It's been over fifty years since Edward R. Murrow walked the corridors of CBS, his mother ship network for decades of highbrow radio and television broadcasting. The Murrow reputation for putting quality content before network profit makes his shadow loom large as the patron saint of American broadcast journalism. His programs include See It Now, in which he eviscerated the junior senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, as well as his last CBS Special Report, Harvest of Shame, where he spoke to the American conscience about the plight of the migrant worker. Another popular Murrow-hosted program was Person to Person, the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous meets Entertainment Tonight of its day. It had enough fluff to feed a Girl Scout troop. Murrow had earned enough serious credentials in his career to pull off the puffy celeb beat without being in danger of demoting his brand.
No American journalist today can come close to the Murrow legend and legacy. Both Murrow and Walter Cronkite, who outlived his CBS colleague by forty-four years, are the bookends of respectable broadcast journalism, which explains in part why CBS was once called the Tiffany Network under the long tenure of William S. Paley.
CBS is trying to revive the Murrow brand with a new duo for its 21st century version of Person to Person. Lara Logan, chief foreign affairs correspondent known best for her appearances on 60 Minutes, and Charlie Rose of CBS This Morning, are slated to premiere the program with George Clooney, Warren Buffett and Jon Bon Jovi. Here's the CBS teaser for the first show scheduled for Feb. 8th:
PERSON TO PERSON shows you how Hollywood's most popular leading man unwinds away from the lenses of the paparazzi, where perhaps the world's most successful investor conducts his billion-dollar deals, and the home studio where one of the world's most legendary rockers composes and records his music.
Co-executive producer Susan Zirinsky of 48 Hours fame (or what I like to call Saturday night at the morgue) says about the P2P venture: "What sets our broadcast apart is the unique access."
Zirinsky left out the last part of the sentence. "What sets our broadcast apart is the unique access to wealthy celebrities and what they eat." In a show teaser for this Wednesday's premiere, Lara Logan is seen asking George Clooney about the contents of his refrigerator. Oy vey. How is this any different from all the celebrity carpet bombing of the American mind going on already?
In his time Murrow never favored Person to Person, not only because he seemed bored with the format but also because it was referred to as "Murrow Lite," which generally means not good taste in TV programming or beer. He always preferred radio and said of his London Blitz broadcasts from the rooftops of the British Broadcasting Corporation that he sought "to describe things in terms that make sense to the truck driver without insulting the intelligence of the professor." Though he thrived in television, Murrow viewed the medium as having a dumbing down effect because it overemphasized the visual spectacle and downplayed the creative, interpretive mind of the viewer.
CBS is heavily marketing Murrow's image in its rollout of the 2012 Person to Person. It's doubtful that this show will have the staying power, that is, unless producer Zirinsky can somehow combine a murder mystery with peeking into George Clooney's cupboards.
The saddest part of the new Person to Person on CBS is that it exploits the visage of a credible journalist to try to capture eyeballs to the screen, a screen already permeated with so many trivial details about people whose lives are already above and beyond those 1 percenters we've been hearing about lately. We deserve more programs with an investigative look into corporate malfeasance, not someone's in the kitchen with George.
Nancy Snow is Professor of Communications at California State University, Fullerton. She is completing a book on Edward R. Murrow as Director of the United States Information Agency under John F. Kennedy to be called Truth is the Best Propaganda.