The life of a legendary broadcast journalist

Murrow: His Life and Times, by A. M. Sperber. New York: Freundlich Books. 795 pp. $22.95. Three months before Hitler's annexation of Austria, Ed Murrow, the slender, rakishly dressed 29-year-old director of European operations for America's Columbia Broadcasting System, told London's Royal Institute for International Affairs that broadcasting, still in its infancy and largely without influence, was nevertheless possessed of ``enormous power.''

``It can become a powerful force for mutual understanding between nations,'' he said. ``But not until we have made it so. It has no character, no conscience of its own. . . . There must be a greater definition of objective and an increasing sense of responsibility on the part of the broadcasters of the democracies. . . . The only alternative is to justify broadcasting because it entertains, but that is just like justifying newspapers because they carry funny pictures and cartoons.''

The words resonate with relevance today, a half-century after their delivery. For broadcasting, for all of its achievement, for all of its power, for all of the world's dependence upon its services, is still perceived to have fallen short of its potential, still seen as being cavalier with its responsibility.

And the speaker of those words is still the standard -- indeed will always be the standard -- to which broadcast journalism is held. Edward R. Murrow was the man who demonstrated, first on radio, later on television, that broadcast journalism ``can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire.''

His life has been chronicled often -- in books, television documentaries, even in a made-for-TV movie earlier this year. And it has been chronicled well, most notably by Murrow's former colleague Alexander Kendrick in his 1969 biography ``Prime Time.'' But never has it been rendered as deftly or as thoroughly as in this book by Ann Sperber. A former Fulbright scholar (who escaped from Hitler's Austria to the United States when she was a child), Sperber has crafted 12 years of careful and comprehensive research into a stirring biography that captures the passion, the eloquence, the epic sweep of Murrow's life and legacy.

Murrow burst onto the American consciousness with perhaps the most powerful, sustained individual reporting of this century: his broadcasts from London -- sometimes as many as five or six a night -- during the summer of the Battle of Britain. He brought more than the news into America's parlors; he brought besieged London.

``These things must be seen,'' he claimed repeatedly, fearful that his words were not equal to the horror before his eyes. But they were equal.

``I'm standing on the rooftop looking out over London,'' began the most famous of his word pictures, the sounds of an air raid clearly audible under his words. ``Off to my left, far away in the distance, I can see just the faint, red, angry snap of antiaircraft bursts against the steel-blue sky. More searchlights spring up over on my right, swinging over in this general direction now: You'll hear two explosions -- there they are!''

Aware perhaps that his American audience was sitting, fat and comfortable, in their homes and able to identify only vicariously -- if at all -- with the heroism of the RAF pilots, Murrow spoke instead of the heroism of London's ordinary people, his ``unsung heroes.''

``Those black-faced men with bloodshot eyes, fighting fires; the girls who cradled the steering wheel of a heavy ambulance in their arms, the policeman who stands guard over that unexploded bomb.''

And gradually, ``Europe's war'' was no longer just Europe's war.

``You burned the city of London in our houses and we felt the flames that burned it,'' said journalist and poet Archibald MacLeish in a tribute to Murrow five days before Pearl Harbor. ``You laid the dead of London at our doors and we knew that the dead were our dead -- were mankind's dead. Without rhetoric, without dramatics, without more emotion than needed be. You have destroyed the superstition that what is done beyond 3,000 miles of water is not really done at all.''

A decade later, in a new medium, Murrow did it all over again.

After a fitful postwar sojourn in the front office as vice president of CBS News -- annoyed by the exigencies of merchandising the news instead of reporting it -- Murrow teamed with the mercurial Fred Friendly, launching ``See It Now'' in 1951, and moving through most of the early '50s toward an inevitable collision with Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

In McCarthy, Murrow saw a demogogue with the style and method of Hitler. Murrow's values in this regard had been instilled in the 1930s, prior to his CBS career, when he served as executive director of the Emergency Committee of the International Institute of Education, helping German educators fleeing Hitler's tyranny find sanctuary and positions in America. Those values had been affirmed in wartime Europe.

Now, as McCarthy's cries of communist conspiracies grew more shrill, as his witch hunts widened and American fear became pervasive, Murrow harked back to those earlier black days and commented to colleagues on the similarities. And he collected film, until, by March 1954, he was ready with television's most carefully researched, written, and edited show to date: ``This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy's methods to keep silent. . . . We can deny our heritage and our history but we cannot escape responsibility for the result.''

By year's end, of course, McCarthy had been censured by the Senate, his power evaporated, the fear eased, and the world pointed to Murrow as the catalyst.

If only there were a Murrow today, goes the lament; he'd put a spine and a conscience in television news. But it is a naive, a whimsical lament; there could be no Murrow today, and to insist otherwise is to ignore the melancholy history of Murrow's last years with CBS.

In his halcyon days, Murrow was his own man; the Murrow-Friendly cabal was listed as a separate entity on the CBS corporate charts, beholden to no master but public and conscience. But as the great monolith CBS grew in the '50s, that independence vanished, and in the corporate -- if not the public -- eye, Murrow's value diminished. He was too volatile an ingredient for the sanitized product of modern television, and nothing has changed in the quarter century since he left. No, if there were a Murrow today he would be banished to Sunday morning or PBS.

Shortly after joining the Kennedy administration as director of the US Information Agency, Murrow was supposedly asked by Bill Moyers about his life in broadcasting.

``It's a great life,'' Murrow is said to have replied, ``but they'll break your heart.''

And so it is with this book. It will break your heart, for it presents a Murrow who is lonely, vulnerable, human. But so, too, does it present Murrow in all his glory, a sharper perspective and keener appreciation of what was -- in all understatement -- a great life.

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