Voice of Reason
“This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire, but it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box.”
-Edward R. Murrow
Before Geraldo Rivera, before Bill O’Reilly and Barbara Walters, there was only one well-known journalist on the scene famous for his investigative prowess, obvious political leanings, and easy access to the rich and celebrated. In an era when news was serious and gossip took a permanent back seat to discussions of policy and politics, few in programming believed an entertainment-oriented show, hosted by the nation’s premiere reporter, would end up being popular. But Edward R. Murrow was not just your run of the mill member of the Fourth Estate. A war correspondent/hero, instrumental in swaying public opinion about our entry into the European and Pacific theater, and sanctified for taking on anti-Commie crackpot Sen. Joseph McCarthy when such a position was considered career suicide, the CBS stalwart was bigger than the broadcast medium.
Still, Person to Person, the Q&A series he started in 1953, was nothing like his See It Now efforts for the network. That 1951 showcase – a revamp of his regular Hear It Now radio stint – was more issue-oriented. It was here where McCarthy buried his uncontrolled witch hunt in incomplete thoughts and outlandish ideas. It was here where Murrow showed families frantic at home how the soldiers in Korea were holding up over the Christmas holiday. Person to Person, on the other hand, was viewed as a vanity piece for the journalist. Like appearing on Oprah decades later, Murrow was considered the voice of a reasoned, in touch America, and anyone he promoted was perceived as acceptable and accredited. Though it was far more popular than See It Now‘s hard-hitting strategy, both shows would eventually undo Murrow. Where once he seemed stoic, a constant visual presence on television turned him into a symbol, then a statue, ready to be retired to the park of our National consciousness.
It’s a problematic persona that’s evident all throughout Koch Vision’s DVD collection of some of the series’ interviews entitled Edward R. Murrow: The Best of Person to Person. Featuring 36 well know celebrities and newsmakers spread out over three discs (and divided into categories: “American Icons”, “Hollywood Legends”, “Legendary Entertainers”), the format for each episode is both unusual and rather plain. Murrow sits in his New York studio, lanky frame casually draped in a solitary chair. In his hand, an everpresent cigarette burns, encircling its holder with the symbolic smoke of serious consideration. As he cocks his head toward a giant screen on the wall, we see the subject of his interview, posed and prepared. Murrow informs us that this is so-and-so’s current residence, business address, or home away from home, and as the lens moves in closer, we meet and greet the evening’s guest.
The first thing eagle-eyed media mavens will notice is how staged everything appears. Though supposedly caught off guard, cameras are obviously set up all over each home, the better to catch the star or composer walking from room to room. In addition, Murrow is miserable at small talk, his gravel-like gravitas making something simple like “How’s the kids?” sound accusatory and imposing. Once the pleasantries have passed and the main reason behind the discussion is broached, Person to Person becomes an intriguing, if rather insular experience. Much of this comes from Murrow himself. He is not here to hob knob or chew the fame fat. To paraphrase a popular tobacco commercial of the time, you can take the reporter out of the investigation, but you can’t take the investigation out of the reporter. To him, every conversation is blunt and to the point, even if it alters a segment’s entertainment elements.
The difference between Murrow’s approach and that of his post-modern mimics is clear from the very first interview. A mid-20s Dick Clark is profiled, his celebrity on the rise and his notoriety for championing that social scourge known as rock ‘n’ roll is well documented. But instead of asking about the numerous artists rising up the charts, or how Clark discerns between different styles of music, Murrow is after the truth about teens and their tendency toward juvenile delinquency. He is less concerned about the pop culture implications of what Clark does (and did for the next 50 years), but more centered on the law and order aspects of the youth scene. You can see Clark get frustrated several times during this display as Murrow probes for another possible angle on the whole youth movement.
It happens again with the Senator John F. Kennedy segment. The beautiful and graceful Jackie is swept away with a couple of kind words so Murrow can focus on the item he’s most interested in: the PT 109 story. For those unfamiliar with the tale, part of JFK’s myth was built on his actions during World War II and, specifically, when the PT (Patrol Torpedo) boat he was commanding was sunk after being rammed by a Japanese destroyer. Kennedy later wrote a book about the incident, and a film starring Cliff Robertson was eventually made of the event. For Murrow, all of this is far more fascinating than the Senator’s plans and policy ideas. While they do eventually tread over into legislative territory, whatever the host feels the focus should be, that’s where the discussion usually goes.
In fact, it’s rare when Murrow actually lightens up and breaks his dour demeanor. It takes a certain type of star to wedge him out of his stoic shell. One such example is Elizabeth Taylor. Looking more beautiful than even her most magnificent publicity stills, she sits alongside her carnival barker-esque hubby of the moment, Mike Todd, and constantly takes the piss out of both him and Murrow. Taylor will not tolerate the boys braying on about business (in this case, the famed producer’s recent success with Around the World in 80 Days) and interjects with jokes, jests and jibes at the pair of party poopers. By the end, Todd is completely flummoxed, but Murrow seems happy about the genial give and take.
Not every celebrity is so responsive. Charleton Heston, almost wistful in his conversational tone, is so impassioned by his recent portrayal of Moses in The Ten Commandments that it’s all he can talk about, much to Murrow’s chagrin. Similarly, pregnancy and a recent move are all Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman can seem to focus on while Danny Thomas, caught at the holiday season, seems bent on proving what a good and attentive father he is. Sure, some personalities can really light up the screen; Milton Berle, Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin and Liberace are interesting just by their mere presence on the show. But even the most inherently entertaining guest (Andy Griffith in full ‘golly-gee’ goofball mode) can be undermined by Murrow’s moroseness.
Toward the end of the set, as the format remains frozen and the interviews continue their calculated approach, we recognize the inherent power in Murrow’s persona. In the realm of politics, where everything is done with an agenda and a sense of self-importance, his editorial resoluteness is a gift. It gives even the most spin-doctoring gasbag a wall of immovable truth to contend with. But entertainers are not, by their very natures, worthy of microscopic – or in this case, myopic – consideration. Sure, it deflates their press-kit preparedness, but when you fail to take into account their lack of depth on the areas you wish to address, the result is a conversation at cross purposes. While some may appreciate the time capsule contents of this DVD package, Murrow makes it a tougher trip back than it should be. After all, the show wasn’t called ‘Personable to Personable’, right?