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Advertise on the Tentacle

October 20, 2005

Edward R. Murrow

Roy Meachum

George Clooney wrote, directed and starred in a new movie. “Good Night, and Good Luck” deals with the downfall of Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy. The then-junior senator from Wisconsin plays second fiddle in the flick however, to the man who, for all intents and purposes, invented television news.

Edward R. Murrow liked to call himself a reporter. As he very well knew he was so much more. No simple journalistic craftsman could own a country estate in his era; he also wore Saville Row suits.

His staunchly pro-British broadcasts out of London during World War II’s Nazi blitz went far toward helping Americans lose their isolationist bent. They also made his a household name endowed with heroic attributes.

Upon his return, he plunged into the new television medium, taking along men proud to be called “Murrow’s boys.” I never met the man himself but knew slightly several of his boys: Charlie Collingwood, Don Hewitt, Joe Wershba and Howard K. Smith, who shared my Louisiana birth.

Eric Severeid, the leader’s only real rival, and I had a friendship over the years. Our conversation shortly before his death dwelt on how much his bad back gave him “fits.” He had been the last Murrow boy to retain a major TV presence, doing commentaries on CBS TV’s “Evening News with Walter Cronkite.” He retired not long after Walter got the ax, in 1981.

The impressive Mr. Severeid and I first talked in 1953, when my check was paid by both The Washington Post and CBS. The network’s news bureau operated out of Broadcast House, headquarters for the newspaper’s broadcast division.

Eric had waded ashore with U.S. troops invading the south of France in 1944, but he had been hired several years earlier by Ed Murrow. Eloquent and understated on the air, he was almost laconic in person, which almost certainly explained his survival in the anti-Murrow atmosphere that prevailed at CBS long after his departure.

Fred Friendly also hung around, and that was a real shock. He even went on to head CBS News before resigning over an issue he felt assailed his integrity. That was, as I recollect, 1966. His more prominent collaborator had been gone five years by then, appointed to head the United States Information Agency by John F. Kennedy.

It may have been no more than coincidence that Ed Murrow had died the year before Mr. Friendly’s highly publicized departure from the operation their team had forged into what remains the most respected television news operation in the history of the medium.

While Mr. Clooney’s film focuses primarily on the on-air star – actor David Strathairn plays Murrow – in real life it was Fred Friendly (George Clooney himself) who provided the substance that fueled his collaborator’s reputation.

This is not to denigrate anyone else’s contributions to the legend currently being celebrated on the nation’s screens. Ed Murrow and all his boys (and girls) were a marvelously creative and energetic crew.

After all, Don Hewitt went on to give the medium and the nation “60 Minutes,” which is virtually the direct successor to Murrow-Friendly’s “See It Now,” the program featured in Mr. Clooney’s cinematic story.

And to give Mr. Hewitt his further due: both main figures in Mr. Clooney’s story came to television impaired; they were children of radio. As their program’s producing director, it fell to Don Hewitt to convert their ideas and hopes into workable television, especially in those first years.

But it was Fred Friendly who edited, wheedled, cajoled and commanded, when there was no choice, the substance, the details and the individual reports: the parts that made up the sum of the public image of Ed Murrow.

Much of his success had to do with Mr. Friendly maintaining a low profile. In the movie he’s shown hunched below his anchor’s on-air desk, silently giving signals by tapping on Mr. Murrow’s leg. The pair succeeded because each kept in his appointed role.

Taking on the rampaging bully who terrorized Washington and the nation’s life for several years was simply one in a list of pioneer accomplishments. I can recall watching on “See It Now” the first live camera shots that linked the Brooklyn Bridge and San Francisco’s Bay Bridge. “Harvest of Shame” won all sorts of acclaim, and awards, for depicting the miserable lives of migratory workers.

But it was their courage in confronting head-on Joseph R. McCarthy and his methods that enabled Ed Murrow to enter broadcast news’ pantheon and made Fred Friendly the prototype that every producer should hope to emulate.

Unfortunately, contrary to the poetic declaration, time has both aged and withered what still should be their standing as the primary creators of the highest model of television journalism.

Tomorrow: The outcome.

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