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Murrow: Today he'd seem pretentious

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November 27, 2005

Murrow: Today he'd seem pretentious

Stephen Baker

I finally saw the Murrow movie, Goodnight and Good Luck. I was struck by the elegance and formality of the language Murrow used, and by the fact that he actually dueled in Shakespeare quotes with Sen. McCarthy. Anchors today would have to take it down a notch, or risk coming across as pretentious.

I get the sense that for a lot of people in Murrow's day, news was about self-improvement, learning about the world, maybe picking up some vocabulary words. Sports, by contrast, were for relaxing. At some point, maybe when many of us stopped wearing ties and dresses to work, the language from sports (and even the funnies) invaded the sanctum of news. If it was easier to understand, and more fun, why not?

It's been very difficult for many news people to navigate this cultural shift. Dan Rather, I think, got caught in between, half of him trying to be a high-thinking Murrow, the other sounding sometimes like Hee Haw.

12:15 AM


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I am not really old enough to have watched Murrow. I do remember Dan Rather.

I believe that news in prior days, rather than being pretentious, was high-minded and thought to have a mission, a purpose, a certain integrity. Today's corporate news is about entertainment. It is ok to go easy with the facts and who cares about what is important in the world; it is what sells to the public.

News appeals to the most prurient of interests. We dwell on Katrina when the sensationalism is compelling, but who wants to hear about the disaster that is New Orleans now? Who wants to hear about what is going to happen to all of the people in the trailers? They got theirs didn't they?

Financial reporting is now starting to resemble that famous movie 'Network' where the protagonist asks everyone to get up out of their chairs and go to their windows and yell "I'm mad as hell and I am not going to take it anymore." Just watch Cramer as he smashes chairs and pulls the heads of toy animals, screaming until he is hoarse. I wouldn't want to be his ENT physician.

So while some may find what happened in the past pretentious, I long for a time when news departments had editorial freedom and that there was a pride in reporting and a certain ethic that seems to be lost today. I would take an Edward R. Murrow for an O'Reilly any day.


Posted by: Robert Freedland at November 27, 2005 01:07 PM


I didn't want to deal with my preferences in the post. But I think we'd be much better off as a society if journalists (whether mainstream or bloggers) and politicians could deal seriously with a subject without having to worry if someone might consider it pretentious. It's as if earnestness and bookish knowledge were the essense of uncool in today's society, and I think that's a shame.

Posted by: steve baker at November 27, 2005 10:39 PM


I am in complete agreement with you. Today, we face a nation that sometimes appears to appreciate simplicity in its news, in its leaders, and in its education. We yearn for a simpler time when Bible stories sufficed for scientific underestanding and now have segments of our society seeking to replace science with religious tracts.

During the last election, John Kerry was ridiculed over his command of foreign languages, especially French. It wasn't macho, it wasn't tough guy enough for the voter. They much preferred a man like George Bush who they "felt comfortable" with. A kind of leader they could have a beer with and share a few stories. Kerry used far too many big words.

I am afraid for this nation which at times shows a strong anti-intellectual bent. We should reject news that is determined by which sponsor would pay the most, and move more towards honest reporting, as you point out, both in the blogosphere and main stream media.

George Lakos talks about how our leaders have misled the electorate, by telling us one thing and giving us another. We are told about the "Clean Air" Act that reduces penalties for pollution. We have leaders that redefine torture so that they can safely deny any heinous act as qualifying. We are told that we should vote to "protect marriage" when we are instead trying to deny other Americans of their rights. And we are told that to "support our troops" means to send them into war when even the arguments that were first made are found to be baseless.

I don't want to go back to the 50's and Joseph McCarthy. I would only like us to move ahead into the 21st Century, with values like truth, integrity, tolerance, and understanding. Times like these demand this of ourselves and our leaders.


Posted by: Robert Freedland at November 28, 2005 12:39 AM


I am extremely disappointed that you have come away from a Ed Murrow's biopic with your main emphasis on "How he would appear today". You missed the whole point of the movie..."His Character". Obviously you are neither old enough or wise enough to appreciate that in another time, sagacity and character were character traits held in higher esteem than "appearance" Go watch the movie again Stephen, on my dime. Send me the bill! And you write for BusinessWeek. Whoa

Posted by: Steve Murphy at November 29, 2005 11:15 AM

Steve, I liked the Murrow movie and admired the character very much. My blog post wasn't intended to be a synthesis of the movie, or a review. I was simply making a small point about one aspect of it.

Posted by: steve baker at November 29, 2005 11:27 AM


The job of journalists is today more challenging than ever. You folks are expected to cook the language down to simple terms, despite ever more complicated new developments that challenge capture. Complicated new developments is nothing new, but in order to reach more people language has to be common. In order to deliver the message to these people who have a five second attention span, language has to be deadly precise. Tough double. The good news is that with stuff like blogs, you are allowed a more stilted vocabulary because there's a more-focused assumed context than there is for mass-marketed dead-tree distribution. There's been a great deal of discussion about jargon, but don't you think a subset of the language can apply that isn't necessarily circumscribed by the term "jargon"? I can feature a fellow like yourself contributing to a few different blogs. As contexts as your brain could multiplex.

Pete Z.

Posted by: Pete Zievers at November 29, 2005 05:56 PM

You folks are expected to cook the language down to simple terms, despite ever more complicated new developments that challenge capture.

Posted by: fish Fisher at May 9, 2006 02:04 AM

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