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Edward R. Murrow: Tackling a TV News Legend

5 minute read
Richard Zoglin

If TV news were to build its own Mount Rushmore, the first face carved would be that of Edward R. Murrow. The man who brought the Nazi blitz into American living rooms with his memorable radio reports (“This … is London”) went on to become the most admired newsman of television’s first decade. With his brooding brow, sonorous voice and ever present cigarette, Murrow personified the highest standards of journalism for millions. His CBS documentaries on the McCarthy witch hunts and the plight of migrant farm workers are classics of impassioned TV reportage. A movie about this legendary figure would seem an overdue tribute.

Yet an upcoming HBO docudrama on Murrow’s career has run into a storm of protest, most of it from the very people who knew him best. Their complaint is not with the film’s admiring portrait of Murrow (played by Hill Street Blues’ Daniel Travanti) but with its less favorable depiction of the CBS executives with whom Murrow had a sometimes rocky relationship.

The controversy caught fire last fall when a journalistic organization, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, announced plans to screen Murrow in Washington as part of a fund-raising event scheduled for this week. Two prominent CBS newsmen who are members of the R.C.F.P. steering committee, Dan Rather and Walter Cronkite, voiced strong objections. The film, they charged, presents a distorted picture of the network’s brass, particularly former CBS President Frank Stanton, who comes across as a shallow “numbers cruncher.” Further, according to committee members, Rather argued that the R.C.F.P. should not lend its support to a movie produced by one broadcast organization (HBO is a subsidiary of Time Inc.) that appears to criticize a competitor.

The R.C.F.P. steering committee nevertheless voted 16 to 10 to proceed with this week’s showing. (Two TIME correspondents on the committee, Hays Gorey and David Beckwith, abstained.) Proponents of the screening point out that the film raises important journalistic issues and that the group has sponsored showings of other movies, like Absence of Malice, with views it did not necessarily endorse. HBO meanwhile staunchly defends the movie. “The people at CBS are too close to the subject,” says HBO President Michael Fuchs. “We made Murrow for our audience and not for CBS News.”

What HBO’s audience will see when Murrow has its debut next week is an earnest if unexceptional docudrama that exhibits most of the genre’s virtues and vices. The script, by Ernest Kinoy (Roots), cogently dramatizes many of the issues that faced TV’s news pioneers, from blacklisting to the gathering pres sure for ratings. When CBS Chairman William Paley (Dabney Coleman) breaks the news to Murrow that his acclaimed documentary series See It Now is losing its weekly time slot, he tries to soften the blow by lavishing praise on the program and promising a series of specials instead. TV news veterans will wince at the familiarity of that archetypal scene.

The sins of Murrow are mainly those of oversimplification. The hero, portrayed with steely self-righteousness by Travanti, is flagrantly romanticized. First he is the fearless war reporter, dodging bombs and ignoring pleas for his safety from superiors. Later he is a fearless David tackling government Goliaths and a high-minded defender of journalistic integrity in the face of TV’s mounting concern for profits. “Something is dying, Bill,” he tells Paley as he prepares to exit CBS. “It may take a long time, but it’s dying.”

Murrow’s antagonists are equally exaggerated. Coleman’s Paley is a weak-willed and rather distracted chief executive, hardly the sort of man who founded and built a broadcasting empire. And Stanton, as played by John McMartin, is a cardboard corporate foil, forever jabbering about ratings, opinion polls and bottom lines. “Stanton is fascinated with numbers . . . profit statements . . . power,” says Paley, trying to persuade Murrow to accept a vice-presidential position. “You know what I want? A conscience. Integrity.”

That line does not square with the memory of many CBS veterans, who considered Stanton one of the network’s bulwarks of integrity. Fred Friendly, Murrow’s longtime associate, admits that “the relationship between Murrow and Stanton was strained” but asserts that the CBS president later became one of the news division’s firmest defenders: “He was willing to go to prison rather than submit outtakes of [the CBS documentary] The Selling of the Pentagon. ” Stanton, who retired from CBS in 1971, has not seen the movie but says that, in general, “I feel negatively about docudramas.” Despite the unflattering portrayal, he adds, Actor McMartin wrote him an admiring letter.

Still, there is more than a little irony in the cries of foul coming from CBS’s corner. TV’s fact-based dramas frequently heighten conflict in their pursuit of entertainment. Complex issues are simplified; black hats and white hats are clearly marked. Indeed, Murrow’s dramatic liberties are less egregious than those of many other recent TV docudramas, among them CBS’s own The Atlanta Child Murders. The problem with Murrow is that its chief black hat is attached to a real-life figure, Frank Stanton, who is still widely admired. As always, the toughest audience for television’s fact-based dramas is the people who actually remember the facts. –By Richard Zoglin. Reported by Kathleen Brady/New York and Patricia Delaney/Washington

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