We chatted with the longtime "Morning Edition" host about his Seattle visit to promote his new book, "Edward R. Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism" (Turning Points, $19.95), a biography of the seminal radio and television journalist, and about Edwards' controversial removal from his NPR host duties after more than 24 years.
After reading your book, I'm making "WWERMD" bumper stickers: What Would Edward R. Murrow Do?
Maybe after the book people will know who he is. So many don't, and I'm quite surprised by that, including young people in my business, which just astonishes me.
How would Murrow fare in journalism today?
I don't think he'd last very long. I don't think he'd be interested, for one thing. And I can't imagine him working for any of the people who own things today. Just compare (Viacom head) Mel Karmazin with (legendary CBS head) Bill Paley. [Murrow] had enough problems with Paley, who had some sensitivity and good taste.
How would Murrow have reported the Iraq war?
He was always good about, in addition to giving you whatever Churchill said, interviewing what was then called the shop girl, the doorman, the cop on the street. Because he always wanted the common-man touch. I wonder who he would get in Baghdad.
Would he have been embedded?
Well, of course he was. During World War II [journalists] even wore uniforms, and they were quite embedded — and censored directly. Military censors went over their scripts, but it all had to do with troop movements and staying away from positions and that sort of things. I don't think they had too much trouble with the direction of what they were reporting.
The thing in your book most shocking to me was learning that Murrow's real first name was "Egbert."
What else will readers find surprising?
I was impressed by what he did before he got to CBS on the committee that brought scholars from Europe over here because they were no longer welcome.
That's sort of an Oskar Schindler type of story.
Yeah, some of the best minds of Europe came to American campuses [to avoid Nazi persecution], and most of them stayed. And that's still paying dividends because their protégés are on campuses still, and the effects on American culture, academia, the arts and religion — because some of the biggest names in there I noticed were theologians.
He was raised in this area.
He sure was. And then they moved over to Beaver Camp (near Forks), too, because the old man slugged his foreman.
You also detail some of Murrow's bad habits.
He had a few. He had these silences. You're with a guy and you're chattering away and he says nothing to you. He's just lost in thought or just doesn't feel like making small talk. And it didn't bother him a bit to just be quiet. It bothered other people around him.
What are the lessons to be learned from Murrow today?
In Murrow's day, [journalism] was done as a public service, and the models for journalism were the better newspapers. And of course there were a lot more good newspapers in that day, too. But they didn't have to make money. They were expected to lose money. They did it because it was a good thing to do. Nowadays, the news divisions are expected to turn a profit just like any other holding of Michael Eisner's [the head of Disney, which owns ABC]. The theme parks make money; the news division should make money.
So you have a Mickey Mouse news division.
So how do you make money in an entertainment medium? You become entertainment.
How sick are you of explaining your departure from "Morning Edition"?
Um ... [exhales heavily]. To tell you the truth, I don't think I ever really have. I've just kind of stayed out of that.
Murrow would forge ahead anyway. And I can't defile his memory.
Oh, yeah. What did he say about [then-CBS president Frank] Stanton? He said, "My conscience is clear. His seems to be bothering him."
What's your take on what went down. Is "departure" the right verb?
Departure. Hmmm. Hmmm. Well, yeah, I guess it's a departure. I'm not doing that radio program anymore. "Reassignment" is what they call it. I'm in the growing ranks of senior correspondents. They decided that they had heard enough of me doing the program and wanted someone else to do it — or even two people to do it. It kind of bothers me two people are doing it, because they're going to do half my job. No one's ever going to know what my job was like.
Have you heard them yet?
How do they sound to you?
[Awkward silence.] It seems like listeners were like angry villagers ready to storm Frankenstein's castle.
And they were very supportive, and I appreciated that. And I needed to hear that, to tell you the truth.
Don't even think of telling me you didn't consider applying for Stuttering John's job with Howard Stern.
[Laughs.] Is there an opening? What's he doing?
John left for "The Tonight Show."
Oh, he did! I see. I'll have to work on my delivery.
Have you considered other jobs outside of NPR?
I'm listening. I think I owe it to myself and my family to listen.
[More awkward silence.] Ah, well, I guess you're in kind of a sensitive spot.
I'm in an extremely sensitive spot. And someday I can tell you how sensitive, but I can't tell you now.
What will being a "senior NPR correspondent" entail?
I'm to do profiles.
[Further awkward silence.] OK. Lovely. Is that your only directive? Profiles?
That's the vision. I'm going to try to decide what that means — before they do.
Here's the Larry King question ...
An oak! I would be an oak. Oh, I'm sorry, I thought it was going to be the tree question.
What will you miss most about "Morning Edition"?
Being on every day. That was very important to me. I used to go in sick because I didn't want to miss a program. I tried to arrange travel, when I would go out and do fund-raising for stations, try to arrange it so I'd only miss one program. I thought the host should be there. I think listeners are bummed out when the regular guy is not there.
Your voice is so soothing. Will you read me to sleep?
Sure, I'll make a tape. How's that? I should do that. This is a commercial opportunity.
Books on tape. You should really consider that.
I'll read my own. I am going to read my own. I don't know how I'm going to do an impression of Murrow.
I'm afraid if I try to imitate him, I'll be struck by lightning.
It's that little pause: "This ... is London."
Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or firstname.lastname@example.org