Edward R. Murrow (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)
Almost 50 years after his death in April 1965, Edward R. Murrow’s name is synonymous with courageous reporting.
The journalism pioneer came to national attention during World War II, when his radio reports from Europe captivated the country. When television became the medium of choice, he went on the air despite his fear that the emphasis would move from ideas to images. His reports on U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy's anti-communism crusade contributed to McCarthy's fall from power.
"No other figure in broadcast news left such a strong stamp on both media," The New York Times wrote in Murrow's obituary.
Born April 25, 1908, in a log cabin with no electricity or running water, Murrow didn't set out to make his name in journalism. After graduating from Washington State University in 1930 – he spent a year working in logging camps to earn enough money for college – he went to work for nonprofit organizations in New York. In 1935 he was hired by CBS, where he would spend the next 25 years. His first job entailed giving speeches about how to use radio in education. In 1937, CBS asked him to move to Europe to build a network of reporters to cover the looming war. They were called "Murrow's Boys" – although there was one woman in their ranks.
In London, Murrow took to the air as a reporter for the first time and developed his signature opening, "This … is London." Even as bombs fell around him during the Blitz, he remained calm. "Mr. Murrow, never fevered or high-blown, had the gift of dramatizing whatever he reported,” his obituary in The New York Times said. “He did so by understatement and by a calm, terse, highly descriptive radio style. Sometimes there was a sort of metallic poetry in his words."
Murrow told his staff members it was important to stay calm in any situation. The reporter should imagine himself at a dinner party with his boss and other professionals, he said.
The Times quoted Murrow's advice this way: "After dinner … your host asks you 'Well, what was it like?' As you talk, the maid is passing the coffee and her boyfriend, a truck driver, is waiting for her in the kitchen and listening. You are supposed to describe things in terms that make sense to the truck driver without insulting the intelligence of the professor."
Murrow developed a second catch phrase while in Europe –– "Good night and good luck" –– that was used as the title of a 2005 movie about Murrow. The phrase came from a saying popular in London at the time, when friends parted unsure if they'd live to see the morning.
Some consider Murrow's broadcast from the Buchenwald concentration camp to be one of his finest. One of the first reporters on the scene, he described men and boys in rags and an "evil-smelling stink." He described a man falling and dying in front of him and two other men crawling to a latrine that was so horrible "I will not describe it," according to a transcript at www.edwardmurrow.com.
He spoke of rows of bodies "stacked up like cordwood. They were thin and very white. Some of the bodies were terribly bruised; though there seemed to be little flesh to bruise. Some had been shot through the head, but they bled but little."
He concluded with, "I pray you to believe what I have said about Buchenwald. I reported what I saw and heard, but only part of it. For most of it, I have no words. If I have offended you by this rather mild account of Buchenwald, I'm not in the least sorry …”
Back in the U.S. after the war, Murrow moved into television. By 1951, he was the host of the See it Now news program. On March 9, 1954, the program devoted an episode to McCarthy. The episode "is viewed as a turning point in the 'Red Scare' and earned Murrow a Peabody Award," according to Washington State University’s Murrow site, murrowlegacy.wsu.edu. Of the show, Murrow later said, "The timing was right and the instrument powerful."
Murrow won Peabody Awards for excellence in broadcasting in 1943, 1949, 1951 and 1954. In 1961 he left CBS and became director of the United States Information Agency under President John F. Kennedy.
A longtime smoker, Murrow died April 27, 1965, of lung cancer. Today, two schools are named after him: a Brooklyn high school and the communications school at his alma mater, Washington State University. Multiple awards for journalistic excellence also bear his name.
“Murrow’s pioneering television documentaries have more than once been credited with changing history, and to this day his name is synonymous with courage and perseverance in the search for truth," according to www.pbs.org. "Perhaps more than any reporter before or since, Murrow captured the trust and belief of a nation and returned that trust with honesty and courage. His belief in journalism as an active part of the political process and a necessary tool within democracy has forever altered the politics and everyday life of the American people."
Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."