Arguably the most distinguished and renowned figure in the history of American broadcast journalism, Edward Murrow (1908 – 1965) was a seminal force in the development of electronic newsgathering. His career spanned the infancy of news and public affairs programming on radio through the ascendancy of television in the 1950s, and he was universally recognized for his courage, integrity, social responsibility, and journalistic excellence. Though he famously reported on many controversial issues, he is perhaps best known for producing TV news reports that criticized the “Red Scare” and helped lead to the downfall of Senator Joseph McCarthy, a turning point in the history of television.
Murrow was a great supporter of Israel and, during a trip there in 1956 to prepare a broadcast called “See It Now: Egypt-Israel,” Israelis reciprocated by showering him with great affection. Shown with this column as Exhibit 1 is an original October 7, 1956 newspaper photograph of Murrow interviewing Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser about the Suez Canal controversy for the “See It Now” piece. Murrow formed close relationships with Israel’s early leaders, including Ben-Gurion, whom he interviewed at Sde Boker during the trip, Moshe Dayan, and Teddy Kollek.
Thus, for example, in the July 26, 1963 correspondence on his U.S. Information Agency letterhead shown here as Exhibit 2, Murrow writes to Kitty Carlisle during her travels to Israel:
Herewith notes to three friends in Israel. Tell Teddy Kollek I said you must go fishing in the Sea of Galilee. Sorry I haven’t got Moish Perlman’s address, but anybody in Jerusalem can find him if he is there.
Moshe Pearlman (1911 – 1986), was a well-known author; served as the first Israel Defense Force official spokesman (1948 – 1952); founded the Israel Government Press Office, and served as one of the first directors of Israel Radio; and was a close advisor of Ben-Gurion.
Kitty Carlisle Hart (1910 – 2007) was a Jewish American singer, actress, philanthropist, and spokeswoman for the arts perhaps best remembered for her years as a regular panelist on the television game show “To Tell the Truth.” She, like Murrow, was a great friend of Israel.
Though Murrow became a legendary pioneer of radio broadcasting and television news, he has received little recognition for his rescue efforts on behalf of persecuted scholars during the Holocaust.
Engaged by CBS to establish a European network of correspondents, Murrow arrived in Germany shortly before the enactment of the Nuremberg Laws (1935) and interviewed ousted Jewish professors, reporting on their academic repression. As deputy director of the Institute of International Education in New York, he rescued some of Europe’s great Jewish thinkers from the Nazis after Goebbels began discharging Jewish and other anti-Nazi professors from Germany’s universities, an experience that transformed Murrow into a lifelong champion of the Jews and Israel.
During the depths of the Depression, Murrow was assigned the daunting task of finding positions for refugee professors at American institutions of higher learning, but there were no funds to pay even these world-renowned scholars, so Murrow convinced the universities to take them on as faculty members virtually cost-free. Their salaries and expenses were paid almost entirely by wealthy private Jewish financiers and by Jewish organizations, including the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
Murrow, who characterized this work as “the most personally satisfying undertaking in which I have ever engaged, and contributed more to my knowledge of politics and international relations than any similar period in my life,” regularly corresponded with Albert Einstein (then a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton), who sent him recommendations and advice.
As the head of CBS operations in Europe, Murrow became a fixture on American radio during World War II, famously risking his life by transmitting reports during the bombing of London from the city’s rooftops, thereby becoming the first broadcaster to incorporate ambient sound into his reporting and allowing listeners to hear developing news in “real time.”
Many credit him with “breaking” the story of the Holocaust at a time when the American government was shamefully slow to acknowledge the Shoah and when American media outlets followed suit, failing to inform their audiences about salient facts they knew concerning the Nazi genocide. By late fall of 1942, evidence was mounting that at least two million Jews had been slain and that Hitler had ordered the extermination of all Jews. While the media continued their general silence, Murrow did not; in his December 13, 1942 CBS radio broadcast, he explained to his listeners:
What is happening is this: millions of human beings, most of them Jews, are being gathered up with ruthless efficiency and murdered…. The phrase “concentration camp” is obsolete, as out of date as “economic sanctions” or “non-recognition.” It is now possible to speak only of “extermination camps.”
As Joyce Fine discusses in American Radio Coverage of the Holocaust, by the end of 1942 there were essentially three instances where radio had broadcast news that the Nazis were implementing a plan to exterminate the Jews: once through an announcement by the World Jewish Congress; once through Murrow’s commentary, as discussed above; and once through a government announcement. However, the media failed to report broadly on this issue or to provide any focus on such news and by the time the war had ended, no other voice rivaled Murrow’s as he reported on Nazi barbarism.
On April 12, 1945, Murrow became the first journalist to pass through the barbed wire gates of Buchenwald, where he wept openly at what he saw. Many think his angry broadcast detailing what he found there was the best he ever delivered:
There surged around me an evil-smelling stink, men and boys reached out to touch me. They were in rags and the remnants of uniforms. Death already had marked many of them, but they were smiling with their eyes . . .
In another part of the camp they showed me the children, hundreds of them. Some were only 6 years old. One rolled up his sleeves, showed me his number. It was tattooed on his arm. B-6030, it was. The others showed me their numbers. They will carry them till they die. An elderly man standing beside me said: “The children – enemies of the state!” I could see their ribs through their thin shirts . . .
We went to the hospital. It was full. The doctor told me that 200 had died the day before. I asked the cause of death. He shrugged and said: “tuberculosis, starvation, fatigue, and there are many who have no desire to live. It is very difficult.” . . .
We proceeded to the small courtyard. The wall adjoined what had been a stable or garage. We entered. It was floored with concrete. There were two rows of bodies stacked up like cordwood. They were thin and very white…. The clothing was piled in a heap against the wall. It appeared that most of the men and boys had died of starvation; they had not been executed. But the manner of death seemed unimportant. Murder had been done at Buchenwald. God alone knows how many men and boys have died there during the last 12 years. Thursday, I was told that there were more than 20,000 in the camp. There had been as many as 60,000. Where are they now?
I pray you to believe what I have said about Buchenwald. I reported what I saw and heard, but only part of it. For most of it, I have no words. If I have offended you by this rather mild account of Buchenwald, I’m not in the least sorry…
Seventy-two years later, the words are every bit as chilling as they were when they were first spoken.