Broadcast newsman Murray Fromson looks back at storied career


As a young child growing up in the Bronx, N.Y., Murray Fromson admired Edward R. Murrow’s reports from London during World War II.

“I was enamored of him,” Fromson said. “I’d go to sleep with a pencil under my pillow, pretending it was a microphone.”

Not only did Fromson eventually meet and befriend his idol, but Fromson, too, went on to become a respected newsman. During his 35 years in broadcasting, Fromson covered events ranging from the Vietnam War to President Richard Nixon’s summits with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev to the “Bloody Sunday” civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. After leaving the news media, Fromson continued to influence future journalists as a professor and director at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

On a recent April morning, Fromson, 85, sat in his Brentwood living room with Dodi, his wife of 54 years. Papers, periodicals and books covered many surfaces, and the walls were decorated with carvings, tapestries and other artwork acquired during the years he was a correspondent in Southeast Asia. The couple were anticipating their annual trip to Israel for the International Board of Governors’ meeting at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU). Dodi served on the Board of the American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (AABGU), which raises funds and awareness of the university in the United States.

The couple sponsors the Murray Fromson Media Mission, now in its 10th year, which brings American journalists to the university to learn firsthand about its innovative research. This reporter was one of nine participants on the most recent mission, which focused on medical advances.

“Dodi and Murray Fromson are part of a core of visionary leaders who have worked hard to raise the profile of Ben-Gurion University and draw people to its extraordinary role in the building of the State of Israel,” said Doron Krakow, executive vice president of  AABGU. “Their support of AABGU’s annual media mission, which bears Murray’s name, has helped promote the university’s extraordinary contributions to an array of fields of scientific research that have literally put us on the radar of millions of American readers and consumers of news.”

 One might say that repression of Soviet Jews brought about the Fromson Media Mission. The Fromsons lived in Moscow from 1972 to 1974 while Murray served as bureau chief and foreign correspondent for CBS News. Although they considered themselves “secular Reform” Jews, the Fromsons identified strongly with their Judaism and befriended many Soviet Jews. 

“We tried to visit them, support them and encourage them,” Dodi said. Knowing that they were under surveillance, she invented coded terms to arrange meeting places and times. She recalled using Magic Slates, the children’s toy with a stylus that writes on a plastic sheet, and can be erased by lifting the sheet. 

Murray also faced challenges on a professional level. He was accompanied by a “friendly” KGB agent and had to overcome Soviet bureaucracy to file his stories. Film for one report, for example, took two months to reach CBS headquarters — it was routed via Mongolia. 

The Fromsons’ children, Lisa and Derek, were elementary school-aged during their years in Moscow. Lisa, in particular, was struck by the repression under which Soviet Jews lived. Refuseniks, those denied permission to emigrate to Israel, were subject to such harassment as being prevented from getting jobs and being interrogated by the KGB. Most knew little about their heritage, yet it played a major role in their lives. 

Lisa chose to explore her Judaism by attending college in Israel at Ben-Gurion. Eventually, she changed her name to Aliza and made aliyah in tribute to a refusenik family. She subsequently worked at the university, as a liaison to the Board of Governors and as the university president’s assistant for international affairs. 

Through their daughter’s affiliation, the Fromsons grew attached to the institution.

“BGU is very contagious,” Dodi said. In the early days, “there was no culture except what the students created themselves. … It bred an incredible feeling. … We caught the bug, and we just can’t get rid of it.”

 

M

urray Fromson’s first byline appeared in his school newspaper. His family had moved to Los Angeles from the Bronx when he was 11, and he wrote about watching his classmates of Japanese descent being pulled out of class and taken away during World War II. 

He served as a copy boy and stringer at the Los Angeles Times, wrote for the Los Angeles Mirror and reported for Stars and Stripes during the Korean War. Subsequently, he joined the Associated Press, serving first in the U.S. and then in Southeast Asia.

In 1960, Fromson decided to move into the burgeoning new broadcast news industry. After a short stint with NBC, he landed at CBS, where he remained for the remainder of his broadcasting career. For much of the next 15 years, Fromson was based in Southeast Asia, where he covered the Vietnam War and the fall of Saigon, among other events. In the U.S., he covered such major events as the Kennedy-Nixon presidential race and the civil rights movement in the South. 

It’s hard to encapsulate so many years of activity, and Fromson shares that his memory for details has gotten hazy. Nevertheless, he has anecdotes galore about events and personalities. Among the notable figures he’s met are John F. Kennedy (“He charmed everybody. We [journalists] fell all over him.”), the Dalai Lama (“He was soft-spoken. Polite. Friendly.”) and Richard Nixon (“He was cold as a fish.”).

Certain stories stand out as particularly memorable. One involved the airlift of 243 Vietnamese orphans as part of Operation Babylift in 1975. These children, mostly biracial offspring of servicemen and local women, were to be flown to the United States and adopted by waiting families. The Air Force cargo plane, which Fromson said he later learned was “put together with chewing gum and bailing wire,” crashed landed after the cargo door broke off during flight. About half of those on board were killed.

Describing the devastation as he reported from the scene, Fromson said, “What can one say, except, ‘When will the misery in this country ever stop?’ ” 

Another incident that made a lifelong impact on Fromson occurred during the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. He stood about 10 yards away from John Lewis when Lewis, then chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was beaten violently.

At the second march two days later, Fromson was summoned to speak with Martin Luther King Jr. The civil rights leader, who knew about Fromson’s stint in Vietnam, inquired about the treatment of Black servicemen by their white peers. 

“I told him, ‘War is hell and we don’t think about things like that. Blacks defend whites and whites defend Blacks. There was no racism,’ ” Fromson said. “He was rather surprised. And then of course, he ended up delivering this incredible sermon coming out against the war.”

But things were different in the service than they were in the American South. “I saw this hatred, this racism all along,” Fromson recalled. “There was this terrible sheriff, Jimmy Clark, who instigated a lot of the violence against the marchers.” After a civil rights volunteer from Detroit was murdered, “Clark told [a group of reporters], ‘The n—–s did it.’ We just got sick. It was a terrible time.”

Fromson shared a more lighthearted memory involving then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson. At the time, Fromson was covering Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., Richard Nixon’s running mate, during the 1960 presidential campaign. At a hotel in Fort Worth, Texas, Fromson stepped into an elevator and found himself face to face with LBJ.

As he tells the story, Fromson adopted Johnson’s Texan accent. “He said to me, ‘Whatcha doin’ here?’ I said, ‘Well, sir, I’m covering Nixon.’ ‘Coverin’ Nixon? You should be coverin’ me!’ ” 

Johnson invited Fromson to visit his ranch, along with reporters from The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. As they headed back from a rally in Fredericksburg, Texas, it began to pour. The group needed to switch to a vehicle more suitable for navigating the wet terrain. 

“Johnson gets in the cab, straddles the gear shift, and pulls me in on his lap! I sat in the lap of a future president of the United States!”

Fromson turned serious as he offered an assessment of Johnson. “He was an important figure in American history: He supported the Voting Rights Act and civil liberties. I know Vietnam tortured him. He didn’t know what to do about that.”

“I have this bitterness about Vietnam,” Fromson said. “Fifty-six thousand Americans were killed in Vietnam. Why? … Because of fear of communist China. We have to remember our history. It’s an obligation of citizenship.” 

His concern extends not just to citizens, whom he said aren’t paying attention to important issues, but to the state of broadcast news as well. “It had the potential to be the most important vehicle by which the American people could be informed. And now it’s only about the most sensational thing.”

Fromson’s reach extended beyond reporting the news to helping to preserve the rights of reporters. In 1969, the Nixon administration threatened to subpoena journalists to try to force them to name confidential sources considered anti-war activists. Fromson and his colleague, Tony Lukas from The New York Times, proposed organizing journalists to defend their First Amendment rights. The two reached out to colleagues, and in March 1970, more than 30 reporters gathered and established the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Still in existence today, this organization provides free legal assistance to journalists and advocates for freedom of access to government information.

Fromson joined the faculty of USC in 1982, and served as director of the School of Journalism from 1994 to 1999. He founded the university’s Center for International Journalism, a program which brought working journalists, predominantly from Latin America, to earn master’s degrees. Fromson so profoundly inspired his students from Mexico that they subsequently campaigned for and achieved a Freedom of Information Act in that country.
He considers this one of his proudest accomplishments.

Describing his role model, Murrow, Murray Fromson said, “He was a wonderful human being. He set a standard.”

At his USC retirement celebration in 2006, similar sentiments were shared about Fromson. One former student recalled, “He was always demanding we push ourselves just a little bit further, that we think a little more critically, that we probe those unobvious aspects of an issue, a story or a trend.”

 

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Correction: The article and a photo caption was corrected to reflect that the Fromsons have not served on the board ot BGU, but are longtime supporters. Dodi Fromson has served on the board of AABGU.

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