It Now (1951-57), one of television's earliest documentary series,
remains the standard by which broadcast journalism is judged for
its courage and commitment. The series brought radio's premier reporter,
Edward R. Murrow, to television, and his worldly expertise and media
savvy helped to define television's role in covering and, more importantly,
analyzing the news.
genesis of See It Now was a series of record albums that
Murrow created during the late 1940s with Fred W. Friendly, a former
radio producer at a Rhode Island station. The I Can Hear It Now
records, which interwove historical events and speeches with Murrow
narration, became such a commercial success that the partnership
developed a radio series for CBS that also creatively used taped
actualities. The weekly Hear It Now was modeled on a magazine
format, with a variety of "sounds" of current events, such as artillery
fire from Korea and an atom smasher at work, illuminated by Murrow
and other expert columnists.
his World War II experience, Murrow had assiduously avoided television,
having been overheard stating "I wish goddamned television had never
been invented." Friendly was eager to test the new technology and
in 1951 the team agreed to transfer the Now concept yet again,
this time emphasizing the visual essence of the medium, calling
their effort See It Now. Murrow never desired to anchor the
evening newscast, and he did not want See It Now to be a
passive recitation of current events, but a active engagement with
the issues of the day. To implement this vision, Murrow and Friendly
radically transformed the fundamental nature of news gathering on
other news programs that used newsreel companies to record events,
See It Now maintained its own camera crews to coordinate
filming on location, using 35mm- cameras to record the most striking
images. Murrow and Friendly also deviated from standard practice
by mandating that all interviews would not be rehearsed and there
would be no background music to accompany the visuals. Although
See It Now relied on CBS correspondents abound the world,
Murrow, serving as editor-in-chief, and Friendly, as managing editor,
organized the first autonomous news unit, whose ranks included reporter/producers
Joe Wershba and Ed Scott; director Don Hewitt; production manager
Palmer Williams; and former newsreel cameramen Charlie Mack and
"This is an old team trying to learn a new trade," intoned Murrow
to inaugurate See It Now on 18 November 1951. Murrow, as
in all the programs that followed, was ensconced in Studio 41, exposing
all the tricks of the electronic trade--the monitors, the microphones,
the technicians all in view. To underscore this new technological
undertaking, Murrow summoned up a split screen of the Brooklyn Bridge
in New York City and the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, the
first live coast-to-coast transmission.
It Now was the first news magazine series on television, alternating
live studio commentary with reports from such seasoned correspondents
as Howard K. Smith and Eric Sevareid. The series was initially scheduled
in the intellectual ghetto of Sunday afternoon. By its third outing,
See It Now gained a commercial sponsor, Alcoa (the Aluminum
Company of America), which sought prestige among opinion makers
to offset anti-trust troubles. As the half-hour series became the
most influential news program on television, it moved into prime
time, first on Sunday evenings, and then for three years on Tuesday
evenings at 10:30 P.M.
It Now established its voice by covering the campaign rituals
throughout the 1952 Presidential year. Two early pieces were also
emblematic of what Murrow/Friendly wanted to accomplish for the
new venture: simulated coverage of a mock bomb attack on New York
City, a segment that addressed the tensions of the nuclear age,
and a one-hour report on the realities from the ground of the Korean
War during the 1952 Christmas season. The later special evoked the
frustrations and confusions of everyday soldiers and was described
by one critic as "the most graphic and yet sensitive picture of
war we have ever seen."
the laudatory reviews and the respectability that See It Now
brought to television news, a question plagued the partnership:
how to cover the anti-Communist hysteria that was enveloping the
nation. The team first searched for what Friendly called "the little
picture," an individual story that symbolized a national issue.
In October 1953 Murrow and reporter Wershba produced "The Case of
Milo Radulovich," a study of an Air Force lieutenant who was deemed
a security risk because his father, an elderly Serbian immigrant,
and sister supposedly read subversive newspapers. Because of the
report, for which Murrow and Friendly used their own money to advertise,
the Secretary of the Air Force reviewed the case and retained Radulovich
in the service. In "Argument in Indianapolis," broadcast one month
later, See It Now investigated an American Legion chapter
that refused to book its meeting hall to the American Civil Liberties
Union. Again, Murrow and staff succeeded in documenting how the
McCarthyism, so-called because of the demagogic tactics of Senator
Joseph McCarthy, penetrated the heartland.
reported discrete episodes in the Cold War, Murrow and Friendly
decided to expose the architect of the paranoia, McCarthy himself.
On 9 March 1954 See It Now employed audiotapes and newsreels, to
refute the outrageous half-truths and misstatements of the junior
senator of Wisconsin. In his tailpiece before the signature "Good
Night and Good Luck," Murrow explicitly challenged his viewers to
confront the nation's palpable fears. A month later, McCarthy accepted
an invitation to respond and his bombastic rhetoric, calling Murrow
"the leader and cleverest of the jackal pack," coupled with the
later failure of his televised investigation into Army, left his
career in a shambles. The McCarthy program also produced fissures
in the relationship between Murrow and the network. Again, CBS did
not assist in promoting the broadcast; but this time CBS executives
suggested that Murrow had overstep the boundaries of editorial objectivity.
In the process, Murrow had become controversial and, therefore,
a possible liability to the company's business opportunities.
programs, targeting the most pressing problems of the day, continued
during the 1954-55 season. Murrow conducted an interview with J.
Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who was removed as advisor to
the Atomic Energy Commission because he was accused of being a soviet
agent. See It Now documented the effects of the Brown v. Board
of Education desegregation decision on two southern towns. Murrow,
a heavy smoker, examined the link between cigarettes and lung cancer.
By the end of the season, Alcoa, stung by See It Now 's investigation
into a Texas land scandal where it was expanding operations, ended
its sponsorship. Because of the profitability of other entertainment
shows, most notably the bonanza in game shows, CBS also decided
that See It Now should yield its regular timeslot and become
a series of specials. Many insiders thought the series should be
retitled See It Now and Then.
the final three seasons of specials, the tone of See It Now
became softer. Despite exclusive interviews with Chinese Premier
Chou En-lai and Yugoslavian strongman Marshal Tito, the most memorable
programs were almost hagiographic profiles of American artists,
including Louis Armstrong, Marian Anderson, and Danny Kaye. Controversy
for Murrow was now reserved for outside the studio; his 1958 speech
to radio and news directors was an indictment of the degrading commercialism
pervading network television. The final broadcast, "Watch on the
Ruhr" on 7 July 1958, surveyed the mood of postwar Germany. After
See It Now's demise, CBS News made sure to split the Murrow/Friendly
team: Murrow hosted specials, the most significant Harvest of
Shame, and left the network in 1961 and Friendly was named executive
producer of Now's public affair's successor, CBS Reports.
and Friendly invented the magazine news format, which became the
dominant documentary form on network television. The most esteemed
inheritor of its legacy, 60 Minutes, was conceived by integral
See It Now alumni: Don Hewitt (as 60 Minutes's executive
producer), Palmer Williams (as managing editor), and Joe Wershba
(as producer). See It Now was also a seminal force in how
most television documentaries conveyed a national issue: to illuminate
the individual story, immediate and direct, that resonates with
deeper implications. If Murrow and Friendly established the model
for the documentary for both form and content, they also tested
the limits of editorial advocacy. Although the series of McCarthy
programs have been lionized as one of television's defining moments,
Murrow and Friendly exposed as well the inherent tension between
the news and the network/sponsor. How to deal with controversy in
a commercial medium has remained controversial ever since.
See It Now
Photo courtesy of Washington State University Libraries
Edward R. Murrow
Fred W. Friendly, Edward R. Murrow
November 1951-June 1953 Sunday
September 1953-July 1955 Tuesday
September 1955-July 1958
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Broadcasting System; Documentary;
Fred W.; Hewitt,
Murrow, Edward R.; Paley,
William S.; Stanton,