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The man who created broadcast news

Ex-'Morning Edition' host Edwards offers his take on Murrow

By Todd Leopold

• Sidebar:  Whither Bob Edwards?
Edward R. Murrow
Bob Edwards

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Bob Edwards still isn't getting any sleep.

You'd think the former "Morning Edition" host, famous for waking up at 1 a.m. for his early-morning NPR news show, would be sleeping in since leaving the program April 30. And he won't be returning to NPR's air for a few months.

But there's the matter of promoting a new book, "Edward R. Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism" (Wiley), and helping to raise $500,000 for public radio on a 50-city tour that runs into July.

So Edwards has been getting up early, flying into one city or out of another, giving talks and shaking hands and doing all the exhausting backslapping that makes up the modern book (and fund-raising) tour.

Ask him about his subject, however -- the pioneering CBS newsman -- and he lights up. Literally. Sitting by a hotel pool on a hot Atlanta day in advance of a lunchtime talk, Edwards punctuates his accounts with drags on a cigarette, much like the famously stylish (and chain-smoking) Murrow.

Murrow, he observes, was as much educator as journalist, and his aggressive use of radio and television -- his gripping word-paintings describing the bombs falling on London, his bold television programs taking on Sen. Joseph McCarthy, his use of technology -- was both enlightening and controversial.

"In radio he naturally knew [how to use sound]. ... In television he had people tell him that, show him how to use pictures," Edwards says.

"He was the founder of what I do," he adds. "Establishment of news on, first, radio, and then television on a regular basis -- original news and not just events coverage, which they had been doing before that."

News as it happens

Murrow's story is a classic case of right place, right time. The college speech graduate, raised working class in Washington state, spent the first years of his career in education, arranging exchange programs for an international educational organization.

In 1935, ready for a change and with a bulging list of contacts, he took a job at CBS as the director of "talks" -- simply monologues by established figures. Less than two years later, he was off to London to become the CBS European director.

With war clouds gathering -- and then storming -- Murrow expanded CBS' reporting capabilities. By 1941 he had hired the soon-to-be famous William L. Shirer, Eric Sevareid, Larry LeSueur, Charles Collingwood and Howard K. Smith, later to be known as "Murrow's Boys."

Murrow's determination to break news and bring the public news as it happened -- from the London rooftop broadcasts to his CBS TV show "See It Now" -- was unprecedented, Edwards says.

"You had no original reporting, no enterprise journalism [in television]," he says. "That began on the network level with 'See It Now' in 1951. And then NBC had to match, of course. Then [TV networks] were off and running with a professional news-gathering staff."

But by the mid-'50s, Murrow had become overly controversial. He was a "hot" man in a cool medium.

"That was his problem, doing controversial programs that brought down Congress, the FCC and sponsors on his employer, CBS," Edwards says. "They didn't like that sort of thing. ... It's bad for the bottom line -- he was trouble, he was bad for business."

Murrow's legacy

Bob Edwards

Murrow eventually left CBS and went to work for the U.S. Information Agency in 1961. But he didn't find playing politics easy and left in 1964. A year later, weakened by cancer, he was dead.

Edwards sees a lot to admire in Murrow -- his commitment to news and his determination to educate. There are a handful of outlets still committed to news the way Murrow saw it, Edwards says.

"I think he would admire us [NPR], frankly," he observes, noting that both Murrow colleague (and NPR commentator) Daniel Schorr and the late Murrow producer Fred Friendly agree. "I think he would love 'Nightline' ... 'Sunday Morning' on CBS. He would like the Sunday interview programs. ... [And] I think he would be thrilled there are 24-hour cable [news] channels."

However, he believes his subject would be mostly disappointed. Commercial radio, dominated by a handful of corporations, has practically dropped news entirely. And television, fixated on profits, pitches news as just another show, he says.

"Now news is entertainment. [It] doesn't even try to educate much anymore," he says. "And it's capable of so much more than it was in Murrow's time, because we have better toys -- instantaneous communication worldwide, the Internet -- he would call them 'instruments.' ... We have a lot more instruments now than we did, and too often none of them are used for anything more than making money.

"That was the complaint then [in Murrow's time]," Edwards adds. "And it's much, much, much more so now."

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