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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

One measure of Murrow's nature and stature, and a basis for comparing him to any broadcast journalist of today, lies in the cumulative record of issues to which he addressed himself, and in the positions he took. Sperber shows that quite apart from his celebrated reportage from London and elsewhere, and his epochal McCarthy broadcast, he injected in a politically timid, entertainment-oriented medium, programs dealing powerfully with suppression of civil liberties, the uses and abuses of congressional investigative practices, citizens' rights under the Fifth Amendment, the connection between red-baiting and anti-Semitism, the concerns of black America, the question of a proposal to blockade the Chinese mainland, and other matters of civic and political importance. When he was given the Albert Einstein Prize in the humanities for having supported victims of Nazi persecution, he sent his award check to the author Alan Paton, then facing trail in South Africa. He attacked the loyalty oath as "a very stupid thing," criticized "the American practice of dismissing all Russian suggestions for parleys as mere propaganda," and in 1960, warned that, thanks to TV, "the voter may elect to purchase the second-rate idea--he may vote for Profile rather than for Principle . . . in the age of television, a politician to be popular must not be too complicated . . . he must be able to avoid the difficult question without appearing to do so."

"Murrow" is an important book on every level--history, biography, morality, relevance to the concerns of today and to problems that will not go away tomorrow or the day after. If occasionally there is a bit of bumpy syntax or a missing shard of information, they are small and insignificant cavils against the broad, tumultuous, colorful and dramatic canvas of the life and times of a public figure whom Sperber justly calls "a culture hero."

Not least among the qualities that make Sperber's book compelling, are the frequent appearances of people of lower visibility than the stars and superstars who necessarily crowd the mural. Especially Joe Wershba, who contributed importantly to some of Murrow's greatest productions, including the landmark Radulovich program that obliged the Air Force to back down from a judicial atrocity. Of this program, Sperber writes, "It was commercial television, 1953, handling, suddenly, the hottest political potato of the time--not in euphemisms, not through debates or surrogates but directly; not in retrospect but at the height of the national obsession and over a medium dependent for its license on a government that had partly caved into and partly fanned the hysteria. A half hour of undiluted controversy." According to Sperber, Murrow in his last years "seemed to take special pleasure in talking to Wershba," and indeed it is Wershba who has the last word in the book.

"Murrow" was 12 years in the making. It was time well spent.

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