Sports, art, philosophy and, yes, religion: A dozen plus journalists cited some common and perhaps surprising themes in a classic book, still timely and worth revisiting today, produced by Edward R. Murrow more than 60 years ago titled This I Believe.
This I Believe was a radio program that ran for three years from 1951 to 1954. Most people are more familiar with Murrow’s See It Now television series which ran from 1951 to 1958, but few know much about the five-minute radio show. At the time, though, it reached one out of every four Americans, and with its huge international distribution was the most listened to radio program in the world. In 1952 Murrow agreed to an avalanche of requests to publish a book based on the series.
It was made up of essays of 100 people, including 14 journalists. These are reporters straight out of the classic movie His Girl Friday. Many of the journalists tell stories to illustrate their point. My personal favorite is that of Quentin Reynolds, a sports reporter turned war correspondent, who was told that because of French regulations that he could not go to the front in World War II. His solution: he composed a cable to his “Uncle Franklin” at the White House, signing it, “our loving nephew, Quent.” He got to the front. I like this one, too, from Ward Greene, editor and general manager of King Features who wrote that all he ever wanted to be was a “newspaperman.” He told people that he wanted his epitaph to simply be: Ward Greene, A Good Reporter.
Joe Williams, a sports journalist, talks about a sports saying that you can't “rule a man off for trying” and sometimes that winning is a matter of a batter who is lucky getting a “hit” and an outfielder who is unlucky getting an “error.” He cites another saying, this one at the race track, that “the red board is up” meaning the race is over. The implication is that when your “red board” goes up, how will you stand?
Philosophy, art and literature informed several of the journalists’ essays. Norman Cousins, editor of The Saturday Review, talks about the perspective provided by the Socratic dialogues in Plato. Elmer Davis, an analyst with the American Broadcasting Company refers to the sculptures created by artist Gustav Vigeland in Oslo.
Author and self-described “newspaperman” David Loth headlined his essay “Diogenes Didn't Need A Lamp,” a reference to the Greek philosopher's search for an honest man. He makes the point that while the news media may have a “preoccupation with evil,” that there are many times more “honest men.” Foreign correspondent and radio commentator William L. Shirer writes that he often goes back to read Plutarch because “reading history gives you perspective.” He recommends doing that along with developing an “inner life” through “reflection, contemplation and self-discipline” to cope with the changing world.
I admitted earlier that I was not familiar with many of the journalists writing the essays. One of those I am embarrassed to say was a woman named Rebecca West. I say embarrassed because she was named “the world's best reporter” by the Women's National Press Club. She coins the phrase that I've never heard before – “competitive freedom,” arguing that “every man shall be able to say and do what he wishes and what is within his power... (even though) sometimes letting a man say and do what he wants interferes with the liberty of someone else.” Then in classic reporter fashion, she adds, “if I wanted life to be easy I should have gotten born on a different universe.”
But more than any other influence, many of the reporter essayists in the book cite a common core belief, one foundational to many world religions and known to many readers today from this passage from Matthew 7:12:
I would take a bet that you didn't think that verses from the Bible would be part of an article on journalism. But they are. In part that's because so many of the 100 people writing in the book – including the 14 journalists – cite some very strong religious beliefs and takes on what we know as the “Golden Rule.”
“Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you: do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.”
The most ardent of the religious group was probably Louis B. Seltzer, editor of the Scripps-Howard Cleveland Press. He wrote that every day since he was a child he kept a “special appointment... to meet my God.” That same Quentin Reynolds quoted earlier wrote that if he were a dictator, the first thing he would have do would be to ban the Bible because it “gave us the philosophy and the way which we all call democracy.”
On the flip side, some of the statements also were a reminder of the strong anti-Catholic sentiment of the time. Julien Bryan, a documentary film maker and foreign correspondent, recalls how “suspicious (and) condescending” he was to the French soldiers who were Catholic until he eventually learned “that the peoples of this world have much more in common with one another than they have differences.”
Murrow's only reference to religion was about a sign he saw in London during the war. It read “if your knees knock, kneel on them.” He was more interested in the people. As he wrote – in his usual blunt manner – introducing the This I Believe broadcast, “Except for those who think in terms of pious platitudes or dogma or narrow prejudice (and those thoughts we aren’t interested in), people don’t speak their beliefs easily, or publicly.”
In his equally blunt introduction to the book, Murrow wrote, “in a time when dissent is often confused with subversion, when a man's belief may be subject to investigation as well as his actions... Any belief worthy of an individual must be hammered out by that individual on the anvil of experience and cannot be packaged and delivered by print, radio or television.”
With his radio program and this book, Murrow provided the anvil. On that anvil, many of these journalists hammered out some common themes. Yes, the Golden Rule, but with many an interesting twist in definition in what that means.
For example, Carroll Binder, a foreign correspondent who became director of the foreign service of the Chicago Daily News, defined it as one of the secrets of friendship: “to regard each person with whom one associates as an end to himself, not a means to one's own ends.” Those sentiments are echoed almost word-for-word by Lucy Freeman, a reporter for the New York Times who wrote that she learned to like herself more after she learned to “like others not for what they could give me but for what I could give them.” Interestingly, both of them also echoed another sentiment that parallels the Golden Rule: Know Thyself.
Ward Greene, who wanted that simple epitaph, had a broader and more pragmatic definition of The Golden Rule calling it “unselfish selfishness... simple acts of kindness and understanding and compassion practiced in the hope that they will be shown to me.” Pat Frank, a war correspondent and part of the Overseas News Agency, writes similarly, “it is fundamental that kindness will be repaid with kindness, and hate by hate.” Leland Stowe, a foreign correspondent who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting, was lyrical in his definition, saying it was all about understanding the other person's point of view, adding, “understanding is a flower blossoming... but you have to water the plant.”
Part of the challenge, according to several of the journalists, in knowing yourself and in following the Golden Rule, is people's split personality or “dualism” as Cousins put it, writing “he is both good and evil, both altruistic and selfish.” Others put it in religious terms calling it a matter of “Heaven and Hell.” Journalist and political science professor Saul K. Padover used that analogy saying, “man everywhere, regardless of race or region or climate, is his own worst enemy or best friend... (creating) their own heavens or hells.”
I wrote earlier this month that the goal of Murrow’s This I Believe project was to remind listeners and readers, in a time of fear, confusion and cynicism, of “the right to be wrong,” and the importance of civil discourse. It speaks to the power of the Golden Rule that, despite their many viewpoints and beliefs, the journalists of This I Believe all cited a fundamental philosophy we would all do well to remember, however we choose to say it: Do unto others as you would have them to unto you.