A familiar voice will be heard again in the Spokane region next week. Former National Public Radio star Bob Edwards will speak at Eastern Washington University on Friday, April 22, at 7 pm about his new biography of broadcaster Edward R. Murrow. (Advance tickets are free to EWU students on a first-come basis at the student bookstore.)
Until he was unceremoniously taken off the air by NPR management in 2003, Edwards was the voice of Morning Edition. An estimated 13 million listeners per week started the day listening to Edwards read the news and interview newsmakers.
When Edwards was taken off the air, 50,000 listeners wrote e-mails of protest. In an era when political leaning seems to be the main source of radio loyalty, Edward's popularity is harder to explain. For the most part, after all, he just asks questions. (A lot of them: In nearly 30 years at NPR, he conducted 20,000 interviews.) They're good questions, uttered in a low, pensive voice that transmitted real curiosity and, like the purr of a Lamborghini engine, suggested power under the hood.
Among the devoted listeners who protested when Edwards went off the air was David Broder, dean of the country's political reporters. In a newspaper column, Broder examined Edward's technique with professional admiration: "He is a minimalist. He works hard to be unobtrusive. In a business where constant yakking is the norm and most hosts feel the need to dominate the dialogue, Edwards is different."
Broder analyzed the transcript of a typical Bob Edwards interview, of Congressman Jim Turner of Texas about his plan to improve the Department of Homeland Security. Edwards asked simple questions: "Why would your plan be an improvement?" and, "What would the Marshall Plan for the Muslim world cost?" Then he remained quiet to allow Turner to explain.
"From the introduction to the final, 'Congressman, thank you very much,'" Broder commented, "Edwards had spent only 77 words drawing out the essential facts with five questions. That is professionalism, ladies and gentlemen."
So why, if a good journalist held a big audience (Edwards had the largest audience on all of NPR) was he taken off the air? The management of NPR never offered one.
With no official explanation, some speculated Edwards brought too much political attention to NPR when he candidly criticized the general state of broadcast journalism and specifically the Bush Administration's tight control of information.
In a speech at the University of Kentucky in 2002, a year before he was yanked from Morning Edition, Edwards criticized President Bush for holding only eight news conferences, by far the lowest of any president in half a century. At the same point in his administration, Edwards pointed out, President George Bush Sr. had held 58 news conferences.
Even when he did hold press conferences, the current President Bush broke precedent by calling only on pre-selected journalists. He did not take questions from reporters of network news, the news magazines or other major reporters.
Edwards said politicians get away with such manipulation of the media because media ownership is not willing to run athwart either government or popular taste.
"Owners of today's media, who are business tycoons, not journalists, would like us to be good representatives of the corporate brands," Edwards said in the speech. "But that is not our job. We are supposed to be surrogates for the public - the eyes and ears of citizens who don't have the access we have. We are to hold public officials to account, and if that makes them angry at us - well, that just goes with our job, and we have to take it. That's the price that comes with the privilege of serving the people."
Does Edwards believe he was taken off the air because of his criticism of the Bush administration or the broadcast industry?
"Perhaps," Edwards says, by telephone. But he insists he genuinely has no clue to why he was relieved of duty. There were no informal warnings or hints before he was taken off the air (and put in another post at NPR, which he soon quit. He now does his interviewing for XM Satellite Radio, a subscription service).
"They never gave me a reason -- not age, not union activities, not my outspokenness. It might have been all of that. I'm still puzzled and miffed," Edwards says, in his signature measured, dispassionate sentences, like the strokes of a hand saw cutting through a topic.
Long after the fact, Edwards e-mailed NPR vice president Bruce Drake and said, since it's over, could he finally tell him why he lost his job? Drake e-mailed back: "It is a complicated world on these matters and I'll have to think more about what kind of conversation between us is appropriate." That was all Edwards got.
Earlier, Edwards had been approached by a publisher to write a biography of broadcasting great Edward R. Murrow. (Edward R. Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism, John Wiley & amp; Sons, 2004). The coincidence is not without irony.
A half a century earlier, Murrow's own career came to a sudden end after some controversial remarks. In a 1958 speech, Murrow told the Radio-Television News Directors Association: "The top management of the networks, with a few notable exceptions, has been trained in advertising, research, sales, or show business. But by the nature of the corporate structure, they also make the final and crucial decisions having to do with news and public affairs. Frequently they have neither the time nor the competence to do this."
Bob Edwards speaks at EWU's Showalter Auditorium on Friday, April 22, at 7 pm. Tickets: $20. Call 325-SEAT.
Publication date: 04/14/05