Judge Bryan Byun is now, and has always been, a card-carrying member of the Edward R. Murrow fan club.
"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 recognize that television in the main is being used to distract,
delude, amuse and insulate us, then television and those who finance it, those
who look at it and those who work at it, may see a totally different picture too
As with every historical figure who ever had the word "legendary" attached to his or her name, there are two Edward R. Murrows. There's Edward R. Murrow, the chain-smoking patron saint of modern journalism, the man enshrined by the recent film Good Night and Good Luck as the crusader for truth and justice who brought Joseph McCarthy to his knees. Then there's Edward R. Murrow, the canny self-promoter who in large measure crafted his own myth, and whose tendency to put advocacy before fairness gave rise to the miasma of partisan punditry that is today's mainstream media.
Docurama's Edward R. Murrow Collection, a four-disc chronicle of Murrow's rich and controversial career, gives us more saint than sinner. It's made up for the most part of a tribute to Murrow put together by CBS in 1991, and if you're guessing that a documentary on Murrow produced by the network where Murrow made his name is going to be less than completely objective, you're right. A serious, in-depth career analysis this is not, but if you're wondering why he's considered such a towering figure of American broadcasting, this set will more than adequately bring you up to date on the legend.
The boxed set is presented as four separate features rather than one continuous program, and can be viewed in any order. The features include:
This Reporter (113 min.) For those unfamiliar with Murrow, this soup-to-nuts overview, narrated by Charles Kuralt, covers Murrow's career from his WWII radio broadcasts, through the birth of his groundbreaking See It Now documentary television series, to the waning years of his tenure at CBS News. Snippets of Murrow's radio reporting, such as his dramatic reports from London during the Blitz, and clips from his news series—one of the most affecting being a Christmas day broadcast from the front lines of the Korean War—convey the eloquence and compassion for the common man that made Murrow such a compelling journalist. Featuring interviews with former "Murrow's Boys" Eric Sevareid, William Shirer, Howard K. Smith, and Daniel Schorr, as well as news icons like Mike Wallace and Dan Rather who modeled themselves after Murrow, This Reporter is an affectionate portrait of the godfather of broadcast journalism.
The Best of "See It Now" (111 min.) Narrated by Mike Wallace, this is a collection of segments from Murrow's 1950s news program, which was a precursor to investigative news programs like 60 Minutes. See It Now covered the issues of the day with Murrow's trademark hard-hitting approach. Murrow and his co-producer, Fred Friendly, tackled a number of controversial topics, most famously the McCarthy communist witch hunts. Murrow's narrations have a poetic grace lost to today's reporters, but the most powerful moments are presented in silence—a heartbreaking, wordless shot of a soldier attempting to dig a foxhole in the frozen ground, or a woman in the South offering her painfully ignorant opinion on the civil rights movement. Murrow may have been a master of the old school of journalism, but he understood better than most the power and potential of the new television medium.
The McCarthy Years (114 min.) Walter Cronkite hosts this feature, which collects the complete footage of the See It Now episodes covering Senator McCarthy and the anti-communist paranoia of the 1950s. One broadcast presents the unfortunate story of Milo Radulovich, an Air Force weather officer who was stripped of his commission because his father and sister were suspected of being communist sympathizers. When Murrow pleaded his case on See It Now, Radulovich and his family gave a human face to the excesses of McCarthyism. Months later, in a 1954 broadcast considered one of the milestones of TV journalism, Murrow confronted McCarthy head on, collecting some of his most unsavory, dishonest, and extreme statements and presenting them in a single devastating block, with minimal commentary. He then gave the famously un-telegenic junior senator from Wisconsin a chance to offer an on-air rebuttal, which served only to give the American public a close-up view of what a monster McCarthy had become. The McCarthy Years tends to overstate Murrow's role in the senator's downfall—McCarthy's influence was already on the wane when the infamous episode aired—but by bringing the truth about the Red Scare into America's living rooms, Murrow and his team were instrumental in ending one of America's darkest chapters.
Harvest of Shame (55 min.) This classic 1960 Murrow broadcast, presented in its entirety, is one of the most famous documentaries of all time. Originally televised on Thanksgiving Day, it's a harrowing, tearjerking expose of the plight of migrant farm workers, who lived in poverty and starvation even as they provided the food for the country's dinner tables. Designed—quite effectively—to horrify and outrage viewers, Harvest of Shame ignited national consciousness of this brutally exploited group of people, and forty-five years later, it's as relevant and powerful as ever.
Video and audio quality in this set are predictably variable, since much of it is made up of archival footage and 50-year old audio recordings. Any attempt that was made to clean up the material from the vaults, is not readily apparent, but most of the broadcasts are in fairly good shape. Given the state of home theater technology in the 1950s, the footage probably looks as good or better than it did to the original viewers. Extra features are minimal, consisting of a text biography of Murrow and a timeline of events on each disc.
The Edward R. Murrow Collection is undeniably effective in conveying Murrow's importance to broadcast journalism—and the relevance of his journalistic style and philosophy to our own age. It's scary to hear Murrow expressing his fears, as he did in a 1958 speech to the Radio and Television News Directors Association, of news media in the future being de-clawed and dumbed down by corporate masters more interested in profit than truth-telling. Murrow saw journalism at a crossroads, and urged news directors to take the higher road. A glance at the cable news channels and nightly network broadcasts of 2005 make painfully clear which path the media chose.
While it's a wonderful introduction to Murrow, the collection is too reverent towards its subject to be anything but an extended hagiography. You're not going to find in these documentaries much critical examination of the lasting impact of Murrow's activist approach to journalism. And its dated perspective—the "new" material was assembled in 1991—too often makes it as much of an artifact as those old See It Now broadcasts. While it's ruefully amusing to hear Dan Rather and Peter Jennings bemoan the increasing sensationalism of broadcast news in blissful ignorance of the looming O.J. Simpson trial and Monica Lewinsky scandal, the absence of any commentary from the post-9/11, 24-hour cable news era is glaringly obvious. Still, this set is essential viewing for anyone interested in journalism or current events; the material covering the McCarthy era is absolutely chilling—and eye-opening—in light of our ongoing War on Terror. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
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Scales of Justice
• Murrow Biography
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