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What Would Murrow Do?

He’s tanned, rested, and 100 years old—and still bruising for a fight

The incisive, uncompromising, chain-smoking broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow had a career with CBS that stretched back to World War II, when he achieved fame as a radio correspondent reporting from London during the blitz.

In the 1950s, he used his CBS television program See It Now to fight McCarthyism, as chronicled in the 2005 film Good Night and Good Luck. More and more, he came to embody integrity in journalism. Today a plaque in the lobby of CBS headquarters bears his image and the inscription: “He set standards of excellence that remain unsurpassed.”

Murrow died in 1965, when the news landscape was much different from today’s. But let’s say he didn’t. Let’s say he’s alive and kicking, and just turned 100. A young 100. He’s still smoking, of course—though perhaps a filtered lite instead of a Camel, and maybe not on camera. Let’s try to imagine what else he might be doing, and how he might view the news business of today.

It’s tempting to envision Murrow—who never shied away from advances in media technology—as a power user of the Internet. But he might not be. Although he used early radio links across the Atlantic during the buildup to World War II, and later on, with his producer Fred Friendly, took advantage of early live television linkages, Murrow’s tools were always far subordinate to the real job of gathering accurate information and conveying it efficiently and well. He knew the limits of technology. In the last of his remarkable speeches about broadcasting, delivered in 1964, he proclaimed: “The newest computer can merely compound, at speed, the oldest problem in the relations between human beings, and in the end the communicator will be confronted with the age-old problem of what to say and how to say it.”

Sure, he’d be banging out terse emails to his many, many friends in the news business and his numerous sources among newsmakers. But it’s doubtful that Murrow would have much use for blogs—which he would hardly view as exemplars of what to say and how to say it—except selectively, as filtered to him through his closest associates. He would have neither the time nor the inclination to surf the Daily Kos, the Huffington Post, Dig.com, or other online political watering holes.

Throughout his career, he cultivated other professionals, who became known as the Murrow Boys, and entrusted them with the task of digging through piles of leads, separating journalistic gold from dross. There is no reason to imagine that he would change his ways now that the ratio of gold to dross is so much lower.

And the same respect for his fellow journalists that led him to assemble the Murrow Boys would make him uncomfortable with the Internet byproduct of do-it-yourself journalism. If he had not thought of it himself, he would applaud the recent remark by another zealous journalist of his generation, the former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee. When asked what he thought of “citizen journalism,” Bradlee replied, “About what you think of citizen surgery.”

Murrow was a crusader for independent journalism then, and would be now. He had some epic fights with CBS president William Paley when advertisers tried to water down bold news reporting. These days he’d be contending with more than just corporate advertisers. He’d have to take on corporate owners of news organizations themselves. He would be troubled by Disney’s ownership of ABC and, by extension, ABC News. And he would arch an eyebrow over Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation media empire and its acquisition of the Wall Street Journal.

Similarly, he would fret about how the U.S. media failed to blow holes in the Bush administration’s rationales for invading Iraq. The clue is his reaction to the infamous “unprovoked attack” in the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1964 that President Lyndon Johnson used to justify the war in Vietnam. At the time, Murrow had left public life because of his poor health, but that didn’t prevent him from calling Friendly at CBS News in the middle of the night to berate him for reporting little more than the president’s words and to urge (to no avail) that the young Dan Rather be set loose to dig into the incident.

This being an election year, Murrow would undoubtedly be anchoring some of the presidential debates. With his foreign policy expertise and oracular tone, he would carry almost the same star power as the candidates themselves. After all, when CBS was losing ratings to NBC’s Huntley-Brinkley anchor team during the 1960 Democratic convention, it fought back by pairing Murrow and Walter Cronkite.

On the whole, though, Murrow would be staunchly critical of today’s campaign coverage. He would deplore the incessant handicapping and excess opinion polling, and probably revel in the pollsters’ mistakes. (Onetime CBS chief executive Fred Stanton recalled that “Ed came in with the idea that a journalist was a much more reliable reporter of public opinion than Gallup or Roper.”)

Whose team would Murrow be on? By now he might have gravitated away from CBS (where in the 1950s he was paid more than its president, William Paley) to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, established in 1967, two years after his death. He certainly would champion the CPB—funder of PBS and NPR stations—as an outlet for public-interest broadcasting ŕ la the BBC, which he so much admired. He would prize public broadcasting’s relative isolation from the pressures of commercial sponsors.

But that doesn’t mean he would rest easy in public broadcasting. For as the CPB’s audience has grown, criticism, notably from conservative members of Congress, has multiplied. Funding has been reduced. The campaign against the CPB’s “liberal bias,” undertaken three years ago at the behest of the White House, would put Murrow in a state of high dudgeon. You can be sure he would respond as he did to so many other challenges: by walking the journalistic high road, channeling his righteous indignation, and proclaiming the public interest.

In other words, he would be driven by principle, by that which, in his mind, separates us from the machines that do our bidding. “A satellite has no conscience,” he observed in that last speech on broadcasting. “The speed of communications is wondrous to behold. It is also true that speed can multiply the distribution of information that we know to be untrue.” Murrow’s job now, as then, would be to make sure the news that is beamed around the world has been purged of the newsmaker’s varied forms of spin, dodgery, and evasion.

CROCKER SNOW, JR., F68, is a veteran foreign affairs journalist who directs the Fletcher School’s Edward R. Murrow Center for Public Diplomacy, which this year celebrates the hundredth anniversary of the legendary newsman’s birth. Murrow’s library, a number of artifacts, including his press pass and passport, and many of his awards are housed at the center. The Tufts Digital Collections and Archives contain Murrow’s papers, photographs, tape recordings, and select video footage. Snow has worked for Newsweek, WGBH, and the Boston Globe, and was the founding editor and president of the World Paper. He was twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on East Asia.

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