This week marks the 100th anniversary of Edward R. Murrow’s birth. For the generation of my grandparents and parents, his voice was synonymous with integrity in reporting the events that shaped their lives. Few could match his gift for words or their authenticity in describing the seminal events of his era -a war-time Europe in flames; the horror of Germany’s concentration camps; and, later, the terror unleashed by a particularly odious junior senator from Wisconsin.
He practiced the craft of speaking truth to power, which, at its best, is what journalism is about. It is such an important calling in a world where the ability to hold the powerful to account is the lifeblood of freedom and democracy. In sentence after sentence and in program after program, from his days in war-torn London to his legendary “See it Now” series, this icon of American broadcast journalism reminded people how imperative it was that they knew what was happening around them in their world. People invariably felt better-informed and reassured after listing to Mr. Murrow. He did not talk down to his audience, nor did he find the need to engage in the kind of babbling banter that passes for insightful commentary in many newsrooms today. It was the respect he showed for the obligations of the journalist and for the power and responsibility of words themselves that allowed him to gain the trust of the public. How rare those qualities seem today.
Had he lived in this time, I suspect Edward R. Murrow would likely have been a rather iconoclastic figure. He would not be among those of his profession today who appear to sleepwalk while power is moved more and more into the hands of governments and special interests. He would not have remained silent as the voice of the ordinary individual is increasingly drowned out by the lobby of the super rich and those seeking their favor, nor would he have been a passive witness to what I have called the era of the vanishing stakeholder.
Surely, he would have been troubled by a society which is rich in news information but rarely in context or balance, where ratings are the ultimate determinants of what the media portray as the truth, and where the world seems inexorably heading to a point where most people will seek to be informed by that most authoritative of all news sources: YouTube.
Would Mr. Murrow have found today’s culture of mainstream journalism inviting? Or would he have turned to the blogosphere as the only place were a truly independent voice can be raised and heeded? And what would he think about the level of journalistic standards that sees major newspapers still offering Conrad M. Black, currently serving a 78-month sentence for fraud and obstruction of justice, a platform for his opinion on American politics and foreign policy direct from that bastion of academic integrity known as the Coleman federal correctional complex in Florida?
I believe we have a sense of where he would have been on the war in Iraq and the climate that preceded it, where it was considered un-American to question the merits and costs of the war, the evidence offered for its prosecution, or the motives of those who so strongly advocated it.
Here is a quote from a 1953 broadcast that seems especially appropriate today. It is vintage Murrow, and we give the last word, as it should be, to the man himself.
“If we confuse dissent with disloyalty – if we deny the right of the individual to be wrong, unpopular, eccentric or unorthodox – if we deny the essence of racial equality, then hundreds of millions in Asia and Africa who are shopping about for a new allegiance will conclude that we are concerned to defend a myth and our present privileged status. Every act that denies or limits the freedom of the individual in this country costs us the. . . confidence of men and women who aspire to that freedom and independence of which we speak and for which our ancestors fought.”