-minute headline broadcasts to a complex medium of live interviews with powerful people, first-person reporting on current events, and synchronized news and commentary roundups from correspondents in several cities simultaneously.

It is interesting to consider this in light of more recent developments in journalism. In the 1960s and 70s, the “underground press” movement spawned hundreds of independent, low-budget newspapers that published stories and commentary — stories that would never have seen print in the mainstream daily newspapers or on network television. In the 1990s, new software allowed anyone with a computer and an internet connection to publish weblogs on any topic and entirely without editorial or publishing oversight. Each of these two new phenomena carved out space that wasn’t present before, and regardless of the direct impact blogs or the underground press have had on corporate journalism, that space still exists. And, both bloggers and journalists of the underground press have inspired real scorn among their fellows in the mainstream media world — they’re not real journalists, they don’t follow professional standards, they shouldn’t be allowed press credentials, and similar complaints.

The book satisfies on other levels too, though Edwards’s description of Murrow’s personal life, family history, and other private details are terse. These features are provided in service to the story of Murrow the professional man. For example, Edwards explains that when Murrow was fresh out of college, he worked as president of the National Student Federation of America (NSFA), and then assistant to the director of the Institute of International Education (IIE). Stories of this part of Murrow’s career help to explain his overall commitment to his values, and his unwillingness to compromise except under specific, strategic conditions.

For example, while at the NSFA, Murrow recruited historically black colleges to membership in the organization, and held a racially integrated convention in Atlanta. When he worked for the IIE, Murrow started an exchange program that brought American college students Soviet Moscow for summer courses, and coordinated a relocation project that matched German scholars displaced by Nazi politics with American universities willing to hire them as professors and researchers. These are interesting stories, but their job in Edwards’s book is not merely to educate and entertain. They show that Murrow was a man who strove to create opportunities to make his work as an educator also do service to his political and ethical ideals. These are the qualities, Edwards argues, that made Murrow a great journalist, and that gave him the tools to shape an emerging medium.

Edward R. Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism has a modest index and a short bibliography. The book itself is quite short, and very readable. It might make a nice companion on a trip, or a good choice to read on a quiet afternoon alone. I read it on my commute to work, on the bus, where it sped my journey, diverted me from the flow of conversation around me, and, on one occasion, even made me almost miss my stop.


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