It may seem hard to believe today, but as recently as 75 years ago there was no broadcast news, or at least very little of it.
Local news sometimes made it on the air but radio was primarily a sports and entertainment medium. FDR had his “fireside chat” speeches, but there were no regular news broadcasts. Anything more required you had to go to the corner store put down your nickel and get a newspaper.
All that was before Edward R. Murrow. When word came in 1947 that Murrow, the voice of CBS radio that had brought World War II into American parlors with his deep voiced signature sign on, “This Is London,” was going to give the commencement address at Muhlenberg College, it rated headlines and excitement across the Lehigh Valley.
Murrow, whose chiseled good looks and ever present cigarette was the very imagine of a foreign correspondent, had been born Egbert Roscoe Murrow in rural North Carolina to sharecropper Quaker parents. An outstanding student as well as an excellent high school athlete, he captured prizes in debate and college politics.
From 1932 to 1935 Murrow was assistant director of the Institute of International Education, which is where he first came into contact with Levering Tyson, later Muhlenberg’s president.
Both men were interested in using radio as a tool in education. Tyson’s position in those years as a board member on the National Advisory Council of Radio in Education sponsored by the Carnegie Corp. and author of several books on the subject brought them together.
Although most Americans were still unaware or uninterested in the affairs of Europe, Murrow was an exception. As early as 1935 he was part of a program that aided academics fleeing the rising forces of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. By 1937 he was employed by CBS to create contacts from an office in London with leading figures in Europe who might want to broadcast as experts of the continent’s spreading turmoil.
On August 20, 1937, Murrow contacted veteran newsman William L. Shirer, who had just been laid off from his newspaper. Over cocktails and dinner at Berlin’s swank Adlon Hotel Murrow outlined his idea.
"He said he was looking for an experienced foreign correspondence to open a CBS office on the Continent,” Shirer noted in his diary. “He could not cover all of Europe from London.” Shirer quickly jumped at the chance and accepted Murrow’s offer. Shirer recalled the end of the conversation with Murrow in his diary this way:
“Oh, there’s one little thing I forgot to mention,” he said. “The voice…”
“Bad,” I said, “as you can see.”
“Perhaps not. But, you see, in broadcasting it’s a factor. And our directors and numerous vice presidents want to hear your voice first. We’ll arrange a broadcast. You give a talk, say on the coming (Nazi) party rally. I’m sure it’ll work out all right.”
Murrow was right. Shirer’s broadcast voice easily passed muster with the CBS brass. Using his long time friendships with reporters and other connections, Shirer managed to set up links so that by the time of the Munich crises in 1938 it was possible for Americans to get nightly overviews on what was happening between Hitler’s speeches and British Prime Minster Chamberlain’s misguided promise of “peace in our time.” When Nazi tanks rolled into Poland in 1939, starting World War II, the new broadcast medium was ready to cover it.
Throughout World War II Murrow burnished his image as the voice of American journalism that offered a sharp contrast with the ranting propaganda coming out of Berlin. With the war’s close in 1945 there was no doubt that Murrow, Shirer and the others had created revolutionary form of journalism.
On June 2, 1947, the now world-renowned journalist rose to speak to 113 Muhlenberg College students and their families gathered for the graduation. By then there were already hints that the Cold War with Soviet Russia was on the horizon.
This Murrow told those gathered there that that day would require from their generation new leadership. “Leadership is expected of America,” he said, “but it cannot lead with dollars alone, with bulldozers or supersonic guided missiles. Dollars will not buy greatness for a nation or a man and they will not alter the course of the political tides that are running over the world.”
Murrow talked about the role the U.S. must play in international organizations. He particularly reminded the students “to have an opinion and be courageous in expressing it; to continue learning and questioning; to differentiate between slogans and logic; to examine anew such phases as enterprise, socialism, educational equality racial and religious tolerance.” But most important they should never forget and should always be conscious of good fortune and defend decency and human dignity.
On June 27, 1951 Murrow attended a departure dinner for Tyson who was moving to New York to join what was to become Radio Free Europe. In order to keep his commitment to CBS, he broadcast his program that night from local radio station WHOL. It was his last visit to the Lehigh Valley.
From that time until his death in 1965 at age 57 from lung cancer, Murrow was to produce some classic journalism but also become involved with Cold War politics and is still remembered for his broadcast denouncing Senator Joe McCarthy in 1954. Today he is viewed as one of America’s finest journalists.