What Difference?

Feb 21, 2020

Credit DVD Cover

I’m Mike Strong from Hays for HTTP, Radio Reader’s Book Club. The book is “Edward R. Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism” by Bob Edwards 

From the late 1940’s newspapers were still the prime news medium, with radio news second. Television was just beginning. Only a few houses had a television, usually black and white. Color was just around the corner. I remember going to other people’s houses, or my grandparents, to view television. 

The first Edward R. Murrow I remember was the “low Murrow” of “See it Now,” a live program that was more entertainment and which visited the rich and famous in their homes.  

It wasn’t until CBS Reports and the documentary “Harvest of Shame,” shown on Thanksgiving 1960, about migrant workers, that I saw the serious and elegant news coverage for which Murrow was famed. 

Despite critical success with “Harvest …” – the documentary won awards and became a model for making documentaries - Murrow was in deep disagreement with CBS. The corporation and especially the show’s sponsors were not happy with Murrow’s let-the-chips fall journalism. They were ready to part company. 

Two months later, in January 1961, Murrow became director of the United States Information Agency at the invitation of President John F. Kennedy. As director Murrow requested the BBC to not show “Harvest of Shame.” Now, in a near reversal of roles, he pleaded that showing this seamy side of the country would damage the European view of the U.S.  

BBC broadcast “Harvest of Shame” anyway. They had bought the rights fair and square. It was all very ironic. Even the results. For all the prestige the, “Harvest of Shame” did not appear to change much at all. The organizing of Cesar Chavez and others was far more direct. 

One of the first items I wanted to check in Bob Edward’s book on Edward R. Murrow was whether Edwards would list other journalists who also went after McCarthy at the same time. Journalism has its legends and its stories. Often Murrow gets the sole credit for bringing down McCarthy. Edwards paints the larger and more complex picture in which Murrow and CBS are a significant, but hardly a total part. 

News reports alone will not remove an abuse of power. Facts won’t do it, but factions probably will. 

McCarthy was widely reviled but someone needed to bell the cat. Muckraker Drew Pearson (who gets only a name mention in Bob Edwards’ book and is barely mentioned in the PBS “McCarthy” documentary) started out after McCarthy in mid-February 1950 with a series of columns. There was irony here because Pearson was getting “leaks” about other politicians from McCarthy, as a source, via Jack Anderson, Pearson’s associate, and later Pearson’s successor. 

The New Yorker’s Richard Rovere criticized McCarthy. The New York Post in 1951 ran a 17-part series on McCarthy under the label “Smear, Inc.” “See it Now” with Murrow began going after McCarthy in 1951. By December 1954 enough baggage was clinging to McCarthy that it was time to shove him out the door.  

Whether there was really a collaboration with signals from the Eisenhower White House to Murrow, the old story repeated in Edwards book and in the PBS documentary, “McCarthy,” or whether it was just time, is an unanswered question.  

McCarthy lasted long enough to cause a great deal of damage and while McCarthy himself would be gone, the red baiting would continue for several years. 

“Leaks” are not well understood. They are often official dish or trial balloons or just a back-alley way of getting at rivals or all the “off the record,” “backgrounder,” and “from a high official” or “high official said,” attributions. 

In the mid-1970s, as an area reporter for The Geneva Times I was covering a county assembly meeting for a vacationing reporter when the republican county attorney got on the podium to point me out to the assemblage, to excoriate me and my reporting. 

The next Tuesday I got a phone call from his secretary asking me to come by. They had something for me. I assumed it was some sort of complaint. Instead, John’s secretary handed me a large, sealed manila envelope. It was filled with documents aimed at discrediting a political rival, a Democratic judge. 

Openly tearing into me at the county assembly meeting, gave himself cover to avoid being suspected of being the source for the information he handed me a couple of days later. I headed for my editor and we perused the material. It was Chris’s beat, so we handed it to Chris for his story material, when he returned from vacation.  

So now you know about “leaks.” 

Hi, I’m Mike Strong from Hays for HTTP, Radio Reader’s Book Club.