Web Exclusive - Bob Edwards Interview

by Luke Baumgarten & r & Bob Edwards talks about George Clooney, Edward R Murrow, and why broadcast journalism was doomed from the beginning.

Luke Baumgarten: How'd you like the movie? & r & Bob Edwards: I loved it; it was great. They stayed so close to the facts that I knew what the next line of dialogue was going to be

Clooney has said that the film isn't a polemic, but that it is meant to nudge the media toward a certain code of journalistic conduct, which he obviously thinks has been lost. As a journalist for over 30 years, how do you react to that? & r & I share his hope, but I won't hold my breath waiting for it. I mean commercial broadcasting is still commercial broadcasting. It doesn't like to upset people. Murrow thought that's what the job of a journalist was. To upset people because we're dealing with subjects that are very upsetting. Murrow felt that it was the job of journalism to hold authority to account. Nowadays, we look at the polls. If someone is riding high, we don't mess with them.

Because It's all about numbers. & r & Yep, and we want to please people. Journalism shouldn't be about pleasing people, it should be about doing your job.

I guess the premise implicit in that [Clooney's statement] is that there's a real and direct comparison to be drawn between the McCarthy era and the stuff that's happening now. Do you find that to be true? & r & You hear some of it in Murrow's summation to the McCarthy broadcast. When he says, "we will not walk in fear one of another. Not if we remember our history and recall that we are not descended from fearful men. Men who defend right to speak out or to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular. There's another part in there that says, "We can't protect freedom abroad by denying it at home." And another line that says, "We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty." All of that is relevant today. It's a great civics lesson that close to the McCarthy broadcast. It's relevant all the time. He's saying that, in a democracy, the voters decide. It's not somebody else's responsibility to get rid of a demagogue; it's ours.

So we're talking about demagogues, and obviously McCarthy is the most recognizable figure at that time. But it seems like it's different today. The idea that criticism of the government is tantamount to treason. It's coming from points in certain political aspects, but it also seems like it's a view that's held by a large number of the people in this country. & r & Nooooo, no . . .

You don't think so? & r & I don't think so. I think it's people showing loyalty--the Bush faithful showing loyalty to him. Of course, there's less of that too, now. I mean where have we heard the phrase "enemies of freedom?" It came from the White House. You oppose his war and his policies; you're an enemy of freedom.

It seems like it's also coming from a different angle. You drive through many rural areas and you hear the sentiment that criticizing the government is the same as not supporting our troops, for example. & r & That's just rhetoric, that's what you do. You turn that around as being against our troops and putting our boys in danger. That's crap. But they have to be called on that, you know? When you hear that stuff, you just gotta . . .

You think that's coming from the top, and not from, you know, the bottom up? & r & Yeah, it's Karl Rove on down.

What does it boil down to -- we've already talked about the commercial media -- but was Murrow's thing, was it about backbone? & r & Yeah, and he paid for it. As Clooney has pointed out in interviews, this was a great battle and both generals went down. It just took longer for Murrow. It was a different sort of process. McCarthy was through, effectively, by the end of 1954 -- the year of the broadcast. With Murrow it took longer. Two years after the broadcast, he lost his sponsor; two years after that, he lost his program; and two years after that, he was so marginalized at CBS, used so infrequently, that he quit in frustration.

So that famous speech he gave in 1958 [to the Radio and Television News Directors Association, in which Murrow denounced network's prime time linup as engineered to "distract, delude, amuse and insulate."] that was after all that happened right? & r & Yeah, he was kinda burning bridges. It was right after he lost "See it Now" so he thought he had nothing to lose, so he let it rip. He just went out swinging. And even then he lingered on at CBS for a year or so, hoping things would change.

But they didn't & r & No.

And that's how the film closes? & r & It begins and ends with different parts of that speech. They kinda frame the story in between.

So does that change, in your mind, the thrust of the film from a polemic against McCarthyism or its possible parallels today, to mostly a condemnation of the media? & r & Yeah. Just by illustrating that, once upon a time things were quite different. I think it takes the media to task that way. This was where the battle was fought -- see, Murrow's thing was, he felt that, once in a while, principles of journalism have to prevail over the values of the corporation. And Bill Paley, his boss - the Chairman of CBS - felt quite differently. He felt that, they were a corporation and nothing tops corporate values. That journalism had to serve the corporation. Paley said to Murrow, "your programs give me stomach aches." Murrow said, "they go with the job." Paley didn't think they went with the job. This was the battle for whether good journalism--aggressive journalism--was possible in the commercial news media. We now know how that turns out.

It's not. & r & It's not. Ultimately, you go up to a line and you don't cross it. Controversy makes sponsors unhappy; it makes the government unhappy. I just don't think commercial radio and television has the stomach for doing aggressive journalism.

The next question was leading up to that, but you've framed in a weird way: There did seem to be a swell of media backbone in the wake of Katrina, but was it just that that was so roundly considered to be a failure that there was no controversy, so it was easy to condemn? & r & Well it was all right there, on video, you could see it. The school busses under water. Three days into it and the FEMA director doesn't know the convention center is a shelter. My God, you and I saw it everyday.

But was the reason it was covered the way it was is because there was such a deep-seated belief that this was a failure, so the journalist's fetters came off? & r & I think the reporters were genuinely moved and outraged. They saw the misery and suffering and then they saw why. I think they just reacted as human beings - and as journalists. I mean we are supposed to question. That is our job. Everyday we're supposed to question authority. We are the surrogates of those that don't have the access we have. Normally citizens can't talk to the FEMA director, or to George Bush, but we can. So we have to ask what they would demand to know.

From your biography, it seems like Murrow was in a very unique place, because one there weren't that many anchors, there weren't that many networks, and two, he'd built up this immense trust going back to WWII. & r & Right, he had political capital. And also, the big difference between now and then is that news didn't need to make money. News was done because they felt news needed to be done, as a public service. It was a loss leader. Now, the big conglomerates that run the networks look at the news division as just another profit center. "Our theme parks make money, our movie theaters make money, why doesn't our news department make money?"

So, again, it's the triumph of corporate culture. & r & Right, and in that speech, in 1958, Murrow was arguing to occasionally set aside some prime time for news. Doesn't have to be every day. Now we have that, we have Dateline, we have these magazines, but what do they do? They do crime, they do the disease of the week, they do Michael Jackson, celebrity gossip, they interview starlets. What you don't have is an aggressive show on campaign finance or, you know, the next Enron, you don't have any of that.

Is there any hope to get back to that - obviously you don't think from a commercial standpoint . . . & r & I don't think in commercial broadcasting, no. I think public broadcasting can do it. Magazines, newspapers do it, but not commercial television.

Since there are so many streams of information, will there ever be that level of connection between an anchor and the audience that Murrow had with America? & r & We'll never have Murrow's audience. Walter, on a good night, would have 40 million. No one will have that, ever. Unless there's a really big story, the cable audiences don't even reach a million. It's so fractured; you don't have a figure like that. I'm sure there are a great many of people in the country who have no idea who Bill O'Reilly is, because they don't have cable, or, they don't watch it. They're watching wrestling or something . . . and it sort of is wrestling, when you think about it.

If I can frame this question by admitting my ignorance: until I started writing this story all I knew almost nothing about Murrow. One of my colleagues, who is about my age, grew up 20 miles from Murrow in the Skagit valley, but had no idea. Is his legacy dying outside of - or even within -- journalistic circles? & r & You have to be my age - and I was a kid - my age or older to remember. We remember presidents when they're gone, but journalists? I mean, we don't remember great print journalists, and look at how many of those there were. But we're not supposed to be the story, we're supposed to tell the story. It think people in our business should know Murrow, and a lot of them don't. And that is shocking. If you're studying law, you should know who Clarence Darrow is, who John Marshall is. If you're in broadcasting, you should know Murrow.

The immediate analogy that comes to mind when I read press about Good Night and Good Luck is that it may be to our current situation what Crucible was to McCarthyism in so far as the works are a way to get people to revisit history. & r & Yeah, The reason I wrote the book is that I wanted another generation to know we didn't always do news this way. That once upon a time, it was done better and that the guy who was there at the beginning set the highest standard.

And also that we've been in this situation before? There's been no shortage danger to this country. There was always fear. & r & Some politicians will always play on fear. They'll use that as we see happening right now with terrorism. Not that [the claims of danger from terrorism are] not legitimate, and not that we shouldn't be battling it. But to throw gasoline on the fire and keep us very afraid, because you need us to be afraid to get other things you need. And things you want.

Where McCarthy's motivations political? & r & Yes.

Purely political? & r & Oh God yes. He was a demagogue and a bully.

So he came from a place of, not maybe himself acting out of fear, but using other people's fear as a way of exacting political gains? & r & Yes, exactly. Totally.

Then, is having a knowledge of history an antidote to fear? & r & We forget history. The people involved forget it. I always think of Hillary Clinton, who worked on the staff of the impeachment committee. She knew all about cover-ups and disappearing evidence. Then we find this crate of documents in the White House - this is travel gate, not a big criminal thing, but - "oops, where'd that come from?" Even the people who make the history that shouldn't be forgotten forget it. In news we see the same stuff coming around again and again and again, it's amazing, Clooney says it, in his interviews. He says, "every 20 or 30 years we do something really Craayzy." McCarthyism, Watergate, whatever. And we suspend civil liberties and just become very un-American.

Does that cycle become more dangerous? & r & It swings back and forth. Memory fades and a new group of politicians come along and, maybe they know their history and they can reach back for an example that worked once, "Hey, maybe it'll work again."

Any other thoughts you had about the film? & r & I think it was a very gutsy project. He was out on a limb doing this. I mean, he'll pay for this by doing a moving or two that he doesn't want to do, in order to finance this project. I don't think he wanted to put himself in the movie, but he had to.

You mentioned that he stuck very close to the facts, but through the lens of public opinion, the facts become subjects of debate. I'm thinking specifically of the recent crop of McCarthy Revisionists. & r & Clooney said that was another reason he made it, because of Ann Coulter. But [revisionists] miss the point. [Murrow's point] wasn't that there weren't any communists. It's that people like McCarthy denied due process and that was what Murrow was about. Murrow himself said that. He wasn't commenting on the guilt or innocence of any of the people before McCarthy's committee, only that McCarthy wasn't following the constitution. Accusation is not proof," Murrow said. He had these people guilty before innocent.

It ruined a lot of people's lives. & r & Oh my God, yes. He said, "I have a list." He didn't show it to anybody. It was never published. But he had a list. Well, you know, we should demand more. Those accused deserve more.

Art, Nature and the Voice of the River @ People's Park

Sun., June 13, 11 a.m.
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About The Author

Luke Baumgarten

Luke Baumgarten is commentary contributor and former culture editor of the Inlander. He is a creative strategist at Seven2 and co-founder of Terrain.