Newsmen debate fairness of TV portrayal

EDWARD R. Murrow is still making news, 20 years after they wrote his obituary. The famous CBS newsman, who is considered the father of broadcast journalism, is the subject of a controversial docudrama, ``Murrow,'' (see preview). The film, which stars Daniel J. Travanti (of ``Hill Street Blues'') as Murrow, will be shown four times on HBO this month.

But just before the film's debut, the Reporters' Committee for Freedom of the Press held a benefit screening of it here that made headlines. Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather, former and present CBS anchors, vehemently protested the RCFP screening of this biographical film, which they viewed as unrepresentative of both Murrow's life and of the executives with whom he worked -- CBS chairman William S. Paley and former CBS president Frank Stanton.

At a symposium on freedom of the press after the film, moderator Hodding Carter, an RCFP executive committee member, led a panel consisting of media critic Edwin Diamond; Barbara Matusow, author of a book on TV anchors, ``The Evening Stars''; and Ed Fouhy, now ``American Almanac'' producer for NBC but for 13 years a CBS staffer.

Fouey said he thought ``Murrow'' was ``a grossly unfair treatment of Frank Stanton, who was a man of enormous capacity and capability. If there was anybody who was resolute in the face of danger to our first amendment freedoms, and was a godfather to some of the freedoms which we enjoy . . . in these later days, it was Stanton.'' Fouhy thought ``Murrow'' was guilty of ``the sin of docudramas, the oversimplification and rewriting of history.''

Matusow, though, said that ``an awful lot of twaddle is written about docudramas. [Columnist] Nat Hentoff said that Edward R. Murrow would have [been revolted] at the very thought of his life being treated in a docudrama. I think that's nonsense, when historical incidents have been the subject of very fine movies like `Gandhi' and `All the President's Men' and nobody ever complains. But when you do it on television for the masses, suddenly docudrama is a dirty word.''

The Murrow legend at CBS news rested on his gritty professionalism and courage in tackling tough subjects like Sen. Joe McCarthy and McCarthyism at a time when anti-Communist loyalty oaths and blacklists paralyzed the industry with fear. But Murrow's award-winning and successful ``See It Now'' and ``Person to Person'' eventually succumbed to the pressure of corporate profits from the more lucrative television ``real estate'' of quiz programs as a scene in ``Murrow'' illustrates.

As moderator Hodding Carter asked, ``Once you begin thinking of it [news] as a profit center, doesn't something change about the way you're doing the news -- that you're selling the news?'' And Edwin Diamond wryly observed ``Journalism is now too important to be left to journalists, and the sooner we recognize that and begin dealing with it, the better.''

But it may have been Edward R. Murrow who had the last word: ``This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely lights and wires in a box.''

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