Edward R. Murrow’s legacy and legend are seen as the antidote to our times, a challenge to blustery, egotistic politics.
SUDDENLY, Edward R. Murrow is a media hero again. His legacy and legend are seen as the antidote to our times, a challenge to blustery, egotistic politics. Certainly, Murrow’s epitaph is centered on his courageous stand against a true American bully — the late U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin.
Murrow’s singular moment is captured on YouTube. There, in the grainy black and white of early television, Murrow speaks of the Roman politician, Brutus, and what lies not in the stars but in ourselves. The moment is understated but powerful. Today’s viewers can hear Murrow’s hard-edge prose and look into his gunfighter’s eyes.
McCarthy’s moments of chaotic fame came in the America of the 1950s. The United States was going through one of our periodic bursts of xenophobia. As today, dozens of characters figured in the story of a country divided by fear, anger, newfound hero worship and denunciation. This was the tapestry called McCarthyism.
Along comes Murrow. He was born in Polecat Creek, North Carolina, in 1908. When he was five, the family moved west about as far as they could go — to rural Washington. Murrow’s given name was Egburt, and he answered to that all the way through Edison High in Skagit County. Egburt Murrow was a member of the Washington state high school basketball championship team of 1925. He graduated from Washington State University in 1930. In his lifetime, he would narrate the London Blitz during World War II for CBS and create a generation of famous broadcasters known as “Murrow’s boys.” In a long career, Murrow built an image of probity and courage wrapped in cigarette smoke.
A folksy look at Murrow’s boyhood is found at skagitriverjournal.com. He appears unassuming of greatness in his early life. His legend would transfer to the Edward R. Murrow School of Communication at WSU, a coveted broadcasters award and revived celebrity. Journalists today look to see who can match his steel.
Murrow’s genius was built on sober understatement. He never called McCarthy a monster, never warned the Nazi Brownshirts were coming. Murrow understood the soup lines of the Great Depression, saw firsthand war’s atrocities, gazed at America’s occasional banal ignorance and withstood obtuse attacks on the press.
Historians say too many people wilted in the face of McCarthyism. Hollywood had endured the black list, President Dwight D. Eisenhower waited too long to denounce McCarthy while some in the press cowered or enabled his manipulations, just as now. It took an Edward R. Murrow to turn the tide, just as now.