Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Standard of Excellence

It was 45 years ago today that Edward R. Murrow died of lung cancer — two days after his 57th birthday.

When I was studying journalism in college, it seemed there wasn't a class I took in which Murrow's name did not come up. No matter what we were discussing in class, Murrow's life and career always had something relevant to contribute to the conversation.

As far as I was concerned, that was as it should be.

I didn't give much thought to what was the norm in other majors when I was in college, but, as I thought back on it over the years, I realized it had to be the same way with other subjects. Surely, physics majors must have many opportunities in their classes to mention the name of Albert Einstein and recall something relevant he said or wrote. Students of economic thought still speak of Adam Smith more than 200 years after his "The Wealth of Nations" was published. Euclid lived more than 2,000 years ago, but I'm sure his name is brought up with some frequency in math classes.

There are icons in every subject.

Granted, Murrow more appropriately belongs to the pantheon of broadcasting's pioneers. When we discussed print journalism in school, Walter Lippmann's name often came up. And when our discussions predated the 20th century, the conversation focused on names like Benjamin Franklin, Horace Greeley, etc.

But Murrow was always important — primarily because he showed the kind of courage that journalists always admire.

Regardless of the risk to his personal safety, he brought war news to Americans from Europe. After the war, he stood against Joe McCarthy and the infamous Red Scare.

He was a giant of journalism, but even a giant eventually tumbles. Murrow was a heavy smoker throughout his adult life, and that presumably was what brought him down.

But even in that regard Murrow was something of a pioneer. At the time of his death, it had only been a year since the surgeon general made the connection between cigarettes and life–threatening illnesses, which ultimately led to the health warning labels that are now standard on cigarette packages, but in 1965 many people may not have gotten the message until Murrow, whose cigarettes were ever present during his broadcasts, died.

We may never know how many people were inspired to give up smoking by that event, but even if only one was so inspired — and that person added even a day to his/her life because of it — it could be said to be Murrow's final contribution to a better America and a better world.

I don't know if he would be gratified today to know whether his sacrifice played a role in the dramatic decrease in adult smoking in the United States in the last 45 years. Perhaps he would, but I'm more inclined to think that he would be concerned about the future of journalism with so many newspapers struggling to survive.

Even though he made his mark in broadcasting, Murrow addressed the proud traditions in this country of freedom of speech and freedom of the press when he said, during the conflict with McCarthy: "We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. 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."

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