If TV news were to build its own Mount Rushmore, the first face carved would be that of Edward R. Murrow. The man who brought the Nazi blitz into American living rooms with his memorable radio reports ("This ... is London") went on to become the most admired newsman of television's first decade. With his brooding brow, sonorous voice and ever present cigarette, Murrow personified the highest standards of journalism for millions. His CBS documentaries on the McCarthy witch hunts and the plight of migrant farm workers are classics of impassioned TV reportage. A movie about this legendary figure would seem an overdue tribute.
Yet an upcoming HBO docudrama on Murrow's career has run into a storm of protest, most of it from the very people who knew him best. Their complaint is not with the film's admiring portrait of Murrow (played by Hill Street Blues' Daniel Travanti) but with its less favorable depiction of the CBS executives with whom Murrow had a sometimes rocky relationship.
The controversy caught fire last fall when a journalistic organization, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, announced plans to screen Murrow in Washington as part of a fund-raising event scheduled for this week. Two prominent CBS newsmen who are members of the R.C.F.P. steering committee, Dan Rather and Walter Cronkite, voiced strong objections. The film, they charged, presents a distorted picture of the network's brass, particularly former CBS President Frank Stanton, who comes across as a shallow "numbers cruncher." Further, according to committee members, Rather argued that the R.C.F.P. should not lend its support to a movie produced by one broadcast organization (HBO is a subsidiary of Time Inc.) that appears to criticize a competitor.
The R.C.F.P. steering committee nevertheless voted 16 to 10 to proceed with this week's showing. (Two TIME correspondents on the committee, Hays Gorey and David Beckwith, abstained.) Proponents of the screening point out that the film raises important journalistic issues and that the group has sponsored showings of other movies, like Absence of Malice, with views it did not necessarily endorse. HBO meanwhile staunchly defends the movie. "The people at CBS are too close to the subject," says HBO President Michael Fuchs. "We made Murrow for our audience and not for CBS News."
What HBO's audience will see when Murrow has its debut next week is an earnest if unexceptional docudrama that exhibits most of the genre's virtues and vices. The script, by Ernest Kinoy (Roots), cogently dramatizes many of the issues that faced TV's news pioneers, from blacklisting to the gathering pres sure for ratings. When CBS Chairman William Paley (Dabney Coleman) breaks the news to Murrow that his acclaimed documentary series See It Now is losing its weekly time slot, he tries to soften the blow by lavishing praise on the program and promising a series of specials instead. TV news veterans will wince at the familiarity of that archetypal scene.