May 2004

Bob Edwards

NPR’s Bob Edwards on Edward R. Murrow
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There was broadcast news before Edward R. Murrow it just wasn't very good. Murrow's innovations in both radio and television made him the patron saint of broadcast journalism and the perfect subject for one of the slim volumes in Wiley's "Turning Points" series. NPR's Bob Edwards certainly thought so. "This was just a wonderful fluke that they called me up," he says from his home in Arlington, Virginia. "I thought, wow, yeah, I could do Murrow." Edwards, outgoing host of NPR's Morning Edition, used his afternoons and weekends to write Edward R. Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism.

As was 1993's Fridays with Red, Edward R. Murrow is based on a series of conversations, this time with Edwards' mentor, Ed Bliss. "Inevitably it would get to Murrow," Edwards says of his 30-year friendship with Bliss, "we'd always talk about Murrow." Bliss, who died last fall, wrote for Murrow and was later Walter Cronkite's editor on the CBS Evening News. He founded American University's journalism program, where Edwards was his graduate assistant. "He was always accused of teaching Edward R. Murrow I and Edward R. Murrow II," says Edwards laughing. "It was absolutely true." Why Murrow? He had no background in journalism or radio when he took over CBS Radio's European bureau. According to Edwards, the man who seemed the epitome of calm even when describing his own fear ("I began to breathe and to reflect again that all men would be brave if only they could leave their stomachs at home"), was always a bit nervous on air despite a pre-broadcast whiskey.

Murrow hired former print reporters to create the first overseas radio news department. The payoff came in March 1938 when he and his "boys" aired a roundup covering Hitler's annexation of Austria, reporting from Vienna, London and Paris. Edwards writes: "Murrow, [William L.] Shirer, and company had just devised and executed what became the routine format for the presentation of news. It not only had multiple points of origin, it also had included both reporting and analysis of breaking news." Murrow's one-two punch consisted of his image-filled writing and what Edwards, in his own melodious timbre, calls a "magnificent voice." He writes: "[Murrow] is cited as the example of how a broadcast journalist should function, although most people alive today never heard or saw him in a live broadcast." This reputation is based largely on Murrow's definitive wartime broadcasts.

Edwards missed those (though he remembers Murrow's later radio show), but has since heard them and counts the "London After Dark" Trafalgar Square report among Murrow's best. In it, Murrow crouched down (in trench coat and fedora, no doubt) microphone in hand to capture the footsteps of Londoners headed to bomb shelters. He described the sound as being "like ghosts shod with steel shoes." "That was great," Edwards says, "that was ingenious." The program that influenced the budding radioman most, however, was Person to Person, Murrow's 1953 to 1959 television series. "It was . . . I'm trying to choose the right pejorative word here," Edwards says, "very hokey." He says this example of "low" Murrow helped eased tensions created by "high" Murrow projects such as See It Now. It was with See It Now that Murrow took on Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Premiering in 1951, this weekly news program featured original reporting, split-screen interviews and live shots from both coasts all groundbreaking at the time. "I guess we'd call it a magazine program today," Edwards says.

Despite his preeminence, Murrow's later professional life was problematic; he felt the network had lowered its standards. Edwards expresses similar displeasure with the state of broadcasting in the book's "Afterword." "Just be glad he was there at the beginning," he says of Murrow. "If [broadcast news] had started off trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator, it would have nowhere to go but down." He pauses, "I guess it would have nowhere to go but up, and it never would.

"I say he set the standard, but it's probably closer to say he set the ideal and we can't have the ideal anymore."

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