IN SEARCH OF LIGHT – The Broadcasts of EDWARD R. MURROW 1938-1961

This is probably my longest « review » so far. Although I don’t say much but I felt it important in this tough time to repeat words from a great journalist and great man.

In this compilation of Ed Murrow’s best known speeches, I rediscovered some great moments of history but this was only part of it. The climate of Murrow’s era and the man tell us about our own troubled time. Murrow was a pioneer journalist who reported from the roofs of London during the Battle of Britain, fought McCarthy and cared for the common man. I was struck by his integrity, his courage and his thirst for truth and knowledge. I think his own words speak louder than any explanations. Here are several extracts of his broadcasts/speeches. They are as relevant today as they were in his time. 

In this one Murrow reports President Eisenhower’s own thoughts and adds his own personal input on January 22, 1961:

« The Eisenhower concern (referring to foreign affairs), as I read it, was a fear that we may lose our liberties while preparing to defend them. (sounds familiar?) He reminded us that our military organization is unprecedented. We have created a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Three-and-a-half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. Each year we spend more money on military security than the net income of all the United States corporations. He (Eisenhower) counseled us to guard against the unwarranted influence of the « military-industrial complex« . (well too late) He was, in fact, suggesting that the machine may get beyond human or political control, that we could reach a point where, in fact, « things would be in the saddle and ride mankind. » (guess what, he was right).

Here’s another of my favorite Murrow moment from a speech he gave on June 28, 1954 while receiving the Freedom House Award with the citation: « Free men were heartened by his courage in exposing those who would divide us by exploiting our fears. » Here’s the extract:

« If an atmosphere is created (he was referring to the Cold War or any potential war) in which dissent and independent individual thinking are penalized, the tendency of the citizen will be to avoid trouble. He can be safe on his job, enjoy the approval of his neighbors and be immune from misinterpretation and persecution simply by saying nothing. And if enough citizens say nothing, the result is nationwide conformity. That may be pleasing to those who don’t understand democracy or value it, but nationwide conformity means a static society, one that has lost the initiative to change itself..[…] If we become a static society, we lose one of the basic functions of democracy, the freedom to change. […] It recognizes that no form of government is perfect, no administration can be faultless, no legal system beyond improvement, no economic order as good as it might be. Where there is imperfection there must be change. And to produce change, unless it is imposed by tyranny, there must be difference of opinion; there must be opposition; there must be pioneer thinking; there must be freedom to criticize; there must be the unremitting conflict and testing of ideas. […] Those who think that since we are in a cold war we are committed to conformity may not realize that they are asking to make democracy dormant, and that a dormant democracy is really on the way to becoming a tyranny.[…] One freedom that does not make sense, even in a cold war, is the freedom to reduce freedom.[…] There is a false formula for personal security being peddled in our market place. It is this, although not so labeled: Don’t join anything; don’t associate; don’t write; don’t take a chance on being wrong; don’t espouse unpopular causes; button your lip and drift with the tide…[…] This product, if it be bought by enough people, leads to paralysis. » […] And if our collective voice (Congress, politics, Supreme Court, etc…) tells the story of reduced freedom, of a tyranny of silence, of a fear of change, then within measurable time we shall find ourselves a great, powerful continental island off the coast of Kamchatka, with the rest of the world either united against us or indifferent to our fate. Our example, our demonstration of freedom in action, may be more powerful than our dollars, more persuasive than the threat of our bombs. We must continue to provide ourselves and our allies with that most dangerous and explosive force known to mankind – knowledge. And no man and no group may be permitted to chart in advance the course or the books to be followed in pursuit of that knowledge. We live in a time of fear and prejudice, and freedom is hard pressed both at home and abroad. But freedom will survive and flourish unless it be destroyed by the consent of the free. »

Here’s a sample from Murrow’s best known and greatest speech done at a convention on radio and television in Chicago on October 15, 1958. By the way, George Clooney started his movie on Murrow & McCarthy « Good Night and Good Luck » with that very same speech. Thank you George Clooney for making a new generation discover Edward R. Murrow.

« Believing that potentially the commercial system of broadcasting as practiced in this country is the best and freest yet devised, I have decided to express my concern about what I believe to be happening to radio and television (wait for this one!). […] I am seized with an abiding fear regarding what these two instruments are doing to our society, our culture and our heritage. Our history will be what me make it. […] I am entirely persuaded that the American public is more reasonable, restrained and more mature than most of our industry’s program planners believe. Their fear of controversy is not warranted by the evidence. […] (talking about commercial interruptions) In this kind of complex and confusing world, you can’t tell very much about the why of the news in broadcasts where only three minutes is available for news. […] If radio news is to be regarded as a commodity, only acceptable when saleable, then I don’t care what you call it, I say it isn’t news. »

About the Corporations (same speech): « The Corporate Image. I am not precisely sure what this phrase means, but I would imagine that it reflects a desire on the part of the corporations who pay the advertising bills to have the public imagine, or believe, that they are not merely bodies with no souls, panting in pursuit of elusive dollars. They would like us to believe that they can distinguish between the public good and the private or corporate gain. […] We are currently wealthy, fat, comfortable and complacent. We have currently a built-in-allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information. Our mass media reflect this. But unless we get up off our fat surpluses and recognizes that television in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse and insulate us, the television and those who finance it, those who look at it and those who work at it, may see a totally different picture too late. […] This instrument (television) can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful. » 

Murrow understood the relationship between the media and the corporations. And it was the 50’s! Of course, there is much more to Ed Murrow than can possibly be put in this blog. Read the book and see why George Clooney made this man the hero of his movie « Good Night and Good Luck ». Good night and good luck to all of us.

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