CBS: The Power and the Profits

However the Toynbee or the Gibbon of the future adjudges what happened to American society, he will need to reckon large with the impact of radio and television. By the 1950s, TV had become the greatest new instrument of political and social influence in the nation. How that happened, how TV became both a shaper and a creature of politics, both a maker and a prisoner of public tastes, is most simply told as the story of one broadcasting network, of its founder and indomitable chairman, William S. Paley, and the men who helped make CBS into Paley's golden candy store. David Halberstam has written that story as part of a larger work in progress about centers of power in America and the ways they have been affected by science, technology, and modern communications. This is the first of two installments.
9. The Murrow Boys at War: What Price Glory?

Murrow set out to hire what quickly became a first-rank team of American foreign correspondents. William L. Shirer had been covering Germany since the rise of Hitler. He was exactly the kind of informed, intelligent journalist that Murrow was seeking. Shirer wrote of their meeting in his diary for August 20, 1937. “I have a job. I am to go to work for the Columbia Broadcasting System. That is, if... I have a job if my voice is all right…who ever heard of an adult with no pretense to being a singer or any other kind of artist being dependent for a good interesting job on his voice. And mine is terrible." Shirer was absolutely right about his voice; it was terrible, and he had no sense of timing in his radio writing. CBS headquarters was much taken with Murrow's first correspondent, and finally Murrow had to cable Klauber asking whether CBS wanted a pretty voice or a great journalist. Murrow carried the day; substance triumphed over style. The CBS men hired by Murrow became what one colleague, not entirely admiringly, called a special kind of philosopher-king-intellectual-statesman-journalist. Other stars soon: followed—Sevareid and Smith and Collingwood—but Shirer was the first. He and Murrow covered the Anschluss together in 1938. As the importance of events mounted, as more points on the map needed coverage and more reporters were hired, the CBS World News Roundup was born. Night after night, as the tension increased and Hitler threatened the peace of the world, the story came to America as Kaltenborn in New York, anchoring the show, came on and began: "Calling Ed Murrow, calling Ed Murrow…”

After Hitler took Poland in 1939, and swept across France in 1940, Murrow moved to London. There his voice became the link between England and America. Most politicians of the generation (with the exception of Hitler and Roosevelt, and later, Churchill) scorned or were slow to understand radio; like most of the intelligentsia, they still thought print the important medium. But the British at every level were acutely aware of' Murrow’s power and influence. Their necks were on the chopping block and they knew exactly what he was saying, for many of his broadcasts were re-played for the British Armed Forces. It was a source of encouragement to the British to know that this was what America was hearing.

Murrow was perfectly cast for the role and for the moment. It was a dark and somber time, and he had a dark and somber vision of mankind and of himself. He had warned his wife, Janet, before their marriage to beware of his depressions and his despair, his black periods. "Ed," Janet Murrow said of him, "is a sufferer." He sometimes seemed anxious to bear all of mankind's burdens. Once, during World War II, Paul White in the CBS office in New York called the London BBC office to locate Murrow. Was he there? "Oh, yes," said the Englishman, "he's somewhere around here wearing his customary crown of thorns." He was the Puritan who was never at ease with his own success. He put himself under terrible pressure. Once, during World War II, his colleague Bill Downs heard so much noise in a French farmhouse where they were staying overnight that he thought German troops were downstairs. It was simply Murrow grinding his teeth.

He was always gracious, but always private. Despite impeccable manners, he kept everyone at a distance. He might reveal, to close friends, his thoughts, but never, if possible, himself. He came from the kind of semi-Calvinist home, said his friend Sevareid, "where there were too many rules and not enough love.” He was always just short of being formal, in tone and dress. The clothes were expensive, the cuff links very fancy. Any other journalist dressing like Murrow would have seemed a fop. He had, Charles Collingwood later learned, almost decided against hiring the young Collingwood because the first time they met, Collingwood, who fancied himself a young man about town, was sporting a pair of very loud argyle socks. Murrow was not entirely sure a man in socks that loud was proper for CBS, Rhodes scholarship or no.

He was acutely aware of his dignity and appearance. He was a fine wing shot and quite willing and eager to hunt with the British on their great estates. But, like many boys of that era who had grown up poor, he could not swim and no one could get him in a bathing suit or near the water. Once, at the height of Murrow's fame, he and Sevareid were about to board a plane at LaGuardia and Sevareid was rather sloppily eating a bag of popcorn. For Murrow it seemed beneath their respective dignities, and he deliberately walked several yards ahead, to be dissociated from popcornism.

The British, of course, loved him for what he could do for them, but also for what he was; he was taken up by the very elite of British society. In a country where, under normal conditions, upper-class doors are opened to few, all doors were open to Murrow. He consciously avoided British mannerisms, British words, a British accent. And his voice in a social, setting was the same as it was on the air, rich and tempered, making what he said sound somehow more serious, more profound. Part of it was his calmness, his assurance, his civility—British qualities. The very manner of his reporting, as well as his words, seemed to embody what was at stake in the war, the values being fought for.

As the best of English society' was open to Murrow, so was it open to his boss, Colonel William S. Paley. Paley took a leave from CBS and went to London in 1943 to serve on Eisenhower's psychological warfare staff. A friendship with Murrow, whom he had barely known before, was immediately forged. They were often joined by Charles Collingwood, and the three strikingly handsome young men were seen at the best places, often with the best-looking women. Paley was close to his young correspondents then. They were heroes, and he was impressed with their intelligence, courage, the risks those boys took in reporting from wartime Europe. And, in no matter what city, they seemed to know just the right people. Those who know Paley believe that during the war in England he sensed for the first time the true social possibilities that his power might generate. By the time he returned to America, after the war, his first marriage was on the rocks. The women he was seeing now were usually from the Social Register. Not that he was frivolous—he was still the relentless, driving businessman—but he was less open, less accessible. His friends were changing, they were more social, more from the upper reaches of the business world. There was a gradually diminishing number of his peers, a gradually diminishing number of people who might argue with him or dispute him.

The Paley-Murrow friendship survived their return home. Paley still liked having Murrow around him, and why not? In the afterglow of the great war, Murrow was the most prestigious journalist in the country. At Paley's urging, Murrow became a vice president of CBS. This was a mistake, since he had neither the talent nor the inclination for administration, and he soon found himself speaking for the company, and having to defend CBS policies with which he did not necessarily agree. But that did not bother either man at the start; Paley offered Murrow a house in  Manhasset, Long Island, next to his own (the offer was not accepted). If the relationship was nice for Paley, it was also good for Murrow and the news department. Easy access to the Chairman meant access to air time. It was a built-in protection for correspondents. It seemed to symbolize the strength and importance of the news division within the company, the invulnerability to the pressures outside.

Anyone doubting Murrow's power and influence, or misjudging the priority Paley seemed to place on news, had only to know about the guest list for Paley's second wedding, in 1947, his marriage to Barbara Cushing Mortimer. The wedding was very small and select: her family, not his; her world, not his. Just before the wedding, Paley went to an associate at CBS to ask for camera film and to explain that despite their close professional relationship, no business colleagues or friends of his were being invited. A very small party, jut family, Paley emphasized. The friend understood, and did not mind until after the wedding, when Paley dropped off the film to be developed. The associate looked at some of the shots, and saw, yes, it was small, Bill and Babe, and the family, and Jock Whitney, and there was…Edward R. Murrow. Since the associate who lent the cameras and film, Dr. Frank Stanton, had become the president of CBS a year earlier, and since he had come to resent both Murrow's fame and his personal closeness to Paley, the incident did not soon leave Stanton's mind. Nearly fifteen years later, asked by mutual friends why he could not close the terrible breach with Murrow, since both of them were then ostensibly working toward the same essential goals, Stanton would mention this incident as part of the problem—Murrow was a guest at Bill and Babe Paley's wedding; Stanton was not. The nerve was still that raw.

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