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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: The Man Who Pioneered Radio and TV News

By Tom Morrow

Edward R. Murrow came to prominence with a series of radio broadcasts from Europe for the Columbia Broadcasting System during World War II. He was born April 25, 1908, Egbert Roscoe Murrow at Polecat Creek, near Greensboro, North Carolina. His parents were Quakers. His home was a log cabin without electricity or plumbing, on a farm bringing in only a few hundred dollars a year from corn and hay.

A graduate of Washington State College, Murrow joined CBS in 1935 and remained with the network for his entire career. When Murrow joined, CBS, there was only announcer Robert Trout, who coached Murrow with tips on how to communicate effectively on radio.

Murrow went to London in 1937 to head CBS’s European operations. He hired journalist William L. Shirer, and assigned him to Berlin. When the war began on Sept. 1, 1939, Murrow provided live radio broadcasts back to America during the bombing of London. These broadcasts electrified U.S. radio audiences. These reports, especially during the Blitz, began with what became his signature opening, “This is London!” He flew on 25 British and American combat bombing missions over Europe, reporting to listeners.

At the end of one 1940 broadcast, Murrow added a nightly phrase being used by Londoners: “Good night, and good luck.” He was urged to stick with it, and another Murrow catchphrase was born.

As the war expanded, Murrow expanded CBS News in London to include a group of reporters acclaimed for their intellect and descriptive power, including Eric Sevareid, Charles Collingwood, Howard K. Smith, and others, later duped “Murrow’s Boys.” In 1944, Murrow sought Walter Cronkite to take over for Bill Downs at the CBS Moscow bureau. Cronkite initially accepted, but after receiving a better offer from his current employer, the United Press, he turned down the offer.

On April 12, 1945, Murrow was one of the first reporters at the Buchenwald death camp in Germany. In his radio report, Murrow said:

I pray you to believe what I have said about Buchenwald. I have reported what I saw and heard, but only part of it. For most of it I have no words … if I’ve offended you by this rather mild account of Buchenwald, I’m not in the least sorry.

As the 1950s began, Murrow began his television career with misgivings about the new medium. CBS Radio’s “Hear It Now” moved to television and was re-christened “See It Now.” In 1953, Murrow launched a celebrity series entitled “Person to Person.”

“See It Now” focused on a number of controversial issues, but it is best remembered as the show that criticized McCarthyism and the Red Scare, contributing, if not leading, to the political downfall of U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy, R-Wisc., Murrow used excerpts from McCarthy’s own speeches and proclamations to criticize the senator and point out episodes where he had contradicted himself.

The broadcast contributed to a nationwide backlash against McCarthy and is seen as a turning point in the history of television. It provoked tens of thousands of letters, telegrams, and phone calls to CBS headquarters, running 15 to 1 in favor.

Murrow offered McCarthy the chance to respond to the criticism with a full half-hour on “See It Now.” McCarthy accepted the invitation, accusing Murrow of being a Communist sympathizer. Ultimately, McCarthy’s rebuttal further decreased his already fading popularity.

Murrow’s hard-hitting approach to the news, however, cost him influence. “See It Now,” in general, did not score well on prime-time television. However, Murrow’s program concept lives on today as CBS’ “60 Minutes.”

Another contributing element to Murrow’s career decline was the rise of a new crop of television journalists. Walter Cronkite’s arrival at CBS in 1950 marked the beginning of a major rivalry which continued until Murrow resigned from the network in 1961. Murrow held a grudge dating back to 1944, when Cronkite turned down his offer to head the CBS Moscow bureau.

Murrow was invited by New York’s Democratic Party to run for the U.S. Senate. Harry Truman advised Murrow that his choice was between being the junior senator from New York or being Edward R. Murrow, beloved broadcast journalist and hero to millions. He listened to Truman.

A chain smoker throughout his life, Murrow was almost never seen without a cigarette, smoking between 60 and 65 a day. He developed lung cancer and lived for two years after an operation to remove his left lung. Murrow died April 27, 1965, at his home in La Jolla two days after his 57th birthday.

His colleague and friend Eric Sevareid said of him: “He was a shooting star; and we will live in his afterglow a very long time.


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