Panelists discuss why Murrow matters

A group of those who were close to broadcaster Edward R. Murrow discussed the journalist’s legacy from World War II to the McCarthy era, as well as what he would have thought about news coverage today, at a panel discussion with journalist Marvin Kalb Monday night.

At the latest installment of “The Kalb Report,” co-sponsored by GW at the National Press Club earlier this week, the panelists spoke about how they think Murrow – who gained prominence as a radio news broadcaster during World War II and later moved to television news in the 1950s – would have approached covering the Iraq war.

Panelist Richard Hottelet, a member of the legendary Murrow Boys of World War II and currently a GW Welling presidential fellow, described the war with Iraq as a “war of choice” and said that the concept would have outraged Murrow from the beginning.

If Murrow would have covered the lead-up to the war in Iraq, panelist Daniel Schorr, one of Murrow’s former colleagues and the senior news analyst at National Public Radio, said people would have known more about faulty intelligence. He thinks that Murrow would have questioned the accepted truths, and that would have made a big difference in the public’s view of the war. He added that the motivation for covering stories is what separates Murrow from journalists of today.

“Murrow covered something because it needed coverage,” Schorr said. “He wasn’t trying to get an audience just for the sake of it.”

Murrow’s greatest claim to fame came in 1954 when he directly confronted Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his anti-communist campaign. Murrow used his program “See It Now” to say things about McCarthyism that the reporters in Washington could not say when covering the hearings, Schorr said.

“What he did sailed above and beyond the reporting that we did,” said Schorr, who also covered the McCarthy hearings in D.C.

Murrow’s son Casey, also a panelist, was 8 years old during the McCarthy hearings and said that he was unaware of the threats made to his family because of Murrow’s outspokenness during that time. He described himself as “happily clueless” and said that he never realized that he had guards who followed him to school to make sure that he wasn’t kidnapped.

Hottelet added that Murrow’s sincerity separates him from the pack. Today, journalists are posing and out for ratings, he said.

“Standards in Ed’s time were set mainly by Ed,” Hottelet said. “The standards today are set by the need for a news broadcast to make money.”

Though there are close contenders with former CBS news anchorman Walter Cronkite, who spoke out against the Vietnam War, and Washington Post writers Bob Woodard and Carl Bernstein, who exposed Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate scandal, the panel agreed that there is no modern-day equivalent of Murrow.

Panelist Don Hewitt, who directed Murrow while he was at CBS and later when on to create news show 60 Minutes, described his colleague as a “giant.”

“He was the whole package,” he said. “He set a tone and style that everyone in this business wanted to emulate.”

Hottelet and Schorr said that despite his greatness, Murrow was a warm and generous man.

“He was famous, important, and well-paid, but he treated those he worked with as though they were important and he wasn’t,” Schorr said.

Kalb, who moderated the panel and was the last correspondent at CBS News personally hired by Murrow in 1957, added that Murrow will continue to cast a “long shadow over TV news” because of his belief that a free and vibrant press leads to a free society.

Kalb ended the discussion with the same sign-off Murrow used 50 years ago: “Good night, and good luck.”

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