Edward R. Murrow and the Time of His Time
By Joseph Wershba
Photograph by Lisa Larson
Murrow with characteristic
cigarette in hand, 1954.
McCarthy and his accomplice, Roy Cohn.
“The only thing that
counts is the right to know, to speak, to think – that and the sanctity of
the courts. Otherwise, it’s not
By Joseph Wershba
Edward R. Murrow was my last hero. When
this nation was drowning in cowardice and demagoguery, it was Murrow who
hurled the spear at the terror. The spear was his See It Now
television broadcast on Senator Joe McCarthy.
Murrow did not kill off McCarthy or
McCarthyism, but he helped halt
He was the most famous newsman in
broadcasting, but he spelled out the limitations of his trade. "Just
because the microphone in front of you amplifies your voice around the
world," he'd say, "is no reason to think we have any more wisdom than
we had when our voices could reach only from one end of the bar to the
His writing was simple, direct. He used
strong, active verbs. On paper, it looked plain. The voice made the words
catch fire. He regarded the news as a sacred trust. Accuracy was everything.
And, always, fairness.
* * *
I remember once, flying with him from
When I went to work on a column of numbers,
Murrow asked what I was doing. I said I was adding up my assets -- how much
I'd be able to leave to my wife and baby daughter. It came to something like
$4,000. Murrow's eyes widened. "Washboard," he said, using the
nickname given to me in the Army, "you're the only son of a bitch I know
who is worth more alive than dead!"
Sharing the same tiny quarters in
I once got an expense account thrown
back at me because I had included an extra couple of Scotches at the bar. I
appealed to Murrow. "Aren't we allowed a drink at dinner?" I asked.
Murrow gave me one of his Churchillian replies: "Any working reporter
who does not invade the corporate exchequer for at least one fifth of Scotch
each day is not worthy of his hire." I couldn't drink that much -- and
neither could he.
The only time I ever saw him under the
influence was the night I drove him home to
This man I worshipped could have his
mean moods too. One night at the bar he chewed out a colleague, the man who
had been closest to him in wartime
* * *
What was it like to work for Ed Murrow?
Well, on See It Now you didn't work for Murrow, you worked for the man
Murrow called his partner, Fred Friendly. He and Murrow set the agenda.
Reporters or field directors like myself would go out with cameramen. We'd
case the story, film it in the field, bring Murrow in for key portions.
Sometimes Murrow would limit himself to the narration. His voice alone was
enough to give power to the piece.
He always gave us full credit on the
air. He never exhibited any professional rivalry or competitiveness. After
Eric Sevareid appeared as a correspondent on our first See It Now
broadcast with a "remote" report from Washington, I told Murrow of
a colleague's reaction: She liked the broadcast, yes, especially Sevareid,
because "he was loaded with sex appeal." "Well," said
Murrow, smiling, "I guess we'll have to keep him the hell off the
air." Sevareid, of course, was a Murrow Boy, and with Murrow's backing
he became one of the most influential figures in broadcasting.
Friendly knew how honored we were to
labor in Murrow's shadow and worked us to the bone. The phone would ring at
* * *
When my cameraman Charlie Mack and I
sent in our film on "The Case of Lieut. Milo Radulovich," Friendly
got on the phone. "You're fired," he bellowed, "I'm
fired, Ed's fired, but we're going to turn out the greatest broadcast
ever done on television!"
The Radulovich case involved a young Air
Force Reserve weatherman who had been dropped from the service in the age of
security madness. The Air Force secretly accused his father and sister of
holding radical views. There were no complaints against Milo Radulovich. He
was given to understand that if he publicly repudiated his father and sister
he might get his commission back. Radulovich said that wasn't what
Americanism meant to him. He refused to "cut his blood ties."
On the program, Murrow was never more
magnetic in his stark portrait of
* * *
The McCarthy crowd was aroused.
McCarthy's chief investigator, Don Surine, came up to me when we were
covering the testimony of F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover. "Hey
Joe", he said, "What's this Radwich junk you putting out?" I
didn't need a road map to tell me there was trouble ahead. I started to say I
had to rush off to the airport, but Surine cut me short. "What would you
say if I told you Murrow was on the Soviet payroll in 1934?" he asked.
"Come on up to the office and I'll show you."
He told me to wait outside McCarthy's
staff office and soon reappeared with a photostat of a Hearst newspaper front
page, dated February 18, 1935, containing an attack on the Institute of
International Education for sponsoring a summer exchange program between
American professors and their Soviet counterparts. The institute had the
support of the leading educators in
I asked if I could show the photostats
to Mr. Murrow. Permission granted. "Mind you, Joe," Surine said,
"I'm not saying Murrow's a Commie himself....but if it looks like a
duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck -- it's a duck."
Then came another weapon in the arsenal
-- the threats against a family member. "It's a terrible shame,"
Surine said offhandedly. "Murrow's brother being a general in the Air
Force." I could feel the hair rise on the back of my neck.
The next night, I brought the
"expose" to Murrow. He was suffering a bad cold. He looked wan. He
scanned the front page, reddened a bit, then a weak grin came over his face.
"So that's what they've got," he said. It was the only time
I ever heard Murrow privately or publicly concede that the fear with which
McCarthyism was poisoning the soul of the nation had penetrated his soul as
But the next day, Murrow came up to me
at the water fountain. He was over his cold. The pallor was gone. He drew his
lips back and his large teeth looked ready to chomp a live bear. All he said
was, "The question now is, when do I go against these guys?" Ed
Murrow in a suppressed rage was a terrible thing to behold.
Over the next four months, while Murrow
held the reins, Fred Friendly organized the material -- mostly devastating
clips of McCarthy himself -- for the broadcast. What I remember most of that
period were Murrow's comments on the kind of
* * *
When we looked at the near-final cut of
the McCarthy broadcast and the staff showed fear of putting it on the air,
Murrow spoke a line that landed like a lash across our backs: "The
terror is right here in this room." And later: "No one man can
terrorize a whole nation unless we are all his accomplices." When
someone asked what he would say on the McCarthy broadcast, he replied,
"If none of us ever read a book that was 'dangerous,' nor had a friend
who was 'different,' or never joined an organization that advocated 'change,'
we would all be just the kind of people Joe McCarthy wants."
On the night of the broadcast,
"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 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 which were for the moment unpopular. We can deny our heritage
and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is
no way for a citizen of the Republic to abdicate his responsibility."
Edward R. Murrow, the man I often
addressed as "Father," was my last hero.
Veteran journalist Joseph Wershba joined CBS News in 1944 serving as
writer, editor and correspondent. He was a producer of the renowned "60
Minutes" from 1968-1988.