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Late Edition

Bob Edwards on the decline of airwave civilization

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Bob Edwards is tired. One could simply chalk it up to a 25-year stint on the National Public Radio morning show Morning Edition, during which Edwards had to bed down at 6 p.m. and rise at 1 a.m. lest, in his words, there be "big trouble" on air. Some tiredness undoubtedly sprouts from the recent unceremonious dumping of Edwards-as-host by NPR, as well as an accompanying grassroots "Save Bob Edwards" movement, both of which effectively denied Edwards closure from his former career. Both are viable options, but neither completely encompasses the reason for Edwards' current weariness. More than anything, Edwards is tired of bad news and the bad newscasters hocking it.

"We have an electorate that has no opportunity in prime time to find what they need to know to act as citizens of a democracy," he tells me. "In our system, the people have to be as well informed as the leaders. It's our job to inform them, but I don't see it happening." Edwards, who shies away from discussing the particulars of his recent job shift from host to the nebulous role of "NPR Senior Correspondent" (i.e., whether it is a promotion or demotion), still praises his network as a haven for news purists. But for those of us not lucky enough to work aboard that ship, he has also unleashed a new book, Edward R. Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism, to act as a map for pinpointing all that is wrong with contemporary journalism.

Edwards' book is set up like a feature from one of Murrow's hallowed news shows: first the unadorned story, then the analytic punch line. In the brief 166-page volume, which is part of an 11-book biographical series called "Turning Points," Edwards skims lightly over Murrow's early years in preference of the broadcaster's professional achievements. From landmark 1940 live CBS broadcasts of the German Luftwaffe's blitz of London to his later programs Hear it Now, Person to Person and on television See it Now, Murrow is portrayed through quotes and recollections as "broadcast journalism's patron saint and first great star." Before the arrival of Murrow and his CBS colleague William L. Shirer, radio mainly provided momentary comedic diversions from the burdens of the Great Depression. Afterward, the medium became a vital and enlightening lifeline between Nazi-threatened Europeans and oblivious Americans.

"Newsreel footage of the Blitz is in black and white; Ed's radio reports are in color," Edwards writes. With networks banning use of sound recordings, Murrow had only the power of his subject matter and vocal abilities to fill airtime. For Edwards, whose own network relies heavily on sound recordings and ambient noise in news features, these antiquated standards nonetheless led Murrow to perform "some of the finest journalism and radio ever done." "I get jealous about news like that," Edwards admits. "News that makes you see." Murrow's experiential "sound pictures" put listeners in the belly of raiding bombers, at the opening of the Buchenwald concentration camp, and, years later, on the floor of Congress to expose the hypocrisy of McCarthyism. But with news programs ceasing to be as profitable as entertainment programming, Murrow still died largely unappreciated by his own colleagues.

In a lengthy afterward to the book's biographical meat, Edwards contemporizes Murrow's life by showing how American media has lost sight of and perverted his lessons--or in Edwards' words, how "difficult [it is] to imagine Murrow lasting very long in broadcast journalism today." Network stations are too committed to faux-news magazines like Dateline and 20/20 to stick to current events. Cable news is little more than "tabloid sensationalism." Commercial radio is dominated by Clear Channel Communications, a beast who has largely "abandoned news" in favor of, in the words of company founder Lowry Mays, "selling our customer products." The man who was for Edwards "the embodiment of the American dream" has been overlooked by a culture seeking only to "distract, delude, amuse and insulate" itself. "If we expect the broadcast media to inform us, educate us and enlighten us, it's because Edward R. Murrow led us to believe that they could," Edwards declares, and by extension, if we don't expect those things, then shame on us.

The road to redemption for the broadcasting industry is not a clear one for Edwards--especially because he claims that Murrow's legacy actually "died" on the day of Walter Cronkite's final broadcast in 1981. The answer may seem as simple as better programming, but for such a shift to have a noticeable effect would require a rigorous revaluation of the principles by which the industry currently thrives. "I had hope [for such a change]," Edwards admits, "but I'm not seeing it now." OK, (interviewer begins to panic, not wanting the conversation with his longtime morning-mate to descend into national public nihilism), but what about war? Murrow's golden age was born out of war, because the twin demons of European conflict and American isolationism required a new, more personal method than newsprint to deliver information. Couldn't our continuing global conflict, as well as a politically polarized American populace, lead to a news renaissance?

"I don't know about that," Edwards responds skeptically. "During World War II, there was no argument about it. The news was just this very compelling story that was told every evening, and there was never a departure from quality of content. Today, I hear a lot of talk, but it's not the news. I see the 'shout shows.' Crossfire. Hardball. Participants must mix it up with each other, because the producers feel that normal conversation is a tune-out. They talk about things in the news, but it is not reporting."

Edwards presents a bleak prognosis to be sure. But NPR fans in the audience for his July 16 book tour stop at Boise High School's auditorium should expect much more than just righteous indignation from the radio legend. Edward R. Murrow and the Birth of Journalism is ultimately more celebration than incrimination, and Edwards' characteristic wit and off-the-cuff eloquence permeate even his most damning passages. Edwards tentatively states that were Murrow to have survived to the present day he would be an NPR junkie, and in that premise alone there is hope in Edwards' message. But with the hope comes heavy responsibility, as he shows through his favorite Murrow quote: "This instrument [television] can teach, it can illuminate; yes, it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box."

Bob Edwards, Friday, July 16, 7:30 p.m., $10, Boise High School and Saturday, July 17, 8 p.m., $10, Limelight Room, Sun Valley Lodge, Sun Valley. Info/tickets at 208 426-3663 or at http://radio.boisestate.edu