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#59. Good Night, and Good Luck - Edward R. Murrow Analysis

Good Night, and Good LuckIt must be difficult to attempt a comprehensive recapitulation of a man’s life without giving into one’s urge for hyperbole, and perhaps impossible when that man is Edward R. Murrow. A giant among ants, Murrow was a true American, a man that understood what this country represented, and what breed of patriot it needed to persevere through the most wretched of times.  When chronicling the actions of a man as daring and influential as Edward R. Murrow, it is understandable that either through films like George Clooney’s 2005 Good Night, and Good Luck or Bob Edwards’ 2004 biography Edward R. Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism, to portray a real American hero in any way other than stoic and assured, would do a disservice to his legacy. There ought to be skeletons in the closet of any man as renowned and respected as Murrow, which there most certainly are, but you won’t find them in Edward’s book or Clooney’s film. Both instead opt for a more uncomplicated approach to their respective narratives, leaving out the love affairs and the insecurities, and instead focus not on the man, but the hero.Edward R. Murrow

Our hero was born April 24, 1908 in the wonderfully named backwater town of Polecat Creek, North Carolina. As if being the youngest of four boys was not enough, Murrow’s parents seemed fit to all but guarantee a lifetime of humility and heartache by blessing him with the somewhat droll Egbert Roscoe Murrow for his Christian name. His life was ripe with humble influences and affecting circumstances, the perfect environment that would mold young Murrow into the everyman populist paragon he came to be known. Perhaps there was no greater influence on Murrow than his two older brothers Dewey and Lacey (it seems Egbert was just the last in a long line of misfortunate names for the Murrow brothers), but Edwards’ somewhat shallow summary of Murrow’s youth does little to sustain the more fervently interested readers, settling to sum up the total effects of fraternalism as such: “It takes a younger brother to appreciate the influence of an older brother. If an older brother is vice president of his class, the younger brother must be president of his… That’s how it worked for Edward (who took the more uncouth name in college), and he had two older brothers. He didn't overachieve; he simply did what younger brothers must do.” (13) Regardless, overachieve Murrow did, essentially excelling at all aspects of life, both professionally and personally.

David Strathairn as Edward R. MurrowEdwards wastes little ink to suggest Murrow is anything other than flawless, only briefly mentioning his “silent black moods” or his unprecedented determination to succeed at any cost.  This lack of pensiveness was an apparent burden for writer/director George Clooney as well; whose own interpretation of the journalist all but completely shied away from depicting Murrow’s personal life on screen. Instead both authors carefully stick to the facts, offering more of a timeline than an intimate account of Murrow’s dramatic life.

It is with these darker aspects of Murrow’s life I am left wanting after reading Edward R Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism. Edwards fleetingly mentions a lifetime bout with chronic pneumonia, only calling back to the fact when it affected Murrow’s performance. I can only imagine what kind of psychological consequence this would have on a man as resolute as Murrow, so driven to achieve but physically limited by his own deficiencies. His natural aggressiveness is further proven when you consider his well-documented affliction with chain-smoking cigarettes, essentially pushing his body to its very limits. As much associated with the man as a microphone, it is difficult to find footage of Murrow not smoking, which unfortunately lead to his inevitable death in 1965. So linked were the two that even in his obituary it reads: “…the matter-of-fact baritone voice, the high-domed, worried, lopsided face…and the ever-present cigarette (he smoked 60 to 70 a day) were the trademarks of the radio reporter.”

Good Luck, and Good Night posterThough Edwards offers little insight into Murrow the man, his book does a fine job detailing the many highlights of the broadcaster’s career. Beginning with his accomplishments at Washington State College and through his time hosting This is London during World War II, Edwards’ take is uncomplicated fair, though engaging nonetheless. His enthusiasm is most apparent when chronicling Murrow’s many groundbreaking achievements in broadcast journalism. While describing the technical logistics of the very first radio “round-up,” a simultaneous broadcast of newscasters from around the world including Edgar Mowrer of the Chicago Dailys News from Paris, Frank Gervasi from Rome, Pierre Huss from Berlin, Murrow’s partner William Shirer from Britain, and Murrow himself coming live from Vienna, is when Edwards’ keenness for the subject is most perceptible. Edwards writes, “It not only had multiple points of origin, it also had included both reporting and analysis of breaking news, and was both a journalistic and technological breakthrough for broadcasting. No longer would radio news consist of announcers assigned to cover preplanned events… from this point on network staff journalists would provide timely reporting and analysis of important breaking news.” (40)

It is by way of Murrow’s vast achievements that Edwards’ book shines. He touches on, but never fully investigates the many highs of Murrow’s career. More of an introduction to kick start your interest, we all too briefly read of Murrow’s dinner with President Roosevelt the night of the Pearl Harbor attacks, when he met with President Roosevelt’s envoy Harry Hopkins and helped bring America into World War II (Winston Churchill himself gave credit to Murrow’s broadcasts for convincing Americans to join the Allies), his 1st Peabody award for his D-Day broadcasts, and even touches upon just one of the 25 combat missions Murrow flew during the war.

It is understandable, if not expected, that when Murrow finally returned home after the war that he was a national hero. It would be his voice Americans most closely associated with the bravery, loyalty, and heartache of World War II, and President of CBS William Paley had no intention of wasting this newfound notoriety. Starting off as Vice President and Director of Public Affairs for CBS, Murrow quickly realized he belonged in front of a microphone, and stepped down from the position after just two years. Beginning with Hear it Now in 1950, and directly followed by the creation of See it Now just six months later, Murrow took his place as television’s preeminent broadcast journalist.

Jon Stewart, our last chance at a new Ed Murrow?Although See it Now had only been on the air for less than a month before Murrow first turned his attention towards Senator Joseph McCarthy, it was not until 1953 he and his team would air the disturbing story of an Air Force Lieutenant who was let go because of known communist associations without presented evidence or an open hearing. While Edwards’ does not stress Murrow and producer/partner Fred Friendly’s apprehension with broadcasting the Lt. Milo Radulovich story, George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck does suggest there was a great deal of anxiety. Murrow and Friendly knew full well Radulovich was but a stone being thrown at Goliath, and the episode would instigate a fierce backlash from McCarthy. Both the film and Edwards’ book expound on the events of Murrow vs McCarthy in varying degrees of detail, but both successfully come away with the same lesson; broadcast news made a giant out of Murrow, more powerful than McCarthy or even he could have suspected. McCarthy had terrified an entire nation, forced everyone into hiding, to squirrel away in the dark and to fear their own neighbor; it was not until Murrow bravely stood-up against the Senator’s tyranny and browbeating that the nation as a whole realized together they were stronger than McCarthy and his committee. The March 7, 1954 episode of See it Now did not end McCarthyism, but it was with out a doubt the first step in what would eventually be the Senator’s downfall.

Good Night, and Good Luck posterEach spectacular accomplishment covered in Edward R. Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism convinces you of Murrow’s almost preternatural characteristics, but never offers enough insight into Murrow as a man to convince you of his humanity. He hurt for and defended the honor of the everyman; he fought against bullies and remained loyal to his comrades, but I yet to know the man behind the microphone and cigarette-smoke screen. What moved him, made him laugh, scared him? Do American heroes have the benefit of emotions as base as fear? Edwards believes not: “Murrow was absolutely fearless… nothing scared Murrow- not bombs, dictators, generals, members of Congress, sponsors, corporate executives, or Joseph McCarthy… Murrow could not be muscled, bullied, bought, corrupted, or intimidated.” (155) Very few men in this country’s short history can honestly be attributed the title of a hero, because so few had the conviction to make you truly believe he lived a life without fear, without negligible fault. Maybe that is why authors like Bob Edwards or filmmakers like George Clooney find it so hard to breakthrough to the emotional center of Edward R. Murrow, because he was a true American hero, and that is more than just being a man.   

#60. Murrow Documentary, #61. Murrow Documentary, #62. See it Now collection

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