Edward R. Murrow: ‘Good Night and Good Luck’
VTR Date: June 7, 1986
Guest: Sperber, Ann
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THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Ann Sperber
Title: Edward R. Murrow – “Good Night and Good Luck”
HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Now, I begin my program this way each week. Each week, too, I end it by noting as an old friend used to say, good night and good luck. Well, today’s program is about that old friend, which I say right up front to keep the record straight as he would have to let you know that while I have an open mind, it’s not so open that my brains have fallen out. And whatever it is I have to say in the course of this next half-hour devoted to Edward R. Murrow, must of necessity reflect my devotion to that truly great communicator, a man who so brilliantly used words and pictures, too, to illumine and convey ideas, not to disguise and distort them. Important ideas, too. Ones that many Americans, to be sure, didn’t embrace, but that I did and do. So, fairly warned, do take this into consideration in the course of today’s discussion along with the fact that Mr. Murrow did help me become a broadcaster and stood by me in moments of greatest professional need. Now one further disclaimer, if you will, and then we’ll get on with our program about Edward R. Murrow and his extraordinary biography by Ann Sperber. When I say each week as an old friend used to say, good night and good luck, I’m really not putting on airs as we used to say. I really don’t mean to presume upon a relationship essentially simply that of a profoundly admiring broadcasting novice to an invariably generous mentor to all who wanted the electronic media first and foremost to be a marketplace of ideas, not of products. I say old friend, in fact, as a reflection of my own devotion to this giant among men. Clearly, I was never a member of the “Murrow ain’t God” club. And now there’s this giant of a book to ponder, Ann Sperber’s Murrow, His Life and Times, so handsomely published by Freundlich Books. Dan Rather says it’s the definitive work. Pulitzer material. Neil Hickey says, “What a man, what a life, what a book”. Both are right on target. And I guess, Miss Sperber, I want to begin our program by thanking you for the hours of enjoyment that I’ve had in reading Murrow, His Life and Times, and the feelings that I really am reliving too, many decades of my life. So welcome.
SPERBER: Well, thank you very much. I’m glad you enjoyed it.
HEFFNER: I enjoyed it so much that thought there are those who say it’s the definitive biography, I want you to go back and take each chapter and make it a volume itself. But, to begin…You know I wondered whether it isn’t true that Murrow seemed concerned that broadcasters and newsmen generally didn’t take too much concern about the things that bothered him the most: the need to be clear; the need to be precise; and the need to set in perspective what was going on in the world.
SPERBER: Right. And by the way, you could add, if I may say, newswomen because it’s generally now known today that Murrow, among other people, hired the first woman correspondent for CBS, Mary Marvin Breckinridge, on the eve of World War II. And gave quite a number, well not quite a number of women, unfortunately, but gave to those women who were within the CBS hierarchy as correspondents quite a lot of encouragement. He did not draw sex lines.
HEFFNER: You mean there’s more than…there were more than Murrow’s boys.
SPERBER: Well, there weren’t Murrow’s girls. Excuse me for digressing, but he hired Mary Marvin Breckinridge who had to leave for personal reasons. He also wanted to hire, as I mention in the book, Helen Kirkpatrick, the great correspondent, for I believe it was the Chicago Daily News during the London blitz. And there ran into sexism from the New York end of things. But after the war, among other people he gave a good deal of encouragement to Nancy Hanschman later known as Nancy Dickerson. There were things here, really, that I wish I could have gone into in more detail. But as you say, each chapter has a lot of stories that were untold. I hope to tell some more of them.
HEFFNER: In writing about Murrow and his times, I wondered as I read, since you touch on so many themes, was it the McCarthy period that stood out most in your mind? Was it World War II?
SPERBER: I think the general difficulty and the joy of writing this book was that as I went into almost every section with perhaps a couple of exceptions I found that each section had its validity and its truth, and another light to shed not only on the character of Edward R. Murrow, but on the united States, the world, and especially, of course, broadcasting. As far as your earlier question about Murrow’s critiques, what could have been done better, his great critique was not so much of whether people shouldn’t try harder, but the whole question of time.
HEFFNER: What do you mean, “time”?
SPERBER: He always said let my people have time enough to do their stories. He was a great opponent of the famous minute and a half. He felt that you needed at least five minutes to tell something, even begin to start getting into a subject. Five minutes, perhaps, doesn’t seem terribly much to most people, but it is in air terms quite a goodly amount of time. He was a great foe of mixing up a whole lot of stories back to back so that you didn’t know what was coming next. He, by and large, supported the idea of taking young people, training them thoroughly, keeping them in a bureau until they knew what they were doing, not sending them from one place to another, and then giving them enough time on the air to set a story in context.
HEFFNER: But you know those, it seems to me, Miss Sperber, are techniques identifying good women as well as men, creating a pool of the kinds of people he identified later known as Murrow’s boys, having enough time to deal with a story. But the larger question, it seemed to me, had to do with what he sensed were the responsibilities of the electronic media themselves. And it fascinated me so. As a matter of fact, I was going to…in hopes some day to add his Guild Hall speech to my Documentary History of the United States, but I was so impressed by the fact that you pointed out that as far back as, what was it, 1937…?
SPERBER: Yes. November, 1937.
HEFFNER: …in England talking before the Royal Institute of International Affairs he said so many of the same things that he was to say later on about the responsibility of the media.
SPERBER: Exactly. Murrow’s feeling for the electronic media seems to be something that was inborn. He had a great speech teacher. He had a very hard-driving mother, good religious background, very virtuous man, etc. However, this feeling for the power of first radio and then television seemed to come from no one but himself. Now at that time, when he was in London, he was closely associated with the BBC. CBS was a tiny little office. He was the whole staff at that time. As a matter of fact, he had just hired a second person at that time named William L. Shirer to work the continent. And if you’ll excuse me, I’d just like to take… (takes a drink of water)
HEFFNER: Sure. That’s permitted in this kind of television.
SPERBER: Thank you. However, he just seemed to almost leap into this whole area of radio which in itself was just beginning. You know we do tend to forget what a short amount of time elapsed between the development of radio and the development of television. Television was right behind. It was only World War II that put television on an experimental basis. So that instead of television beginning…network radio in an even medium way really started coming into being in the mid-1930s. If it hadn’t been for World War II, then TV probably would have followed it by only a few years.
HEFFNER: Of course, Murrow played such an incredible role in the making of radio an absolutely necessary, indispensably necessary instrument.
SPERBER: That’s right. That’s right.
HEFFNER: And the…this was… (inaudible)…You know I think, and I look in the mirror, there’s the phrase that Murrow uses in your biography of him when at one point he says he didn’t know whether he could take a good look at himself in the mirror when he was a little nervous, shall we say, about a decision that he had made or something that he hadn’t done that he felt that he should have done. Today I feel as I read your biography of Murrow, that so much of the history of this country in the past forty years, fifty years, is encompassed by his experience. I mean, one knows that it is the Depression; it is the coming of World War II; the fighting of World War II; it is the reconstruction of Europe; it is the coming of Truman, and Eisenhower and all the others to be found here covered by Murrow.
SPERBER: It’s amazing because you have someone who in a short life, he was barely fifty-seven when he died, in twenty-two years was constantly on the front line.
HEFFNER: But you know that’s why I come back to the point you make. You said…you talk about his speech teacher, you talk about his relationship to his mother, and you say you don’t quite know from whence came this awareness on Murrow’s part of the importance of the electronic media. And therefore, the responsibility to be assumed by the people who make use of it. And going back to that 1937 speech in England, despite his concerns, you make the point by quoting him that however much he was distressed by the commercialization of radio, he was able to contrast it and accept it when you think in terms of the ways that radio, electronic communications, was being used in other countries. And if I may, you write quoting him, “There does not exist, in my opinion, such a thing as broadcasting system without propaganda. We may make propaganda on behalf of the right to have monarchy or the status quo, or we may make propaganda on behalf of more tangible things such as cigarettes, soap or automobiles. In this last field of propaganda, selling, I must maintain with all humility, Americans are without equal”. And yet you write that he was ready to take his chances with the commercial system. And you quote him again, “Individuals, and suppose nations, may suffer from smoking too many cigarettes (that he should say that) or from buying too many motor cars they can ill afford, but those troubles are hardly to be classed with the suffering resulting from the acceptance of an ideal or political objective”. And I couldn’t help but think that when McCarthy attacked him, that that is the kind of statement that should have been made, dug up out of Murrow’s life.
SPERBER: You would think so. Actually, one of the things that fascinated me when I was doing research into the book, and that I didn’t expect to find, was that Murrow worked out of the BBC at a time when the BBC itself was engaging in a very serious case of suppression of information.
HEFFNER: Tell me about that.
SPERBER: Despite its much wanted charter of autonomy, that fact of the matter was, and this I got from the BBC’s records and from memories from at least one BBC official himself and from BBC writings, the BBC did in fact work pretty much hand in glove with the foreign office in determining what should and what should not be seen on the air.
HEFFNER: You’re talking now about almost war.
SPERBER: That’s right. At a time when there was crisis after crisis, these were the late 30s, the Munich crisis where the control of the media were really at their worst. And mind you this was a state system. The British listened to BBC radio or they listened to nothing. Where even before Munich you go back to 1935, you have the, 1936 rather, you have the Germans going into the Rhineland which was supposed to be demilitarized. You have the whole situation wit the Spanish Civil War. You have…later on you have of course, the Munich crisis. You have the takeover of Austria in early 1938. And what you had at that time on the BBC was pretty much whatever the government wanted the public to know about what was happening.
HEFFNER: But let’s turn the clock ahead, then. Murrow sees that in the 30s. In the 60s he is, himself, the chief, the executive in charge of America’s efforts to project its own image. Head of the United States Information Agency. And there, didn’t he make some efforts, at any rate, not to control, not to censor, but to encourage pictures from abroad at least, that were, shall we say, more friendly…
HEFFNER: …to America’s needs?
HEFFNER: How do you explain that?
SPERBER: Very hard to explain. I do want to preface it with one item, however, and that was the one difference there was that the Voice of America, which was under the USIA, of which Murrow was the director as of January or February, 1961, could not broadcast in the United States. In other words…and also, you could not have magazines. You could not have pictures to this day. Americans are not allowed to propagandize themselves.
HEFFNER: I understand that, but…
SPERBER: Excuse me. I’m just using this as a…I am just using this to separate the matter from the BBC simile, because the BBC, the pre-war BBC, and I draw that line very, very distinctly.
HEFFNER: No more today?
SPERBER: Well, I’m talking about a pre- and post-1939 phenomenon because the BBC did undergo a change in World War II and became quite independent at that time. However, the pre-war BBC was a case of the British electronic media propagandizing their own people. Murrow as a director of the USIA would never have agreed to a propagandizing of the American public. However, it is true that the did modify that because as you rightly point out he wanted to suggest documentaries that could be done by the networks, and in fact feeding them, feeding them items for documentary use which they could then take over and use abroad.
HEFFNER: But you know, even going beyond that, most people who are familiar with Ed Murrow’s career know about Harvest of Shame, one of his great broadcasts.
HEFFNER: And I remember sitting watching him, it must have been Thanksgiving night, 1960, having eaten a full turkey meal. Many of us were treated to the horrors of the migratory working situation that Murrow pointed out. That film, which was then sold top the BBC, was then the object of Murrow’s efforts as the head of the USIA to keep it from being shown. I do remember that shortly before he died, Murrow said to me that that was one of his great regrets. It had been a mistake on his part. But I wondered how he had gotten himself into that situation.
SPERBER: You know, I must admit I did try to find out exactly where the first impetus had come. And I think possibly until somebody starts declassing the right White House papers or talks to people that I did not get to talk to, we may never know. However, Murrow very quickly knew. I think the minute he knew, the minute he talked to Hugh Carlton Greene of the BBC, he knew he had made a terrific boo-boo.
HEFFNER: Asking him not to, not to show.
SPERBER: Exactly. I really do get the impression that this was one case of pure panic. I think if he had been at CBS he probably…it’s hard…I wouldn’t want to project myself into the mind of Edward R. Murrow, but my guess would have been he would have gone to William Paley and said, “Look, I did this for the American public. I don’t want this used for the English public for a ‘Hate America’ night. Thank you very much”. They’re not in a position to do anything about it and we are. That was his basic feeling about showing the film in England. However, whether he would have felt about it to the extent of actually using channels and asking that it not be shown, which was a clear case of suppression, that is something which in retrospect he probably, I think, would not have done because as I have in the book, when Hugh Carlton Greene said “Sorry, Ed. We’ve already announced it. It would make a bigger mess if we took it off now than if we ran it.” And he was quite clear. He put down the phone and said to Don Wilson, his Deputy Assistant Director, “I’ve got to watch myself”.
HEFFNER: Well, I suppose one has to, going from private enterprise as broadcasting is in this country, to government. But you know it raises another question that I wondered whether you suggest that Ed was not, Ed Murrow was not totally unsympathetic to the criticism that Gilbert Seldes, who had been an old, old friend of his, offered for the McCarthy broadcast. No one, it seems to me, no one else was sympathetic to Gilbert Seldes’ statement that this was a dangerous, potentially dangerous thin to do for a broadcaster. To use all that power he had against a political figure. Is there any indication that he thought later in this life that he had made a mistake there?
SPERBER: No. He never regretted doing the McCarthy program, or the way in which he had done it. He didn’t regret it. He did, however, feel very uncomfortable about it.
HEFFNER: Well, tell me what the difference is there.
SPERBER: Well, he felt that his was necessary. Somebody had to get up there and say this man is a liar. And this is why we think he is a liar. We’re going to play his words for you and then we’re going to tell you what really occurred. Because there just seemed no other way of doing it at the time. He also felt that McCarthy, who at least until shortly before that and perhaps even them, had his hearings televised on network television every morning at 11:00, had gotten plenty of television time and that the balance was still very much in McCarthy’s favor even if you ran a half-hour program putting McCarthy’s words up against McCarthy’s deeds.
HEFFNER: Well then, what were his compunctions?
SPERBER: His compunctions were that television was so powerful that the minute you have somebody getting up to take on not an issue but a person that it was possible that you were setting a dangerous precedent because as Gilbert Seldes said, suppose a Fulton Lewis had used that to do that kind of number, say, on Adlai Stevenson? And he was very uncomfortable about it. He felt he had done it. He had helped set the wheels in motion at least, and he was glad he had done it. But I…he obviously hoped never to have to do something like that again.
HEFFNER: Do you think that that kind of use of the medium is likely to, is possible to repeat in our own times?
SPERBER: I rather doubt it. I think what also gave him compunctions and what is where I think his fears may have been quite legitimate, were in a piece that he kind of roughed out about television in 1939 for I believe it was Atlantic Monthly, and unfortunately never delivered on. And that was basically how to misrepresent through editing television, through camera work, through your choice of subjects.
HEFFNER: Do you think that was done on the McCarthy program?
SPERBER: No. Because they stood right up and said this is our opinion. And this is the editorial. And if McCarthy feels that his words have done violence to we invite him back to give his side. What he was worried about was the appearance of objectivity when indeed there was none.
HEFFNER: But you know, I had not realized, having lived through the experience, you don’t pull it all together until I read your book, the extent to which it wasn’t just the single program on McCarthy, the one that I show my students, but the succession of programs…(inaudible)…Any remorse…
SPERBER: That came the week after McCarthy.
HEFFNER: Okay. But there they were. A whole succession. A determination on the part of Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly to take on a political figure.
SPERBER: That’s right. Actually that is part of an upward curve that I really felt began really after the presidential elections of 1952. Which while bringing Eisenhower into the White House also, because it meant for the first time since in a generation, a Republican control of the House and Senate actually gave McCarthy one of the most powerful chairmanships in the government. The head of the Government Operations Committee with its own permanent investigation sub-committee. And that was when McCarthy really started riding high. And about three weeks afterward with the report from Harrison, New York, about the loyalty oath being applied to anyone who wanted to use the school and how this divided the community. It was really in November 1952 that they started that upward curve, that in a sense culminated in the McCarthy program.
HEFFNER: The question is, though I think, and maybe I can get you to come back because our time is almost up, come back with someone in the media today, someone in the same role that…well, no one is in the same role today that plays the same role that Edward R. Murrow did, but someone who approximates that and we could talk about it further. But it seems to me when you day that ws the movement upward, there might be those who would say that was the movement downward in making use of this instrument in a way that frightened Seldes and seemed to have been of concern to Edward R. Murrow, too.
SPERBER: It’s possible. I think, however, that Seldes, who by the way, as you say was one of Murrow’s greatest admirers and continued to be. So it was McCarthy’s program, really, that Seldes objected to. The others he thought were all perfectly splendid.
HEFFNER: You mean Ed had gone just one step too far.
HEFFNER: Well, that’s…that, I think, we really do have to examine and will you promise me to come back to THE OPEN MIND and talk about this further?
SPERBER: I would be delighted.
HEFFNER: Seldom do we talk about the power of the media in this way. And most of the media people I have on THE OPEN MIND always say the equivalent of, “There’s nobody in here but us chickens”. We don’t have… (inaudible)… Ann Sperber, thank you for writing this great book on Edward R. Murrow, and thank you for joining me today.
SPERBER: Thank you for having me.
HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as that wonderful old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.
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