My Own "Good Luck"
Ed Murrow and Me
By Edward Shanahan
So we have come full circle, it seems, from unfocused, rootless young adult to a somewhat cynical rooted elder, who laments the absence of idealism, courage and commitment – in our media that is.
Such was my reaction on exiting the showing of the film, “Good Night, and Good Luck,” the gripping piece of movie-making about the radio and television news legend, Edward R. Murrow, who for some of us had an enduring impact, which continues even today.
Let’s go back to 1960. I am 24 years old, a year out of college, recently married, and living in New York City, or more precisely
Life should be good but I am in a job that literally gives me punishing headaches most days because I don’t know why I am working for a large bank on Wall Street as an executive trainee when there are so many more challenging possibilities in life. I feel stuck. I have no idea what I would rather be doing than working as a “bank aide,” the title I was given in the New York Times social notice about Ann’s engagement to me the previous year.
I did get a few opportunities to do some writing on various bank projects during that time - one having to do with how movies were financed - and I was a dedicated consumer of newspapers, of which there were quite a number in New York at that time. News seemed interesting, principally because there was so much of it in New York City. But none of this seemed to have any relevance to what might be described as my long-term prospects.
Then one night, as I watched a television documentary – there were many such programs on television in those days – about the deplorable conditions that migrant workers faced in our country, I found myself paying very close attention. The program, one in a series produced under the heading “CBS Reports,” was titled “The Harvest of Shame.” It was reported by Edward R. Murrow, whose name and background I was familiar with, having watched some of his earlier “See It Now” programs when I was still in high school and living with my parents.
This particular CBS Reports production about the exploitation and dehumanization of farm workers was an eye-opener for a 24-year-old “bank aide.” I began to realize that what Edward R. Murrow was doing, and what a television documentary could unearth and reveal to a large audience just might be very important work. And so I thought about it some more and came slowly to the conclusion that I wanted to do what Edward R. Murrow did, tell unpleasant truths about matters that have gone unexplored.
Yet it was not likely that I was going to go from bank aide to reporter or producer of network television documentaries – there probably were some intermediate steps. Eventually, over the next several weeks, I managed to get a luncheon appointment with Jay McMullen, who was one of a number of CBS producers – even an on-air narrator of programs – to find out what those intermediate steps might be.
I had a couple of choices, he said. Go back to school and get a degree in journalism, which was not feasible given our perilous financial state. Or venture out into the American hinterland to take a job as a newspaper reporter. It seemed at that time that newspapers were still the best place to gain reporting and writing skills that might later be transferred to television work.
Even though I never got any closer to Murrow than Jay McMullen, I was finally beginning to bring things into focus.
Thus, I embarked on a letter writing campaign to small newspapers within a 200 mile radius of New York City, papers in New Jersey, Massachusetts and upstate New York, which eventually led to short driving trips for interviews, some promising, most not.
There was the vexing problem of not having any newspaper experience, which, thus, did not qualify me to work for a newspaper, weighed against the need to acquire newspaper experience so I could qualify to work for a newspaper.
But it was my good luck to meet with Lawrence K. (Pete) Miller, editor and co-owner of the estimable Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, who was not hung up on my lack of experience. He hired me to work in the paper’s Great Barrington bureau in the summer of 1961. Goodbye New York.
The headline over my story could now read: “Newspaper Hires Bank Aide.” I felt I now had a future, and, it turned out, I did.
What I took away from the recent film about Murrow, however, was that inevitably there is a tension for the reporter and editor, who is frequently under government, corporate, or public pressure – sometimes all three at once - to compromise, make accommodations, pull his punches, favor the trivial, quick and easy story over the hard-to-get controversial or substantial story. That seems to me what the Murrow character was telling his admirers in the scene where he is honored for his work as a journalist.
That is the scene when the movie audience begins to relate to the fears expressed in the late 1950s by Murrow about the future of news organizations, be they newspapers or television networks. Will the media stay true to its principles, will it display courage when that is required or will it yield to pressure?
If that was a cause for concern on Murrow’s part 50 years ago, what are we to imagine his view would be today?
And, in fact, what made the film so powerful in its depiction of the journalistic struggle is that Murrow and his deepest fears and anxiety were all too contemporary.
In truth, his words possess as much – or more – relevance today than they had when he bravely spoke them.
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