It’s hard to imagine, especially for those of my generation or younger, but broadcast news was not always a wasteland of vacuous celebrity gossip, shallow political “analysis”, or crude sensationalism. There was in fact a time when the men and women who called themselves broadcast journalists were actually journalists first, broadcasters secondly. A time when networks valued the insight and knowledge these broadcasters brought, with not nearly as much regard for profit.
And for a period of almost 20 years starting in the late 1930s, there was one group of broadcast journalists more insightful, knowledgeable, professional, and popular than all others. They were the Murrow Boys, started and led by the legendary Edward R. Murrow. While most people still know his name, the names of the crack team he assembled have been largely forgotten – they were Mary Marvin Breckinridge, Cecil Brown, Winston Burdett, Charles Collingwood, William Downs, Thomas Grandin, Richard C. Hottelet, Larry LeSueur, Eric Sevareid, William L. Shirer, and Howard K. Smith. Under Murrow’s leadership these men (and woman) wrote the rules of modern broadcast journalism, risked their lives to bring the story of World War II to millions, and set standards of professionalism that seem to have been largely abandoned since.
The stories of each of the Boys is told (some in more detail than others, naturally) masterfully in The Murrow Boys: Pioneers on the Front Lines of Broadcast Journalism by co-authors Stanley Cloud and Lynne Olson. After reading it I have a much greater appreciation for and knowledge of this group’s accomplishments in journalism, but additionally I was fascinated by how much they were able to accomplish in spite of their numerous vices and flaws. Truly there was strength in numbers with Murrow’s Boys.
The book picks up in 1937. While radio had already woven itself into the fabric of Americans’ lives, it offered little else besides entertainment. News, such as it was, amounted to nothing more than uninformed commentary delivered by the likes of Boake Carter of the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). When Carter’s anti-Roosevelt, diatribes became too much for CBS owner William S. Paley, he was taken off the air for good. Paley and his executive team understood the rising threat posed by Adolph Hitler, as did two recently hired CBS employees – Edward R. Murrow and William L. Shirer.
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