Edward R. Murrow, Broadcast News Pioneer

Edward R. Murrow Set the Standards for Responsible Journalism

Photograph of broadcaster Edward R. Murrow
Broadcaster Edward R. Murrow.

Corbis Historical / Getty Images 

Edward R. Murrow was an American journalist and broadcaster who became widely known as an authoritative voice reporting the news and providing intelligent insights. His radio broadcasts from London during World War II brought the war home to America, and his pioneering television career, especially during the McCarthy Era, established his reputation as a trusted source of news.

Murrow has been widely credited with establishing high standards for broadcast journalism. Before ultimately leaving his position as a television journalist after repeated clashes with network executives, he criticized the broadcasting industry for not taking full advantage of television's potential to inform the public.

Fast Facts: Edward R. Murrow

  • Full Name: Edward Egbert Roscoe Murrow
  • Known For: One of the most highly respected journalists of the 20th century, he set the standard for broadcasting the news, starting with his dramatic reports from wartime London through the beginning of the television era
  • Born: April 25, 1908 near Greensboro, North Carolina
  • Died: April 27, 1965 in Pawling, New York
  • Parents: Roscoe Conklin Murrow and Ethel F. Murrow
  • Spouse: Janet Huntington Brewster
  • Children: Casey Murrow
  • Education: Washington State University
  • Memorable Quotation: "We are not descended from fearful men..."

Early Life and Career

Edward R. Murrow was born near Greensboro, North Carolina, on April 25, 1908. The family moved to the Pacific Northwest in 1913, and Murrow went on to attend Washington State University while working summers in lumber camps in Washington state.

Portrait of Edward R. Murrow with Family
Edward R. Murrow, his wife, Janet, and son, Casey, as they returned from abroad on the S.S. United States. Bettmann / Getty Images

In 1935, after working in the education field, he joined the Columbia Broadcasting System, one of the nation's leading radio networks. At the time, radio networks would fill out their schedules by airing talks by academic and experts in various fields, and cultural events such as classical music concerts. Murrow's job was to seek out suitable people to appear on the radio. The work was interesting, and became even more so when, in 1937, CBS dispatched Murrow to London to find talent in England and across Europe.

Wartime Reporting From London

In 1938, when Hitler began moving toward war by annexing Austria to Germany, Murrow found himself becoming a reporter. He traveled to Austria in time to see Nazi soldiers enter Vienna. His eyewitness account appeared on the air in America, and he became known as an authority on the unfolding events in Europe.

Murrow's war coverage became legendary in 1940, when he reported on the radio as he watched aerial battles over London during the Battle of Britain. Americans in their living rooms and kitchens listened attentively to Murrow's dramatic reports of London being bombed.

When America entered the war, Murrow was perfectly situated to report on the military buildup in Britain. He reported from airfields as American bombers began to arrive, and he even flew along on bombing missions so he could describe the action to the radio audience in America.

Up until that time, news presented on the radio had been something of a novelty. Announcers who typically performed other tasks, such as playing records, would also read news reports on the air. Some notable events, such as the airship Hindenburg crashing and burning while attempting to land, had been carried live on the air. But the announcers who described the events were typically not career journalists.

Edward R. Murrow at a Typewriter
CBS correspondent Edward R. Murrow at his typewriter in London during World War II.  Bettmann / Getty Images

Murrow changed the nature of broadcast news. Besides reporting on major events, Murrow set up a CBS bureau in London and recruited young men who would become the network's star crew of war correspondents. Eric Sevareid, Charles Collingwood, Howard K. Smith, and Richard Hottelet were among the correspondents who became familiar names to millions of Americans following the war in Europe over the radio. When network executives complained to him that some of the correspondents did not have great voices for radio, Murrow said they were hired as reporters first, not announcers.

Throughout the war in Europe the group who became known as "The Murrow Boys" reported extensively. Following the D-Day invasion CBS radio reporters traveled with American troops as they advanced across Europe, and listeners back home were able to hear firsthand reports of combat as well as interviews with participants in recently concluded battles.

At the end of the war, one of Murrow's most memorable broadcasts was when he became one of the first journalists to enter the Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald. He described to his shocked radio audience the piles of bodies he witnessed and he detailed to the American public how the camp had been used as a factory of death. Murrow was criticized for the shocking nature of his report but he refused to apologize for it, stating that the public needed to know of the horrors of the Nazi death camps.

Television Pioneer

Following World War II, Murrow returned to New York City, where he continued to work for CBS. At first he served as a vice president for network news, but he hated being an administrator and wanted to get back on the air. He returned to broadcasting the news on radio, with a nightly program titled "Edward R. Murrow With the News."

Edward R. Murrow doing an interview for See It Now
circa 1953: American broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow (C) sits in a trench with a microphone in his hand, interviewing an African-American US Marine during the Korean War for his CBS television show 'See It Now,' Korea. The company was holding a ridge on the Korean Front.  Hulton Archive / Getty Images

In 1949, Murrow, one of the biggest names on radio, made a successful move to the emerging new medium of television. His reporting style and gift for insightful commentary was quickly adapted for the camera and his work during the 1950s would set a standard for news broadcasting.

A weekly program hosted by Murrow on radio, "Hear It Now," moved to television as "See It Now." The program essentially created the genre of in-depth television reporting, and Murrow became a familiar and trusted presence in American living rooms.

Murrow and McCarthy

On March 9, 1954, an episode of "See It Now" became historic as Murrow took on the powerful and bullying senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy. Showing clips of McCarthy as he made baseless accusations about supposed communists, Murrow exposed McCarthy's tactics and essentially exposed the bombastic senator as a fraud conducting pointless witch hunts.

Murrow concluded the broadcast with a commentary that resonated deeply. He condemned McCarthy's behavior, and then continued:

"We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men, not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were for the moment unpopular.
"This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent, nor for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history but we cannot escape responsibility for the result."

The broadcast was viewed by a vast audience and was widely praised. And it no doubt helped to turn public opinion against McCarthy and led to his eventual downfall.

Senator Joseph R. McCarthy on Television Broadcast
Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, appearing on a television screen during his filmed reply to Columbia Broadcasting System newscaster Edward R. Murrow, tells a coast to coast audience (April 6th), that Murrow "as far back as twenty years ago, was engaged in propaganda for Communist causes." The Wisconsin Republican was answering Murrow's anti-McCarthy Program of March 9th. McCarthy called Murrow--"a symbol--the leader and the cleverest of the jackal pack which is always found at the throat of anyone who dares to expose Communists and traitors." Murrow labeled the Senator's attack as a "typical tactic of attempting to tie up to Communism, anyone who disagrees with him".  Bettmann / Getty Images

Disillusionment With Broadcasting

Murrow continued working for CBS, and his "See It Now" program remained on the air until 1958. Though he was a major presence in the broadcasting business, he had become disillusioned with television in general. During the run of "See It Now" he had often clashed with his bosses at CBS, and he believed network executives across the industry were squandering the opportunity to inform and educate the public.

In October 1958, he gave a speech to a group of network executives and broadcasters gathered in Chicago in which he laid out his criticisms of the medium. He argued that the public was reasonable and mature and could handle controversial material as long as it was presented fairly and responsibly.

Before leaving CBS, Murrow participated in a documentary, "Harvest of Shame," which detailed the plight of migrant farm workers. The program, which aired on the day after Thanksgiving in 1960, was controversial and focused attention on the issue of poverty in America.

Kennedy Administration

President Kennedy With Edward R. Murrow
President Kennedy speaks to a group of newscasters, thanking them for making their facilities available during the recent Cuban missile crisis. Broadcaster and United States Information Agency director Edward Murrow stands to his side. Bettmann / Getty Images

In 1961, Murrow left broadcasting and took a job in the new administration of John F. Kennedy, as director of the U.S. Information Agency. The job shaping America's image abroad during the Cold War was considered important, and Murrow took it seriously. He was praised for restoring the morale and prestige of the agency, which had been tarnished during the McCarthy Era. But he often felt conflicted about his role as government propagandist as opposed to independent journalist.

Death and Legacy

A heavy smoker, often depicted on television with a cigarette in his hand, Murrow began to suffer severe health problems which caused him to resign from the government in 1963. Diagnosed with lung cancer, he had a lung removed and was in and out of hospitals until his death on April 27, 1965.

Murrow's death was front-page news, and tributes poured in from President Lyndon Johnson and other political figures. Many broadcast journalists have pointed to him as an inspiration. The industry group Murrow addressed in 1958 with his critique of the broadcasting industry later established the Edward R. Murrow Awards for excellence in broadcast journalism.

Sources:

  • "Edward R. Murrow, Broadcaster and Ex-Chief of U.S.I.A., Dies." New York Times, 28 April, 1965. p. 1.
  • "Edward Roscoe Murrow." Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed., vol. 11, Gale, 2004, pp. 265-266. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • Goodbody, Joan T. "Murrow, Edward Roscoe." The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives, Thematic Series: The 1960s, edited by William L. O'Neill and Kenneth T. Jackson, vol. 2, Charles Scribner's Sons, 2003, pp. 108-110. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • "Murrow, Edward R." Television in American Society Reference Library, edited by Laurie Collier Hillstrom and Allison McNeill, vol. 3: Primary Sources, UXL, 2007, pp. 49-63. Gale Virtual Reference Library.