Wikimedia CommonsEven 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.
Jon Stewart may or may not be the most important journalist of the 21th Century—it's early still, plus he'd have to cop to the label and I'm not sure he would. But it should be clear from this episode, if it somehow weren't before, that Stewart (Murrow-like, you might say) wields enormous power and prestige through the medium of television (and the Internet). He showed it this fall with his well-attended Washington rally, he shows it each week with his ratings among younger viewers and the nation's political elite, and he clearly raised his game a notch with his searing light on how official Washington was screwing up the responders' health bill. I give credit to the Times and others for at least trying to cover that aspect of this story. The comparison to Murrow, which came off as facile in the Times piece, has some merit. It just wasn't explained well enough. Nor, alas, was the mainstream media's generally miserable failure—also highlighted by Stewart—in covering the 9/11 responders' legislation before Stewart's broadcasts. Stewart didn't just blast the Congress, remember, he blasted news organizations, too, for the latest example of their chronically short attention spans.
When Murrow took on Sen. Joseph McCarthy nearly half a century ago, he had far more to lose than Stewart did when he lobbied for the federal legislation. Murrow was standing up to bullies—horrible, powerful bullies—who might have ended his career and destroyed his network. By comparison, Stewart was merely speaking out against the way politics and journalism too often works in Washington. But both Murrow and Stewart dramatically changed public perceptions about a current event. Both men stuck their necks out. Both went first into a sort of no-man's-land. It is probably true that only Murrow in his time had the bona fides to stand up to McCarthy (and don't forget, Murrow waited years before doing so). But of all the media people who could have stood up in late 2010 for the brave, sick men and women who went into the rubble of September 11, 2001 only Stewart had both the will and the chops to do so in earnest. Does that make his courage any less impressive? Not in my book. Not when compared with so many other broadcasters and journalists who thought they had more important stories to file.
Courage in broadcasting, or in journalism in general, is not a zero sum game. Praising Stewart for his "mad as hell ain't gonna take it anymore" moment is no slight to Murrow or any other journalist who risks criticism and vitriol for speaking truth to power. Any comparison between the men diminishes neither. Let the historians and biographers correct me if I am wrong, but I believe Murrow would have applauded Stewart's role in redirecting public opinion back to some of the heroes who ran toward the rubble in Lower Manhattan in September 2001. And I believe Murrow would have endorsed Stewart's critical view of the media's role in the affair—especially the navel-gazing that has occurred since the passage of the legislation. Murrow may have searched for light but he is known today for the passion, the heat, he brought to his best work. I believe history will judge Stewart similarly, in this instance and hopefully again in the future.
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