The Murrow Boys

In the early days of radio there was no reporting on any of the networks.  Instead, on-air personalities sifted through the stories provided by the wire services and read what they thought was most interesting.  And in general the American people were happy with what they got.  There were, in addition, a few “commentators,” but they normally did not ferret out the stories they used.  However, that all changed as Hitler took control of Germany in 1933, and Europe seemed to be headed toward war.

The first person to do extensive reporting from Europe was a man named Egbert Roscoe Murrow from Polecat Creek, North Carolina.  We know him as Edward rather than Egbert because some lumber jacks he worked with for a while teased him about his first name, so he changed it (unofficially) to Edward.  From then on this remarkable man who is largely responsible for inventing the reporting that we take for granted today, was known as Edward R. Murrow.

In 1937 CBS sent Murrow to Europe to report on the events that were taking place between the European powers.  Murrow reported via shortwave radio when something of importance happened, and CBS interrupted its normal programming to air his reports.  As you may know, the success of shortwave broadcasting is highly dependent on atmospheric weather conditions, and there was no way for Murrow to know if his broadcast was going through to New York or not.  He simply did his report at an agreed-upon time, and checked later to see if the broadcast had gotten through to the U.S.

In the beginning Murrow was the only source for “breaking news” as it is now termed, but as things heated up in Europe he received permission to hire an additional reporter.  He told his bosses that he wanted to hire William L. Shirer, but Shirer’s voice was not at all a “radio voice,” so Murrow’s bosses told him to look for someone else.  Murrow’s instincts, which were remarkable, told him to fight for Shirer, and he did.  He won the battle as he would win many similar battles as his staff increased.  Shirer, who is probably best known for his monumental work The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich was invaluable.  He spoke German fluently and was married to a woman from Vienna, so he was the perfect person to report from Germany while Murrow reported from London.

As events escalated across Europe Murrow hired more excellent men including Eric Sevaraid, Richard C. Hottelet, Howard K. Smith, Larry LaSueur, Winston Burdett, and Charles Collingwood.  Most of these men had never worked in broadcast journalism, and some of them never completely got over their stage fright even though they eventually made the transition to television.  Almost all of them came to idolize Murrow, and that high regard meant that most of them would unquestioningly do what Murrow asked them to do.  They collectively became known as “The Murrow Boys,” and they took great pride in that moniker.

By the way, though almost all of Murrow’s hires were men, there were a few women who worked with Murrow for short periods of time, most notably the wealthy and adventurous Mary Marvin Breckinridge.

The Murrow Boys

An excellent book, The Murrow Boys: Pioneers in the Front Lines of Broadcast Journalism by Lynne Olson and Stanley Cloud, gives a detailed history of Murrow’s team before, during, and long after World War II.  Some of the team members became very successful while others, though very talented, are hardly remembered today outside the world of journalism.  A few, like Shirer, became well-known writers.  Most of them, including Murrow, went into television only because television so completely eclipsed radio in the early 1950s.  And most of them, again including Murrow, disliked the medium of television in part because they felt that the picture became even more important than the content of what was being reported.Good NightThe Murrow Boys gives a detailed account of Edward R. Murrow’s scathing criticism of Senator Joseph McCarthy which hastened the downfall of that demagogue.  The authors also discuss what was going on behind the scenes at CBS when Murrow decided to take on the powerful senator.  One of the people he had to contend with was the founder and chief executive of CBS, William Paley.  Paley and Murrow had long fought over what a journalist’s duty was.  For many reasons, including the fear of alienating sponsors and listeners, Paley believed that his reporters should simply report the facts.  Murrow, during and after World War II, felt that it was a reporter’s duty to expose the truth regardless of the consequences.

That ongoing battle between Murrow and Paley is one of the central points of the 2005 movie Good Night, and Good Luck which stars David Strathairn as Ed Murrow, Frank Langella as William Paley, and George Clooney as Fred Friendly (Murrow’s co-producer).  Clooney also directed the film (which was nominated for six Academy Awards.)

Berlin DiaryI mentioned above that William L. Shirer is best known as the author of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, but my favorite book by him is Berlin Diary, the book he wrote about his experiences in Nazi Germany before war was declared in Europe.  The fact that Shirer even kept a diary is remarkable.  If it had been found, the consequences would have been dire because he was very critical of Hitler and of the German people who followed him blindly.  Over and over he went to hear Hitler rant, and marveled that the German people were so gullible.  And remember, Shirer spoke German fluently, so he knew exactly how the German people were being duped.  He could see it clearly, but they couldn’t.  That absolutely mystified him.

Something that is discussed in both Berlin Diary and The Murrow Boys is Shirer’s battles to get permission from the German censors to broadcast his reports as written over German shortwave radio.  Shirer’s attempts to tell the people of the United States the truth about what was going on in Germany – instead of the propaganda the Nazis were feeding their people and the outside world – were often but not always thwarted.  Shirer’s advantage was that most of his censors didn’t speak English fluently, so they occasionally missed the point of his reports.  Additionally, Shirer would use American slang or idioms to fool the censors.  It’s probably best that Shirer left Germany prior to the start of the war.  He was probably a marked man in part because of his reporting.

Next time you sit down to watch the evening news or 60 Minutes (and programs like it), remember that what you’re seeing evolved from the reporting done by Murrow and his “boys” so many years ago.

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