Edward R. Murrow was a giant in broadcasting and helped push the move to television as a broadcast medium for the news. He was unrelenting in his pursuit of the truth and managed to handle himself in the face of adversity. Let’s look at how he did it.
Edward R. Murrow did a lot in his lifetime as a journalist. He came into prominence during World War II by reporting from the front lines, moved onto television broadcasting where he interviewed hundreds of celebrities and politicians, and ran editorials on nightly news that tackled big ideas. He died of lung cancer (caused by the 60-70 cigarettes a day that he smoked) in 1965 at the age of 57.
Do What You Believe In
Murrow was well known for tackling big subjects and was no stranger to conflict. He provoked subjects and had no qualms angling his editorials to attack anything he saw as unjust. Put bluntly, Murrow had no problem fighting for what he believed in and would put his job at stake to get the story out. The New York Times obituary on Murrow sums up his pursuit of editorial freedom:
His independence was reflected in doing what he thought had to be done on the air and worrying later about the repercussions among sponsors, viewers and individual stations. The fruits of his determination are shared today by newsmen at all networks; they enjoy a freedom and latitude not yet won by others working in the medium.
No moment in Murrow’s career is a better of example of his passion for the truth than his ongoing fight with Senator Joseph McCarthy about McCarthy’s attack on supposed communists. Here’s the New York Times television critic Jack Gould:
Mr. Murrow decided to go ahead with the program at a time when passions in the broadcasting industry were running wild on the issue of Communist sympathizers and dupes. It was the autonomy of the Murrow- Friendly operation, often the source of internal controversy within C.B.S., that got the vital show on the air.
Murrow always stood behind his beliefs and wasn’t afraid to go after anyone that he thought was doing wrong. While most of us don’t have to worry about this from a journalism standpoint, it’s still an idea we face everyday. Whether it’s a project you believe in or an idea, if you believe in it then it’s worth fighting for.
Your Beliefs Are Always In Flux
At a certain point in our lives, we like to think we know everything about the world, but Murrow knew better. While he was an opinionated person, he also always tried to keep an open mind. That meant being a bit humble. In his “This I Believe” introductory essay for NPR, Murrow lays it down:
This reporter’s beliefs are in a state of flux. It would be easier to enumerate the items I do not believe in, than the other way around. And yet in talking to people, in listening to them, I have come to realise that I don’t have a monopoly on the world’s problems. Others have their share, often far bigger than mine. This has helped me to see my own in truer perspective: and in learning how others have faced their problems — this has given me fresh ideas about how to tackle mine.
You never know where or when you’ll find new ideas, or a fresh approach to a problem. Different viewpoints can help you not only understand the world better, but also help solidify your own ideas. Murrow suggests to keep your mind open and in hunt of the truest perspective on any issue, regardless of where that may come from.
You’re Not the Smartest Person in the World
In the age of Facebook and Twitter, it’s easy to think that now that your voice can carry around the world, it’s worth speaking. It’s easy to forget that this also means our most idiotic ideas spread just as fast. In a 60 Minutes special remembering Murrow, fellow journalist Mike Wallace quotes his favourite piece of advice that Murrow offered him:
The thing you have to remember is that just because your voice carries halfway around the world, you are no wiser than when it carried only to the end of the bar.
While Murrow’s advice was clearly meant for Wallace on a journalism level, it’s applicable to everyone, everywhere. Our voices are louder than ever, but that doesn’t mean we’re any smarter than we were 50 years ago.
Explain Ideas Clearly By Imagining Yourself at a Dinner Party
Reporters are often tasked with explaining complicated news and staying calm in any situation. Murrow was great at this, and kept his head in all kinds of situations while still conveying the news in a way anyone could understand. His approach for doing so was simple: imagine yourself at a dinner party:
After dinner … your host asks you ‘Well, what was it like?’ As you talk, the maid is passing the coffee and her boyfriend, a truck driver, is waiting for her in the kitchen and listening. You are supposed to describe things in terms that make sense to the truck driver without insulting the intelligence of the professor.
It’s a simple idea, but it works. Keep your audience in mind and make sure you’re never unintentionally insulting someone you’re speaking to (or speaking over the head of others). It takes time to perfect this approach, but it’s well worth it.