Even before I joined CBS News as a network radio consultant in 1997, Edward R. Murrow was a hero of mine. In college, in the mid-1980s, I devoured A.M. Sperber's Murrow: His Life and Times and still have the paperback on my bookshelves. It sits next to Murrow's own work, This is London, the transcription of his famous CBS Radio broadcasts from London during the Blitz, and the magnificent In Search Of Light, which ought to be required reading in journalism schools and newsrooms everywhere. I also have the memorable This I Believe series, two wonderful photographs of Murrow hanging in my home—he's smoking in both—and a signed letter Murrow sent on September 4, 1952 to one Clarence Allen of the Tulsa Tribune apologizing for not being able to write "the article" Allen had requested. I am by no means a Murrow expert. And I'm not looking for a tussle with his biographers. But he's not an ancient, remote figure to me, either.
Which is why I'm taking the time to chime in on the "debate" over whether Jon Stewart deserves to be compared with Murrow ("ERM" in internal CBS-speak) because of the work Comedy Central's grandmaster did a few weeks ago in transforming the public debate over the recent 9/11 Responders' legislation. As most of you know by now, Stewart became furious earlier this month after Senate Republicans, including some of the biggest post-9/11 loudmouths, filibustered the popular measure which was designed to give health care benefits to workers sickened by the toxic dust at Ground Zero. Stewart spoke out aggressively against the political hypocrisy and journalistic apathy surrounding the measure in one of his show-opening monologues in mid-December before carefully choreographing an entire show to the issue before the show's Christmas break. Many people—and I am one of them—believe that Stewart's humor-infused ranting and raving changed political momentum, if not actual votes, in favor of the measure. A few days after he had exposed them to a great deal of public rancor and scorn, the Republicans compromised and the bill passed. A happy ending.
But then National Public Radio and the New York Times (and others) wrote about Stewart's role in helping pass the legislation—with the old Gray Lady herself first playing the Murrow card. This has prompted a genuine, old-school kerfuffle, with all sorts of folks interrupting their holiday breaks to discuss the comparison and/or to declare that Jon Stewart is no Ed Murrow. The first thing I'd like to say here is: Where were all these people before, when the 9/11 responders really needed them? And the second thing I'd like to say is: Stewart doesn't need to be the next Murrow to play a significant and laudable role in the public life of this country. The men, their deeds, and their times defy easy comparison. Stewart has become an eloquent and eminent public prosecutor against much that is wrong about Washington (and sometimes the people who cover it). Murrow risked his life during World War II to change the nature of broadcast news forever, eventually stood up to McCarthyism, and then held out as long as he could against the corrupting influence of money and politics in television news. If Murrow had done one of these things, he would be revered today. That he did all three helps explain why Murrow was probably the single most important journalist of the 20th Century.