One still hears the name Edward R. Murrow when today's commentators bemoan the state of modern journalism. Every once in a while we might see a library clip of the TV newsman, an intense-looking fellow holding a cigarette and arching one eyebrow as he addresses the camera directly. Murrow even shows up in 1960's Sink the Bismarck! as himself, broadcasting the war news from London.
The Edward R. Murrow Collection is a series of shows put together by CBS early in the 1990s to commemorate the legacy of the man credited with inventing the concept of television journalism. It comes in three parts, preceded by a fourth that encapsules Murrow's entire story in a little under two hours. The other three discs concentrate on his career high points with as little editing as possible. Together, the four-disc set comprises a prime-source resource excellent as entertainment and serious historical study.
This Reporter (disc 1, 113 minutes) is organized as a conventional documentary showing Murrow's childhood and early career before becoming a CBS European radio correspondent. He first became famous covering the German takeover of Austria with a tense, on-the-spot journalistic personality that added drama to the facts. He didn't exactly editorialize, but he communicated a strong impression that the events he covered were extremely important.
This phase of his career peaked in London in 1940, where he became a broadcasting legend by setting up a microphone on the roof of the BBC building to give a running account of what it was like for London to take the nightly air raid bombardments. Murrow became Our Man in London, even when he reported from a bomber plane on a mission to Berlin.
Interspersed with the archive footage are interviews with collaborators and correspondents who knew Murrow in these early days. They remember a flamboyant leader who inspired great loyalty in his team. He also built a legend around himself that would cause problems when CBS later preferred less controversy in their broadcasts.
After the war, Murrow suffered through two years as a broadcast executive until he got back into production just as the new television age began. This Reporter gives a brief look at Murrow's major television work as it charts his eventual fall from his position at the top of CBS news. In developments driven by the sponsor-controlled network, Murrow's power was withdrawn by executives that wanted to exert more editorial control over content.
The Best of "See It Now" (disc 2, 111 minutes) shows nothing less than the discovery of television as a new medium. Murrow as much as admits that he's learning as he goes, and some of the first images from his first broadcast show him directing cameras set up in San Francisco and New York, so audiences can look at both oceans at the same time. Soon Murrow is sending back reports from Korea, making the conflict the first televised war. Other large chunks of original broadcasts show Murrow and his correspondents interviewing ordinary southerners right after the Supreme Court's landmark integration decision. We also see profiles of Grandma Moses (a spunky lady) and Louis Armstrong.
The McCarthy Years (disc 3, 114 minutes) is one of the greatest media showdowns of the century. We hear of and talk about McCarthy all the time but this collection of broadcasts allows us to see just what the man was like and how he operated. After watching the junior congressman get away with character assassination and wholesale demagoguery, Murrow finally used his television pulpit as an editorial base to strike back, a choice that is an excellent debate topic - when should journalists stop reporting the news and do something about it? Ever? Murrow's quoted philosophy was that the news should speak for people who cannot, which sounds great until men of lesser ethics get into the racket; since the 60s every politician right and left has claimed to be speaking for some unheard majority.
The McCarthy disc starts with two lengthy segments showing Murrow coming to the defense of a lieutenant dismissed from the Air Force because his sister and father were politically suspect. Even granting that the military has a higher need for absolute trust in its soldiers, the show demonstrates the wave of paranoia that the Commie hunt had engendered; it's a great relief to hear the lieutenant's neighbors and townspeople (even a drunken American Legion veteran) come to his defense on camera.
The second segment shows a televised committee hearing that proves to be as outrageous as the 'parodies' we see in movies like The Manchurian Candidate. Claiming to have uncovered a massive Communist conspiracy in the Army, McCarthy and his associates can only produce one harmless-looking black Army employee who appears to have been subpoena'ed through a name mixup. As soon as the coward McCarthy realizes that he's not going to get anywhere, he pretends he has another meeting to attend and leaves others to cross-examine the woman. By the end of the hearing, senators (we see Bobby Kennedy but don't hear him) are making speeches for the woman and the right of Americans not to be persecuted in this way, offering her jobs, etc.
The last two segments are Murrow's historical direct televised denouncement of McCarthy, a brilliant video document presented uncut, and McCarthy's insulting response, also uncut. McCarthy doesn't address any of Murrow's charges, preferring to give us a 25-cent history lesson of the spread of Communism. Without discussing any of his methods of fighting the supposed horrid plague of infiltration he claims is threatening the USA, he instead launches into an attack on Murrow, who he suddenly decides is the ringleader behind the Commie treachery.
Unlike today's 'I gotcha,' gotta-have-the-last-word pundits, Murrow allows McCarthy to say his piece without counter-rebuttal. Happily, the blow to the senator's credibility was the beginning of his swift decline. Even Eisenhower was slow to critcize McCarthy; TV and Murrow cut short a nefarious career that could have lasted several more years.
Harvest of Shame (55 minutes) contains the entire famous CBS Reports show from Murrow's waning years, when he was stripped of his leadership and only occasionally given the ability to do assignments of his choosing. This equally legendary broadcast launched national awareness of the migrant farm workers, who at the beginning of the prosperous 1960s were still stuck in a Grapes of Wrath dilemma. Broadcast on a Thanksgiving weekend, the show hit home with the message that life for many in America was anything but just, as the working and living conditions in the California fields "wronged the dignity of man." The debate on this one is still going on as well.
Docu Rama's DVD of the Edward R. Murrow Collection is well mastered and the original kinescopes and 16mm sources look as good as they can, which is often quite good (and better than I remember TV reception from the middle 1950s). Each disc has a biography and timeline for Murrow's life. This is an obvious must-buy for Television history classes and stands up as good entertainment as well. It's nice to see broadcast friends like the late Charles Kuralt again, as well as glimpses of the NBC commentators Huntley and Brinkley, who supplanted Murrow as television staples.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Edward R. Murrow Collection rates: