Public Diplomacy

To be persuasive, we must be believable; to be believable we must be credible; to be credible, we must be truthful.' – E. R. Murrow, 1908 - 1965[1]


Edward R. Murrow, 1957

The name Edward R. Murrow is synonymous with responsible journalism throughout the world. He is considered the most respected and distinguished journalist of the 1940s and 1950s. Murrow was one of the first international reporters and was responsible for shaping radio and television journalism in its infant stages. His legacy stands as one who embodied journalistic ethics and high standards. Some scholars argue he was an important instrument of British public diplomacy during WWII.[2] After his work as a reporter and producer for CBS, Murrow worked in the public diplomacy field for President John F. Kennedy’s administration as the director of the US Information Agency.

Early Years

Born on April 25, 1908, in North Carolina, Murrow spent most of his early years in the state of Washington and attended Washington College (now Washington State). He later credited a speech instructor there for giving him a desire to achieve. That instructor, Ida Lou Anderson, taught him about “good books and good music and gave him a deep sense of values.”[3] He took a class in radio speaking, one of the first courses in broadcasting ever offered at the school.

During his tenure at Washington College, Murrow was active in the ROTC and student government and became student body president his senior year. After college, he worked as the president of the National Student Federation Association.

He then took a job at the International Institute of Education, a non-profit organization that facilitates student foreign exchanges.[4]


Under the direction of William Paley, CBS hired Murrow in 1935 to become the network’s Director of Talks. He was to produce and schedule newsmakers to come and talk on CBS radio.[5] Murrow then served as the director of overseas European operations for CBS in 1937 and began reporting in 1938. He was just starting this position when events leading to the onset of WWII were brewing. Broadcasting from Europe, he gave vivid, descriptive accounts of the growing turmoil in Europe. When Nazi forces invaded Austria in 1938, Murrow got on a plane to Vienna to report the story from the ground.

World War II

With the start of World War II, Murrow became a regular voice in wartime correspondence, gaining fame for his honest and uncompromising reports and signature sign-off, “Good night, and good luck.” That sign-off, in which he used an intonation that is still imitated by broadcasters today, came from a common exchange in London during that time: “So long and good luck.”[6]

Murrow reported from London during the war, often using the BBC’s broadcasting center as his base. Millions of Americans heard his nightly radio reports on CBS News.

His dramatic accounts became America’s link to the increasingly volatile events in Europe. His reports started ominously with the words, “This is London.” He would report extensively on the war damage and the effect on the British people to Americans who were reluctant to get involved in a war.

Of his estimated 5,000 radio broadcasts, some of the most poignant stories came during the start of the Blitz in 1940, when London became the target of Nazi bombings.

In his September 13, 1940, Murrow described the frightening silence of the night air between bombings.

“The anti-aircraft barrage has been fierce, but sometimes there have been periods of twenty minutes when London has become silent. . .That silence is almost hard to bear. One becomes accustomed to rattling windows and the distant sound of bombs, and then there comes a silence which can be felt. You know the sound will return. You wait, and then it starts again. The waiting is bad. It gives you a chance to remember things. . . It’s a beautiful and lonesome city where men and women and children are trying to snatch a few hours sleep underground.”[7]

He described the very personal toll it took on London citizens.

“We’ve told you about the bombs, the fires, the smashed houses, and the courage of the people,” he continued. “We’ve read you the communiqués and tried to give you an honest estimate of the wounds inflicted upon this, the best bombing target in the world. But the business of living in this city is very personal.”

In vivid detail, he went on to describe the day-to-day reality of normal routine, now interrupted by the German blitz:

“One night I stood in front of a grocery store and heard a dripping inside. It was the only sound in all London. Two cans of peaches had been drilled clean through by flying glass, and the juice was dripping onto the floor. Talking from a studio with bodies lying about on the floor, sleeping on mattresses, still produces a strange feeling but we’ll probably get used to that. Today I went to buy a hat. My favorite shop had gone, blown to bits. The windows of my shoe store were blown out. I decided to have a haircut. The windows of the barbershop were gone, but the Italian barber was still doing business. ‘Someday,’ he said, ‘we smile again, but the food – it doesn’t taste so good since being bombed.’”[8]


In 1941, American poet Archibald MacLeish (who later became assistant director of the Office of War Information from 1942-1943) said to Murrow, “You spoke, you said, in London. . . But it was not in London really that you spoke. It was in the back kitchens and the front living rooms and the moving automobiles and the hot dog stands and the observation cars of another country that your voice was truly speaking. And what you did was this: You made real and urgent and present to the men and women of those comfortable rooms, those safe enclosures, what the men and women had not known was present there or real. You burned the city of London in our houses and we felt the flames that burnt it. You laid the dead of London at our doors and we knew the dead were our dead – were all men’s dead – were all mankind’s dead – and ours.”

Murrow worked closely with Britain’s Ministry of Information during the rooftop reports. He had to show the Ministry of Information that he wouldn’t be threatening the region’s security with his stories.

“I had to stand on a rooftop for six nights in succession and make a record each night and submit it to the Ministry of Information in order to persuade the censors that I would ad lib without violating security,” he later said. “And I did it for six nights and the records were lost somewhere in the Ministry of Information so I had to do it for another six nights. So I spent a lot of time up there.”[10]

He was known for the metaphors and images he would employ in his stories. During a December 1943 report, he described bombs dropping from aircraft as “white rice thrown on black velvet.”[11]

Murrow would unabashedly describe the atrocities of war, particularly during his visit to the Buchenwald camp during its liberation. “I’m here to tell you what you would have seen and heard if you had been with me on Thursday. It will not be pleasant listening,” he said in the broadcast. “If you are at lunch, or if you have no appetite to hear what Germans have done, now is a good time to switch off the radio.”[12]

Eric Sevareid, a fellow journalist hired by Murrow a dubbed one of “Murrow’s Boys,” later reflected on Murrow’s influence in Britain’s war effort. “The generality of British people will probably never know what Murrow did for them in those days. . . Murrow was not trying to ‘sell’ the British cause to America; he was trying to explain the universal human cause of men who were showing a noble face to the world. In so doing he made the British and their behavior human and thus compelling to his countrymen at home.”[13]

Murrow’s London reports established CBS as a leading radio news network, and Murrow as a solid, reputable reporter. The reputations helped both of them as they transitioned into television news.[14]

Post-WWII: Transition to Television

After the war, Murrow made the transition from radio to television in the 1950’s, beginning with small pieces on CBS Evening News to eventually his own show in 1951 called See it Now, a take-off from his radio program Hear it Now. See it Now was the most influential and reputable news source of the time.[15] The show took on controversial issues such as the link between smoking and cancer (Murrow was an avid smoker himself). It was the first television program in a news documentary format, and its narrative approach paved the way for news programs such as 60 Minutes, 48 Hours, and 20/20.[16] Murrow, along with his crew from See it Now, was best known for their aggressive scrutiny and criticism of the Red Scare and Senator Joseph McCarthy (Wis-R).

In one of his most famous programs, Murrow investigated the story of a young Air Force lieutenant who was discharged because he had family members who were alleged to be communist sympathizers. The program explored how the charges “were either not true or so oblique to be ridiculous.”[17] The show was poignant as Cold War fears of communism were escalating. By exposing the unfair charges, that episode helped reinstate the lieutenant’s status and fix his reputation.

This set the stage for Murrow’s famous McCarthy program, which investigated the activities of the Republican senator from Wisconsin who was starting his witch-hunt of communists and communist sympathizers. Murrow was outspoken in lambasting McCarthy, while using clips of the senator contradicting himself. Eventually, Murrow challenged McCarthy to meet him on the program. While the senator released a statement to the program, it only “deepened public perception of the truths that Murrow had put forth.”[18] McCarthy’s popularity quickly dwindled and he was censured by the senate in 1954.

But public sentiment against McCarthy did not begin with Murrow’s program, say some scholars. Murrow’s McCarthy investigation came after some Americans were already beginning to lose patience for McCarthy’s tactics.[19]

During the 1950s, Murrow also hosted another weekly half-hour show called Person to Person. The show featured interviews with celebrities and pop-culture personalities. Guests, who were given the questions ahead of time, included Marilyn Monroe, John F. Kennedy – then senator - and his wife, and Harpo Marx.

For better or for worse, say Downey and Kaiser in The News about the News, “the program converted Murrow, a chain-smoking, romantic war correspondent, into the equivalent of the guests on his show: another celebrity.”[20]

A year after the McCarthy investigation, See It Now was converted from a half-hour, weekly show into an hour-long program that aired eight times a season. It filled in various time slots until it was cancelled in 1958.

Some say William Paley – who first hired Murrow as a radio correspondent and later became a close friend – began to see the reporter as a risk to the network. “Paley, once proud of his friendship with Murrow, now saw this outspoken celebrity correspondent as a liability to his burgeoning money machine, CBS television,” write Downey and Kaiser.[21]

After the show was cancelled in 1958, a dejected Murrow was asked to speak at the Radio and Television News Directors Association of Chicago that year. There, Murrow emphasized the importance of television as a tool of public service. This ominous speech on the future of television shed light on the effect of commercialism and the imperative responsibility of maintaining an informed citizenry through media.

“I am seized with an abiding fear regarding what these two instruments are doing to our society, our culture and our heritage. Our history will be what we make it. And if there are any historians about fifty or a hundred years from now, and there should be preserved the kinescopes for one week of all three networks, they will there find recorded in black and white, or color, evidence of decadence, escapism and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live,” said Murrow.[22]

For some, the comments reinforced his standing as an emblem of journalistic integrity. But not all those in the news media appreciated his comments. Paley was “livid” and Murrow’s days at CBS were numbered.[23]

Murrow continued at CBS another year, producing Harvest of Shame, a revealing documentary about the plight of migrant workers. One poignant scene showed black workers getting into the back of a truck after being hired for a pitiful days wages. In his narration, Murrow concluded “We used to own our slaves. Now we just rent them.”[24] Soon after the documentary, Congress enacted legislation that protected migrant workers.

Director of the US Information Agency

In 1961, Murrow resigned from CBS when President John F. Kennedy asked him to serve on his administration as director of the US Information Agency (USIA). Murrow reversed roles from independent reporter to working for the government, in charge of communicating US policy abroad. He took the job for a salary of $23,000, approximately 10% of his CBS salary.[25] The best known figure in the new administration, there were even fears that he would take away the spotlight from the new president.[26]

It was an important position at a crucial point in American foreign policy, and an important move for Kennedy, who made campaign promises to renew America’s image[27]. During this time, the US faced the threat of Soviet and Chinese powers, Sputnik, and growing political unrest in Eastern Europe. Before Murrow was done with his role, he would also deal with the Cuban Missile Crisis, Bay of Pigs, and the assassination of the president. During his three year tenure, Murrow aimed to make a distinction between public diplomacy and propaganda by ensuring full disclosure of information, which was vital during the height of the Cold War.

His position came at a time when the U.S. also faced the new Soviet doctrine put forth by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, which offered arms and economic support to dissident groups in third world countries. To counter that, the Kennedy administration focused on a “modernization” approach in third world countries, which would reinforce democratic groups that were on a “forced march to modernity.”[28]

His appointment was widely-praised by the general public and fellow journalists.[29] On January 1961, James Reston wrote of the appointment in the New York Times, “Considering the fix [the country’s overseas propaganda] is in, this is quite a job, for no country had a better story to tell, or failed so lamentably to tell it well as the United States since the end of the war. . . No doubt Ed Murrow has the qualities to do the job.”[30]

Murrow appointed Donald Wilson,Time magazine correspondent, as his deputy along with Tom Sorensen, USIA foreign service officer and brother of Kennedy’s chief policy officer, Ted Sorensen. Many people saw Wilson and Sorensen as the one who actually wielded the most power, with access to the president.[31]

But the transition from the promoting the principles of journalism to promoting policy was difficult. He made his first mistake early on. Soon after his appointment, he called the BBC to ask them not to air “Harvest of Shame,” Murrow’s now famous documentary on the plight of migrant farmers and their families in the south. The incident became public. He appeared to be a censor for the government – even censoring his own journalism.[32]

While serving in the position, he was granted the most access of any USIA director, regularly sitting in on National Security Council meetings.

In an April 1965 Washington Star article that reported Murrow’s death, United States National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy said, “Murrow never once asked to go to a meeting. In time he never had to ask. President Kennedy increasingly said: ‘Let’s find out what Ed thinks,’ or ‘Be sure Murrow is here.’”[33]

But although Murrow took part in meetings, he was not part of the policy-making group, a frustrating position as director of the USIA. He was sometimes put in the position of communicating policy without having any foreknowledge of it, such as was the case in the Bay of Pigs.[34]

Murrow did, however, have an advisory role that came into play effectively.

In August 1961, the Soviet Union announced it would resume nuclear testing, breaking an understood agreement that had been in place for years. According to Thomas Sorensen in “The World War: The Story of American Propaganda,” the administration was going to issue a statement saying the U.S. would also resume its nuclear testing. Murrow protested, saying that issuing the statement would backfire. A better approach, he said, would be to use the incident to build sentiment against Russia. The Kennedy administration agreed, and Murrow started a campaign focused on communicating the Soviet nuclear threat. It resulted in a significant increase in anti-Soviet attitudes around the world.[35]

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Murrow worked to convince the White House of the importance of diplomacy in changing public opinion to resolve the crisis.[36] The USIA was invited into the “Ex Com” committee for dealing with the crisis. Murrow found himself in the hospital with pneumonia soon after but gave advice from his hospital bed.[37] Murrow’s deputy Donald Wilson argued to have photos of the Missile site released, which helped build the U.S. case.[38] The USIA began an intense radio campaign that focused on reaching Cubans but also incorporated VOA’s 35 language services, which included Soviet audiences. They also used Telstar satellite to broadcast Kennedy’s speech about the missiles in Europe. To this day, the USIA’s role in the crisis is considered a model for how public diplomacy can make a difference during critical junctures in U.S. foreign policy.[39]

Murrow reportedly warned repeatedly against US government use of Agent Orange in Vietnam. He said it would be bad for world opinion and that any information about the defoliant must be used in conjunction with assurances of its safety to humans and information for the case against Viet Cong.[40] He later “reluctantly agreed to its initially quite limited use in 1962.”[41]

When the USIA found itself dealing with the assassination of President Kennedy, Murrow lobbied for extra funding, using his own contacts with Senate leaders. The agency was awarded an extra 8 million dollars. The USIA was responsible for responding to international condolences. It also covered the White House transition.[42]

Murrow, America’s most trusted newsman became the ideal voice to communicate American policy to the world. Some public diplomacy practitioners say a similar approach would be helpful to the U.S. today.

“It’s time to revisit the Murrow option for US public diplomacy,” write Lawrence Pintak and William Rugh in a February 2009 editorial.[43]

The article cites historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who contends that Murrow was effective in this role: “Under Ed Murrow, the Voice of America became the voice, not of American self-righteousness, but of American democracy.”

Pintak and Rugh suggest that journalists such as Tom Brokaw or Bill Moyers could accomplish similar ends today. “These journalists and a handful of others whom Americans have trusted to explain the world to them would bring a new dimension to America’s outreach to the world.”

After Kennedy’s assassination, President Lyndon B. Johnson asked Murrow to stay. Murrow initially accepted the appointment, but in December 1963 Murrow resigned due to growing health concerns with cancer.

After his resignation, he was awarded the presidential Medal of Freedom. Murrow died on April 27, 1965, at the age of 57.

Legacy and Diplomacy Ideologies

Murrow famously said that the USIA needed to be in the takeoffs and not just in the landings of policy.[44] Murrow said he used the public diplomacy tactics of “using words, not weapons” to communicate American policy in a way that was “everywhere intelligible and wherever possible palatable.”[45] Murrow told USIA officers to focus on communicating directly with the public. “The real crucial link in the international exchange is the last three feet, which is bridged by personal contact, one person talking to another.”[46]

He focused on targeting young people because of their susceptibility to anti-American sentiment and because vulnerable regions were made up of young demographics. He also encouraged good treatment of the foreign press to aid them in telling the U.S. story. He helped establish the Foreign Press Center in New York and added a USIA officer to assist foreign press in the press briefing office.[47]

On the notoriously difficult task of measuring the effectiveness of public diplomacy, he said, “We cannot judge our successes by our sales. No cash register rings when a man changes his mind.”[48]

Murrow argued for a development of credibility by using a balanced approach. “We cannot be effective in telling America’s story is we tell it only in superlatives,” he said.[49]

The Murrow Center of Public Diplomacy was established at Tufts University in his honor, after his death in 1965. He had received the Presidential Medal of Freedom as well as honorary titles from various nations, including an honorary knighthood from Great Britain. A park near the USIA headquarters in Washington is named after him.[50]

The U.S. Postal Stamp issued a stamp in his memory in 1994. He was the first broadcast journalist to have that honor.

In 1999, New York University’s School of Journalism ranked Murrow and Friendly’s McCarthy investigation in the top 10 American journalistic works of the 20th century.[51]

He is considered by the journalism community to be the forerunner in championing the engagement of public diplomacy through broadcast.

New York Times Obituary

Murrow in the Public Interest: From Press Affairs to Public Diplomacy, USINFO