If you are depressed about the decline of journalism, and cannot get too excited about the Google founders who are soon to be billionaires, hark back to the old-timers whose trademarks were integrity and irreverence. It was OK for A.J. Liebling or Edward Murrow to be unapologetically liberal, to slug whiskey in the office, and to bend the truth in a résumé while breaking news about big lies. It was OK for pioneering columnist Mary McGrory to ask male colleagues to carry her bags on the campaign trail because, back then, a conscientious eccentric could succeed.
Lately, as a generation of old-school journalists is dying, details of their lifestyles are surfacing left and right. Recent accounts include Bob Edwards’s book Edward R. Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism, David Remnick’s tribute to A.J. Liebling in the March 29 issue of The New Yorker, and a spate of obituaries honoring McGrory, who died on April 21. April also brought the death of Philip Hamburger, a Liebling pal who had written for The New Yorker since 1939.
Ironically, the Murrow bio comes on the heels of the news that National Public Radio has pushed Bob Edwards out of his job as host of Morning Edition, six months short of his 25th anniversary. (NPR execs say the format had to be updated.) Though Edwards has accepted a gig as senior correspondent, one need only turn to his new book to find out what he really thinks about news companies that pander to the bottom line.
Edwards praises Murrow as a champion of the underdog who “could not be muscled, bullied, bought, corrupted, or intimidated,” and recalls how the broadcaster spoke out publicly when CBS canceled his controversial news show, See It Now (1951-58). Then comes the damning conclusion: Murrow would never have succeeded in the current climate. Today, Edwards writes, media owners consider public service programming a “luxury” that is “bad for business,” and expect news divisions to be profitable—a mandate he sees as inherently corrupting.
Ed Would Have Lost His Head
If Murrow had worked under today’s conditions, he would have been appalled to learn that news programming is determined by market research. “The audience for news programs is an older audience,” Edwards explains in his Afterword, “and one cannot imagine Murrow keeping his temper if lectured by the sales force to do more to reach the 18-to-35-year-old demographic so coveted by advertisers.”
Oh, for the good old days, pre-deregulation and conglomeratization. Not only were media owners capable of benign neglect, but mentors on the editorial side encouraged talents like Liebling and McGrory to develop their writing skills and personalities. In retrospect, Liebling’s epicurean lifestyle seems especially enviable.
According to Remnick, Liebling debuted by thumbing his nose at two venerable institutions, the Columbia School of Journalism and The New York Times. While enrolled at the J-school, Liebling studied French and translated erotica, according to Remnick, later dismissing the program as having “all the intellectual status of a training school for the future employees of the A&P.” When hired to write basketball box scores for the Times sports desk, Liebling routinely identified the referee as “Ignoto,” which means “unknown” in Italian. He claimed to have been fired for that, whereupon he went to Paris on his father’s dime to study food.
By the early 1930s, Liebling was back in New York writing features for the World-Telegram, where it was S.O.P. to make up colorful details and pipe quotes, according to The New Yorker. Without defending fabrication, Remnick states that the rules were different then, noting, “What is now a hanging offense was then a risible misdemeanor.” Liebling redeemed himself by becoming a prolific and erudite staff writer for The New Yorker and perhaps the most admired press critic of all time.
Meanwhile, in 1935, Murrow was busy lying to get a job at CBS, according to Edwards’s book. Though Murrow had majored in speech at Washington State College, he told CBS that his major was political science and international relations and that he had a masters from Stanford. Even after becoming a famous broadcaster, he relied on a shot of whiskey to calm his nerves at airtime.
Again, what mattered was the work. Murrow had the right stuff, an “unrelenting search for truth” that led him to produce a critical documentary on Senator Joe McCarthy in 1954, knowing that it would put his own career at risk. But as with Liebling, Murrow’s conscience was balanced by a strong sense of self-preservation.
When, as a young man, the time came to apply for a CBS insurance policy, Murrow finally told the truth about his age. His principles were put to the test again in 1954, after the McCarthy slam caught the attention of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. The government threatened to revoke Murrow’s passport unless he signed an affidavit stating that he was not, and had never been a Communist. Edwards writes that Murrow signed the affidavit for the sake of his career—but soon after bailed out a colleague who refused to do the same.
Mary Could Be a Tad Contrary
It’s unclear whether Mary McGrory ever faced that kind of pressure as a columnist for The Washington Star and The Washington Post, but she was cut from the same cloth as Murrow. She was an engaging stylist and enterprising reporter who defended the little people and stuck it to the man. (“No great men call me,” she said upon receiving an award in 1998. “You know who calls me? Losers. I am their mark.”) She had contempt for McCarthy (whom she called an “Irish bully”), made Nixon’s enemies list, and was an early opponent of the war on Iraq.
The best thing about McGrory, as with all the great journalists of her generation, is that she specialized in being herself and made decisions that would give her maximum freedom as a journalist. One suspects not having a husband or children didn’t hurt, just as Bob Edwards’s decision to stay on at NPR will probably extend his creative output in the long run. If only more journalists today knew how to place so much emphasis on producing quality work, and so little on going along with the tide.