I’m Jonathan Baker, a writer from Canyon, Texas, and I’ve been asked to talk about this month’s Radio Readers book club selection, Edward R. Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism.
First, I just want to say what a ridiculously fun little read this was. I knew about Murrow’s role in putting an end to Joseph McCarthy’s red-baiting scare tactics. And I had even heard some of Murrow’s broadcasts from London during the German air raids of World War II.
But it wasn’t until I delved into the details of Murrow’s life that I realized how strong were the headwinds he faced in his efforts to deliver the unvarnished truth to the American people.
As I read this sharp little book, a single question kept floating into my thoughts. How would Edward R. Murrow fare in today’s media environment? Much of Murrow’s potent effect had to do with the fact that he was able to bend media to his will. Murrow was there at the dawn of broadcast journalism in not one but two media—radio and television.
For this reason, he was able in a sense to shape these media to his will, like unformed clay. Yet, he was only able to accomplish this because of his remarkable qualities: his intelligence, his abilities as a leader, and most importantly, his integrity and his commitment to the truth.
There is one aspect of Murrow’s broadcast environment that has not changed in the intervening years. The stern-faced newsman was perpetually battling network executives who wanted to “nice up” the airwaves, in an effort to please sponsors, raise ratings, or simply avoid uncomfortable truths. As the Nazis rose to power, Murrow, working from London, had a devil of a time trying to convince the CBS poohbahs that what was happening in Europe was deadly serious. The radio executives kept sending Murrow and his colleagues to record children’s choirs and glittering ballroom events—until Murrow had to tell them, quite bluntly, no one is dancing over here.
But Murrow’s passion for doing what was right was next-level. After the Nazis took over Austria, Murrow’s colleague Bill Shirer was trapped in Vienna—where his wife had just given birth, and the Nazis had shut down access to all radio news transmissions out of Austria. Murrow managed to get his friend out of Vienna, so that Shirer could broadcast what he’d witnessed from London. Then, knowing CBS would need someone in Austria to report on further developments, Murrow decided to go to Austria himself. There was only one problem: there seemed to be no way into the country.
So, Murrow wrangled a thousand dollars from CBS, paid a thousand dollars to lease a 27-seat Lufthansa airliner and flew to Austria as the plane’s sole passenger. >From Vienna, he managed to sweet-talk his way into the Nazi-controlled radio studio. During the evenings, he broadcast about the “brutal, naked force” of Hitler’s menace, and during the days he stayed at the hospital with Bill Shirer’s wife, the new mother who was in critical condition after giving birth.
I know we have journalists today with this kind of integrity, with this kind of hunger to do what’s right at any cost. NBC’s Richard Engel comes to mind. But broadcast journalism is much more settled into its ways these days. While we do have 24-hour news stations, they are much more devoted to letting pundits express opinions ad nauseum than presenting any kind of hard truths to the American people.
Murrow’s commitment to educating the people probably wouldn’t have gotten him far in 2020. Indeed, Murrow witnessed this same phenomenon late in career as he watched his hard-hitting news shows increasingly grow obsolete, while his interviews with celebrities gained popularity.
The truth is, our world is far more morally murky today than it was in Murrow’s time. Even so, the world needs journalists like Murrow—now more than ever.