High Noon in Bethesda
|"Photograph of Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow at the CBS news desk," 1960 (source)|
The tensions began during World War II, but it was not until Cronkite joined CBS News in 1950 that it truly became a problem. Over time their rivalry deteriorated into a bitter, more personal affair, and their heated and sometimes comical confrontations became something of legend at the network.
As they would come to discover, their personal philosophies regarding journalism were incompatible, and their frustrations both with each other and with the network reflected some of the larger issues facing CBS and the news industry at large in the early years of television. Cronkite's roots were in print, and Murrow's in radio broadcasting. The latest medium to dominate the industry had forced major change, and reporters had to adapt. Some fared better than others.
Cronkite was almost a Murrow Boy. He worked for the United Press, as had the core members of the WWII team: Charles Collingwood, Eric Sevareid, Richard C. Hottelet, Howard K. Smith, Larry LeSueur, and Bill Downs. He was an ideal addition to the roster.
By the end of 1943, Bill Downs was finished with the Eastern Front. Murrow approached Cronkite to relieve him as CBS' Moscow correspondent after a thirteen month tenure. CBS offered Cronkite a weekly salary of $125—about $1735 adjusted for inflation. He initially accepted, but later decided to stay with United Press after they countered with a pay raise of their own:
From Timothy Gay's Assignment to Hell (Penguin, 2012):
Edward R. Murrow, the CBS Radio commentator who had done so much in 1940 and '41 to build American support for Britain's cause, invited Walter Cronkite to lunch. Murrow had admired the UP reporter's coverage of the air war and was impressed by Cronkite's natural ease in front of a microphone. Cronkite had been a popular interview choice for Murrow's London boys; the aftermath of the Wilhelmshaven raid in February of '43 was one of several Cronkite appearances on CBS Radio.During the war, Cronkite worked as a correspondent for United Press in Europe and was Bill Downs' old friend and colleague. Both were Kansas City natives who got their start at UP in 1937. Downs left to join the Murrow Boys team in 1942, but the two still covered the front together, most notably in 1944 when they were separated in the middle of a Luftwaffe air raid near Arnhem.
Murrow asked Cronkite to meet him at the Savile Club, the tony Mayfair restaurant. But London's elite haunts were unknown to the workaholic Cronkite, who thought Murrow had said "Saddle Club" and didn't want to embarrass himself by asking the broadcaster for directions.
Cronkite jumped into a cab on Fleet Street and instructed the driver to take him to the Saddle Club. "Don't believe I know it, governor," the cabbie replied. Cronkite had the cab pull over next to a phone booth. He called the UP office, where a colleague steered him toward the proper location on Brook Street.
Feeling like a rube, Cronkite arrived late for his luncheon with the world's most celebrated American expatriate. Murrow, who could be prickly, was gracious. He surprised Cronkite by offering him a job as CBS' Russian correspondent. Murrow was calling back Cronkite's former UP colleague Bill Downs; he wanted Cronkite to replace Downs in covering Stalin's government in exile at Kuibyshev. CBS was offering Cronkite a king's ransom: $125 a week, plus "commercial fees" of some $25 almost every time Cronkite appeared on air, which would be a lot. The CBS offer came close to tripling Cronkite's $57.50-per-week salary with UP. Yet Cronkite had been ambivalent about his broadcast experiences in Austin, Kansas City, and Norman.
"I thought it was kind of a schlock business compared to print," he remembered. "But I still thought, well, $125 and a chance to go to Russia, I probably ought to take it. So I accepted it, and I was going to give United Press a couple of weeks' notice, which, frankly, wasn't adequate in wartime."
When Cronkite told his then boss, Harrison Salisbury, about Murrow's offer, Salisbury immediately countered with a $17.50 per week raise—unheard-of largesse at UP—and promised to arrange for the wire service's president, Hugh Baillie, to make his own plea. Sure enough, Baillie got through on the phone from New York that night—no mean feat in wartime London—and "gave me a sales pitch like I never heard in my life," Cronkite recalled.
"I'm going to raise you $20 a week just to show my good faith," Baillie vowed. Cronkite inquired if the $20 was in addition to the $17.50 that Salisbury had offered—or part of it. There was a long pause. "No, no, this is on top of that," Baillie insisted—which may or may not have been part of UP's keep-Cronkite strategy, but was nevertheless now in its counteroffer.
Cronkite was in a position to pocked 95 bucks a week from UP—good money for a gumshoe reporter without a college degree.
When Cronkite broke the news to Murrow, "he didn't take it too kindly," Cronkite remembered. Murrow didn't say it directly, but the inference was that Cronkite had used the CBS offer to leverage more money out of UP. "I hadn't meant to; it wasn't my intention when I accepted Ed's offer," Cronkite allowed. "But it worked out that way, and Ed had every right to feel that way about it."
By mid-'43 Ed Murrow and his team were the hottest commodities in journalism—wordsmiths inventing a new medium. Murrow, the toast of the free world, wasn't used to people saying no—especially ambitious young reporters. Cronkite's clumsy turndown drove a wedge between them.
Although they would later spend fifteen years at CBS News as colleagues, Cronkite and Murrow were never close. Murrow and his "boys," Eric Sevareid and Charles Collingwood among them, tended to look down their noses at Cronkite, the wire services grunt who—heaven forfend!—actually cared about breaking news. The Murrow Boys weren't reporters so much as seers, urbane commentators who dined with prime ministers one day—and parachuted out of planes the next. Murrow and his minions didn't just write and read news: They dissected it, putting it into bold historical context, giving events a passion that print journalists—even Liebling and Bigart at their best—were hard-pressed to match. And as Collingwood would later demonstrate, the Murrow guys sometimes weren't above manipulating the facts for their own aggrandizement.
It wasn't until after Cronkite proved himself as CBS News' anchorman in the early 1960s that the surviving Murrow men accepted him as a peer—and even then it was grudgingly. Cronkite always admired the Murrow Boys and what they meant to the evolution of journalism. But in the main he felt their work should be labeled "opinion"—which is what happened when Eric Sevareid, the quintessential Murrow protégé, became a regular commentator on Cronkite's CBS Evening News.
Unlike other members of the Murrow Boys, Downs maintained close friendships with both Cronkite and Murrow after the war. This occasionally placed him in the middle of the conflict, much to his chagrin. The following passages recall a particularly heated argument during a dinner party at the Downs house in Bethesda, Maryland:
From Joseph E. Persico's Edward R. Murrow: An American Original (McGraw-Hill, 1988), p. 314-315:
After he joined CBS, Cronkite had a sense that reporters who were not one of Murrow's Boys were not quite among the anointed. Later, when there could be little doubt of his own stature, he would say that he understood the clannishness: "They were the cream of the crop." And maybe he was of a different stripe. Walter Cronkite was, indisputably, a superb reporter. But he was not the kind of journalist-intellectual who appealed most to Murrow. There was not about him or his work the cerebral aura of a Raymond Swing, an Eric Sevareid, a Bill Shirer, a fact that Cronkite was cheerily the first to admit: "I'm a newsman first, a get the facts, get your lead, old-fashioned reporter."From A.M. Sperber's Murrow: His Life and Times (1986), p. 527:
. . .
They should have been friends, Murrow and Cronkite. Bill Downs was no more "intellectual" than Cronkite, and he and Murrow were pals. But Downs was one of Murrow's Boys, a satellite and not a potential rival sun, which television was making out of Walter Cronkite.
They had started out on the wrong foot after London, and the relationship remained out of step. They would cross paths at parties where, in Cronkite's phrase, "Murrow held court. He would sit there, sometimes with his coat off, tie undone, puffing his cigarette, his elbows on his knees, staring at the floor making pronunciamentos of gloom and doom, while people gathered around him in hushed attention." Cronkite found it "hard to swallow." He also confessed that Murrow "intimidated" him.
Bill Downs and Cronkite had been friends at the UP. And so Cronkite and Murrow were both guests at the party they gave in their home in Washington early in Cronkite's television career. It was a heavy-drinking, broadcasting crowd. Downs began noisily berating Cronkite, telling him, "You're coming on too hard, trying to be a success, trying to push other people out of the way." Then, according to Downs's wife, Rosalind, Cronkite said a sympathetic word about sponsors. Sponsors, after all, paid the rent, Cronkite pointed out. It was the sort of statement designed to catch the attention of and to provoke Murrow, the news freedom purist against an apologist for commercialism in broadcasting. However, the purist was handsomely sponsored and the apologist, at this point, barely had his foot in television's door. As Roz Downs remembered that night, "They kept snapping at each other all evening. They were practically chin to chin. It was dreadful. After the party, my husband said, 'That was a small disaster. I didn't know they disliked each other that much.'"
Allowing for the inflammatory effect of the alcohol, the clash revealed a lurking trait in Ed Murrow. He was more magnanimous as a superior than as a rival. His dispute with Cronkite had less to do with commercialism in broadcasting than with the age-old wariness of the old stag toward the young buck.
Cronkite stayed outside the Murrow circle, a sense of rivalry discernible between the two men, despite their disparate power positions. Roz Downs recalled a dinner party at her Bethesda home outside Washington during the fifties, both Murrow and Cronkite among the guests. Cronkite was after all a wartime UP buddy of Bill's, and the Downses loved both men.
Somehow, after dinner, attention got drawn to a pair of antique dueling pistols, mounted on the mantelpiece. For reasons too obscure for later recollection, a great deal having been imbibed beforehand, Cronkite and Murrow wound up going bang-bang at each other with the pistols, at point-blank range: high noon in Bethesda.
Roz Downs shot a look at her husband. "I think they're serious," she said.
|The antique pistols brandished by Murrow and Cronkite in their drunken duel|
From Douglas Brinkley's Cronkite (2012), p. 208-209:
Hoping once again to excel at CBS, Murrow was on the scene as a reporter at the Democratic Convention in 1960 when he was suddenly reassigned to co-anchor the coverage with Cronkite. That's where Rather encountered Murrow—his coming-of-age hero...
If Rather was surprised to hear that Murrow was to start co-anchoring with Cronkite, he wasn't the only one. At the appointed morning hour for the photo session, well before the Democratic Convention went into session, Murrow and the network's publicists appeared in a smoky anteroom outside the CBS anchor booth. "Murrow came and sat," Rather said. "We waited a very long time and then Walter didn't come." The heavy atmosphere was flammable, and Rather half expected the grim-faced Murrow to throw a tantrum, the anger was so evident on his face. It was painful for Rather to see his hero being denigrated. Eventually, the photo session was canceled, and Murrow huffed out. "What had turned out," Rather said, "is that Walter had locked himself in the anchor booth. Walter didn't want to anchor with Murrow. He just locked himself in the booth and said, 'To hell with it.'"
. . . [Cronkite] blamed much of the friction on CBS management's foolhardiness. "Who's supposed to do what?" Cronkite explained. "What's Murrow supposed to do? I don't think they said anything about him doing analysis. They just said that he was supposed to help me. They just wanted Murrow on camera to cash in on his popularity...I think Murrow and I might have had a chemistry that worked under different circumstances, but the management at the convention in 1960 was not one to create great chemistry.