Ed Murrow: What’s in a Name?
On April 27, 1965, my father told me, “The man you were named after died today.”
I was stunned: “Who was it?”
My dad, a Brooklyn teacher who’d belonged to a black-listed group and had refused to sign a loyalty oath, replied, “Edward R. Murrow.”
“Who?” I asked.
“Good Night, and Good Luck,” which opened this month in theaters, answers that question about the legendary CBS broadcaster and more. The film is co-written and directed by George Clooney, who portrays Murrow’s Jewish producer, Fred Friendly (born Ferdinand Friendly Wachenheimer). Years earlier, I’d asked Friendly the same question I’d asked my dad.
I met the former CBS News president around 1987, when he was in Hawaii to shoot an installment of his PBS “Fred Friendly Seminar” TV series. Between takes, I strode up to the 6-foot-something Friendly, then 70-ish, bald and bespectacled, and produced the witty letter Murrow wrote thanking my parents for naming me after him. For a few moments, all production ceased as Friendly poured over the letter and called over his wife, Ruth, to read it, too.
“Thank you for your recent lesson plan and the news that I have a ‘child prodigy’ named in my honor,'” it read in part.
Subsequently, I talked privately with Friendly in his hotel room to ask what kind of a person Murrow was.
Friendly looked thoughtful: “That’s not easy to answer. Ed was complicated. To answer, I’ll send you a copy of my book about Ed.”
Months later, “Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control…” arrived bearing Friendly’s inscription: “For Edward Rampell — who has Murrow in his name & heart. Regards, Fred Friendly.”
Events recounted in this book are dramatized in “Good Night, and Good Luck,” notably the epic on-the-air struggle Murrow and Friendly waged with the anti-communist zealot, Sen. Joe McCarthy, on the CBS “See It Now” program in 1954.
In vivid black and white, Clooney recreates the Cold War’s reds-under-the-beds hysteria. The documentary-like film reveals a CBS eye’s eye view of the Tiffany network’s newsmen’s nerve-wracking decision to expose the fascistic junior senator from Wisconsin.
David Strathairn gives an understated performance as the embattled Murrow. The actor doesn’t play Murrow — who broadcast live from London’s rooftops during the blitz, tackled the U.S. Air Force when Lt. Milo Radulovich was wrongfully discharged as a “security risk” and fought his own boss — as having nerves of steel. Indeed, Strathairn’s character is so nervous that he’s constantly sucking cigarettes. Murrow’s greatness lies in his rising above fear to stand for integrity.
The superb ensemble includes Clooney as cool-as-a-cucumber Friendly (whom Murrow/Strathairn jokes, should not be told he’s Jewish because he loves Christmas so much). Robert Downey Jr. portrays “See It Now’s” Joe Wershba, whom I met in the 1980s when he spoke at a University of Hawaii class taught by Israeli cartoonist Ranan Lurie. (His son, Rod, created ABC’s female president drama, “Commander in Chief.”)
The shrewdest casting is McCarthy and his Jewish aide Roy Cohn — as themselves. Seen only in clips, the senator’s repulsive persona undid him in his attempt to rebut Murrow’s expose. The red-baiting demagogue, who publicly made wild, unsubstantiated charges assailing victims’ patriotism, proved no match for the fact-checking investigative reporter.
Frank Langella — best known as Dracula — depicts William S. Paley, the chairman of CBS. In the film, Paley personifies the network’s profit-driven corporate side in conflict with newsmen using the then-new medium of television to inform and enlighten, rather than merely entertain audiences and sell soap.
As Murrow/Strathairn warns at a 1958 industry awards dinner, television “can teach, it can illumine; yes, and it can even inspire. Otherwise it is merely lights and wires in a box.”
The brilliance of “Good Night, and Good Luck” is making half-century-old history as timely as today’s headlines.
Networks with business before Congress and an FCC chaired by the secretary of state’s son failed to examine, as Murrow might have, government claims about the necessity of today’s war, while “news” is often more tabloid than topical. “Good Night” uses McCarthyism as a metaphor for today’s Patriot Act and other Homeland Security measures that assail civil liberties. The communists of yore have been replaced by the new “ists” du jour — terrorists.
As a child, I learned that Murrow died from his three-pack-a-day habit. That was enough to persuade me to avoid Murrow’s path in that regard.
But my namesake inspired me to become a journalist, and I’ve felt a responsibility to follow in his footsteps. I think that’s something all journalists should strive for, though it isn’t easy, as Murrow’s own experience proves.
Murrow paid a price for the 1954 “See It Now” program that led to the downfall of McCarthy. Unnerved by TV’s power to illumine, CBS ensured the controversial program faded out. Although Friendly became president of CBS News, he resigned in 1966, when CBS preempted congressional Vietnam hearings to air “I Love Lucy” re-runs.
Regardless of the personal cost, Murrow and Friendly only knew how to be the proper kind of journalist. And wouldn’t the public be well served if, when our careers are done, it can be said of us: “He (or she), too, was one of Murrow’s boys.”
Ed Rampell is the author of “Progressive Hollywood, a People’s Film History of the United States” (The Disinformation Company, 2005)