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MURROW: HIS LIFE AND TIMES by A. M. Sperber (Freundlich: $22.95; 816 pp., illustrated)

June 22, 1986|Norman Corwin | Corwin, writer and director, worked with Murrow in London. His latest book is "Trivializing America." and

In the 21 years since Edward R. Murrow's ashes were scattered over the glen of his farm in Pawling, N.Y., two massive biographies have been written. The latest, by Ann M. Sperber, exceeds the first by nearly 300 pages. Copious as both are, they will probably not be the last accounts of Murrow's life, since even this early, it has become clear that he is a man for the ages. There has not been a journalist of his size before or since, and it may be a long while before we see his likes again.

What Murrow was, how he got that way, the complexities of his character, the national issues which affected him and which he in turn affected, his penchant for taking risks, his swings of shyness and boldness, his steely devotion to principle, his charm, his capacity for anger, his success (highest paid journalist in the world), his zeal to defend underdogs and pariahs, his depressions, his fierce loyalty to those who worked with him, his stubborn integrity, his crowded galleries of friends and enemies, his mental and physical sufferings--all are soundly researched and presented.

To Murrow's buffs, a comparison of this biography with Alexander Kendrick's 548-page "Prime Time" (1969) is inevitable, but it casts no shadow on Kendrick to say that Sperber goes beyond him--not in the quality of writing, but in a wealth of material drawn from sources unavailable earlier, including newly declassified FBI and USIA files, CBS corporate documents, BBC archives and fresh interviews.

It is understandable, perhaps commendable, that biographers of Murrow should show emotion, there being no special merit in total detachment and crispness when writing about a man who placed far more emphasis on doing right than well, and who at a time of cross cowardice, put spine and conscience into a medium born without either. Sperber writes of Murrow's many acts of generosity ("a near-compulsive bestower of gifts and little kindnesses"); his modesty, ("Almost excessively praised, he could be excessively thankful, writing people of no particular importance, in the midst of wide public adulation, (to express) 'grateful appreciation and encouragement' "); his self-deprecation ("my tinfoil reputation"); his prophetic vision (concerning U.S. Vietnam policy before Dienbienphu, he warned "We may be led into a disastrous situation," and, after the French were beaten, "We will inherit the mess"); his outspokenness on all subjects, including a speech before a convention of broadcasters, castigating television for "decadence, escapism . . . being used to distract, delude, amuse and insulate us.")

Most of the highlights of Murrow's career, including his differences with Frank Stanton and William L. Shirer, and the now classic defoliation of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, have been made familiar by Kendrick, Erik Barnouw and others, as well as by a recent and controversial TV special, but there are new insights, emphases and events here, including the case of Joseph Julian, a gifted and successful actor who found himself unemployable after his name appeared in the blacklist-generating "Red Channels." Julian decided to sue the publisher for libel. He bumped into Murrow in a restaurant one day and asked him if he would appear as a witness for him at the trial. Without a moment's hesitation, Murrow, friend of the titans of broadcasting, Galahad to millions of listeners, a favorite of Winston Churchill, the toast of every enlightened journalist in the world, answered, "Just say when and where, Joe." The trial turned out to be disastrous because Judge Irving Saypol, making "no pretense of impartiality," effectively muzzled Murrow. However, what no judge could expunge from the record was Murrow's gallantry in volunteering to help a jobless actor when nobody else in the industry would raise a finger.

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