Today is Edward R. Murrow’s birthday. Murrow is lionized by journalists and students of journalism–and rightly so. He had the sort of career people make movies about (and, in fact, they did: Good Night, and Good Luck, 2005).
His first real brush with fame took place in 1940 during the Blitz, when the German Luftwaffe indiscriminately bombed England. Murrow, a reporter for CBS Radio, was stationed in London when the bombing began and he remained at his post, broadcasting live during the height of the Blitz. He ended each broadcast by saying “Good night, and good luck.” It wasn’t just a catchphrase; more than a million homes and buildings in London were destroyed during the Blitz, and some 20,000 Londoners were killed. Luck played a big role in who would still be alive come morning.
But it was Murrow’s stand against McCarthyism that sealed his fame. In the early 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy was using his position on the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations to browbeat anybody he even remotely suspected of treason, disloyalty, or subversion (which appeared to include anybody who disagreed or questioned Sen. McCarthy). Very few people were willing to stand up against McCarthy. Murrow was one of the few, broadcasting two special reports on McCarthy and his tactics. He ended the second report with this:
We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men—not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular.
This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent, or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities. As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age. We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.
What made this remarkable, aside from the courage it took to confront McCarthy, was the fact that Murrow was known as a reporter–a newsman. Not an analyst, not a commentator, not a pundit–a reporter whose job was to report facts.
I’m mentioning this mainly because that approach to the news seems to have largely disappeared. Modern journalists tend to report what news-makers say; they rarely bother to report whether what is said is truthful or accurate. This allows folks like Mitt Romney to make outrageous claims (like, say, Romney’s claim that the Obama administration is engaging on a systematic assault on people of faith) without any fear of contradiction (or any fear of being revealed as a lying sack of shit).
Modern journalists seem to have abdicated their role as reporters of fact and have become instead mere recorders of statements. They do this in the mistaken belief that they’re being objective–that objectivity means reporting ‘both sides of a story.’ And to be sure, nonpartisanship is something to which journalists should aspire. But it’s not partisan to point out the facts when one side of the story is utter bullshit. For example, when gun rights advocate John Lott claims that “laws allowing for the concealed carrying of handguns causes levels of violent crime to drop,” it’s not partisan to point out that the report on which he bases that claim has been debunked because of fabricated data. Allowing a subject to make a statement that’s patently untrue and that relies on ‘data’ that somebody just made up isn’t being nonpartisan; it’s being stupid. Worse, it’s contributing to the stupidization of the general public.
I wouldn’t presume to put words in Edward R. Murrow’s mouth–no, wait. I will, in fact, be that presumptuous. If Murrow were alive to celebrate his 104th birthday, I suspect he’d be likely to say something like this: “Journalists,your job is to report, not just repeat.” And then he’d say “Good night, and good luck–and stop being such useless dicks.” I’m pretty sure that’s what he’d say.