"No one man can terrorize a whole nation unless we are all his accomplices. If none of us ever read a book that was 'dangerous,' had a friend who was 'different,' or joined an organization that advocated 'change,' we would all be just the kind of people Joe McCarthy wants." — Edward R. Murrow
Joe McCarthy's political downfall began rather precipitously on the evening of March 9, 1954, in a singular event that has since been called television's finest hour.
That was the evening on which Edward R. Murrow, the host of CBS's See It Now, showed "the nation's most successful and most feared demagogue, Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, as his own executioner, in full view of tens of millions of enthralled Americans," recalled Murrow biographer Alexander Kendrick.
Simply by telecasting film clips of McCarthy in action on various occasions and letting the film speak for itself, Murrow exposed the senator's vicious tactics and thereby broke his spell over the nation. The program ended with a summation by Murrow, delivered in that compelling baritone that had become his trademark:
As a nation, we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age. We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom — what’s left of it — but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home. The actions of the junior senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad and given considerable comfort to our enemies, and whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn't create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it, and rather successfully. Cassius was right: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves." ... Good night, and good luck.
Several years later, long after McCarthy's power had been broken, Murrow said of that fateful March evening: "The timing was right and the instrument powerful. We did it fairly well, with a degree of restraint and credibility. There was a great conspiracy of silence at that time. When there is such a conspiracy and somebody makes a loud noise, it attracts all the attention."
Broadcasting's premier journalist, the man who set the standards by which television newscasting is still judged, was born Egbert Roscoe Murrow on April 25, 1908, near Greensboro, North Carolina. Reared by a logger father and a Quaker mother to respect property, persons, and his own opinion, he spent most of his boyhood in the timber country of the state of Washington, where his family moved when he was five.
A tall, lanky, self-confident lad, Murrow became a student at Washington State College, where he majored in speech, involved himself in the international student movement, and changed his name to Edward. After his graduation in 1930, he went to New York to serve a two-year term as president of the National Student Federation of America. In 1933, he joined the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced German Scholars, an organization that eventually helped to place 288 European academics in American universities. During this time, he also did occasional radio talks on education.
These broadcasts eventually led him to CBS, which hired him as its director of talks and education in 1935. Two years later, the network sent him to London to head its European bureau. Murrow was in Vienna in 1938 when Hitler arrived. He covered the Munich Conference that year, and he broadcast both the takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1939 and the Battle of Britain in 1940. His radio broadcasts, which often began with the words "This is London," made him famous — and also helped to prepare Americans for the war that they too would soon face.
Once, during the London Blitz, he described the Nazi attack of the previous day:
The Germans were sending in two or three planes at a time, sometimes only one, in relays. They would pass overhead. The guns and lights would follow them, and in about five minutes we could hear the hollow grunt of the bombs. Huge pear-shaped bursts of flame would rise up into the smoke and disappear. The world was upside down. Vincent Sheean [a colleague] lay on one side of me and cursed in five languages ... Ben Robertson [another colleague] lay on the other side and kept saying over and over, in that slow South Carolina drawl, “London is burning, London is burning.”
For the first time, a battlefield was brought into the American home by radio.
By the end of the war, Murrow's broadcasts, together with his role in building a remarkable cadre of European news reporters, had established CBS’s leadership in radio news.
After the peace treaties were signed, Murrow returned to the United States to become the vice president in charge of news at CBS and a member of the network's board of directors. He resumed broadcasting in 1947 with a daily news program. Three years later, he co-produced with Fred Friendly the famous Hear It Now series, on which events were interpreted with a point of view, and which was to become the prototype of all subsequent radio news specials.
On Sunday, November 18, 1951, Murrow moved yet again — this time to television, the medium in which he would achieve his greatest influence.
Beginning cautiously, he launched the documentary program See It Now with noncontroversial subjects, again co-producing with Fred Friendly. Murrow remained cautious for the next two years, learning the technique of film and exploiting the promise of the new medium by trial and error. In 1953, however, when McCarthyism was at the height of its sway, Murrow was ready to take on controversy.
In the fall of that year, See It Now telecast the story of Lieutenant Milo Radulovich, a 26-year-old University of Michigan student who was in the Air Force Reserve. Radulovich was about to be blacklisted as a security risk because his father and sister had supposedly read a radical newspaper. When Radulovich refused to resign his commission, the local Air Force board, which had never questioned the lieutenant's loyalty, ordered his separation from the military.
"The Case Against Milo Radulovich A0589839,” which Murrow saw as the symbol of the McCarthy era, aired on October 20, 1953. Both CBS and See It Now's sponsor declined to publicize the controversial program, so Murrow and Friendly withdrew $1,500 from their own bank accounts to buy an ad in the New York Times. The broadcast, detailing the guilt-by-association character of the case, was an overwhelming success. It compelled the secretary of the Air Force to reappraise the case — and the Air Force decided that Radulovich was not a security risk after all.
That same month, Murrow launched his second television series, Person to Person, in which he electronically visited such celebrities as Marilyn Monroe, John Steinbeck, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and then-Senator John F. Kennedy in their homes. Because the ratings for this show were consistently higher than were those for See It Now, Murrow achieved the leverage he needed to forge ahead with the more controversial program. When asked by actor John Cassavetes why he continued with Person to Person, Murrow replied, "To do the show I want to do, I have to do the show that I don't want to do."
At the 1953 Emmy Awards, Murrow, already America's most decorated journalist, was named television’s "most outstanding personality," and his See It Now was cited as the "best program of news or sports" of the year.
Having paved the way with the Radulovich case, Murrow then took up the subject of Senator McCarthy himself.
When Murrow and Friendly asked CBS to advertise the program, the network again declined, and again the two men personally paid $1,500 for an ad in the New York Times. Without using the CBS logo or name, the ad read, "Tonight at 10:30 on See It Now, a report on Senator Joseph R. McCarthy over Channel 2. Fred W. Friendly and Edward R. Murrow, co-producers."
Murrow presented other McCarthy programs, one in which the senator himself replied and another that featured J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the creators of the atomic bomb, who had been denied his security clearance when he questioned the government's hasty effort to make the hydrogen bomb.
These segments on McCarthyism, wrote broadcast historian Erik Barnouw,
placed Murrow in the forefront of the documentary film movement; he was hailed as its television pioneer. ... Coming at the same time as the finest of the anthology [dramatic] programs, the Murrow documentaries helped to make television an indispensable medium. Few people now dared to be without a television set, and few major advertisers dared to be unrepresented on the home screen.
In 1960, Murrow produced another memorable documentary, this time for CBS Reports. "Harvest of Shame" explored the plight of both black and white migratory workers in the United States.
The following year, Murrow left CBS to become director of the U.S. Information Agency under President Kennedy. In this position, he rehired former government personnel who had been removed during the McCarthy era. When Murrow resigned that position in 1964 due to ill health, President Johnson said, “Your entire life, your eloquence and idealism and sound judgment, your determined drive and sparkling personality, all combine to make you superbly qualified for the task of conveying the true picture and purpose of this country to the world."
Murrow died in 1965. After his death, Variety summed up his life and his career, writing that Edward R. Murrow had been "a giant of the bold generation of broadcast journalism ... [who] brought the medium to maturity."
This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating Edward R. Murrow's induction in 1984.