The Book of the Week is “A Complex Fate, William L. Shirer and the American Century” by Ken Cuthbertson, published in 2015. This tome was supposed to be the career biography with historical backdrop, of a colleague of Edward R. Murrow. However, it was sloppily edited and recounted as much about Murrow’s career as Shirer’s.
Born in February 1904 in Chicago, Shirer was the second oldest of three children; his father, a Republican attorney. After graduating from a small Christian college, while bumming around Europe for a few months, Shirer got a job as a copy editor at the foreign office of the Chicago Tribune.
Shirer met the celebrity literary social set, including Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Thurber, Thornton Wilder and Ezra Pound. At the paper, “letters to the editor” were fabricated. The writers, who composed stories from cabled summaries, didn’t go out and get the stories themselves. Not only that, the stories were embellished with fictional details. Sounds familiar.
In any case, in the late 1920’s, Shirer was promoted to foreign correspondent. Because he traveled all over Europe covering sporting events and royal-family trivia, he was able to have a love affair with a Hungarian countess.
In 1930, Shirer’s long hours of hard work and quality writing paid off. For, his new position of Eastern-European-bureau-chief put him in charge of formerly Ottoman-Empire countries. His office was in the economically socialist Vienna.
Since it took a week for Shirer’s articles to be cabled to Chicago where they were published, he had to write about tabloidy areas of interest– scandals, crime, sex and weird items (what passes for “breaking news” these days)– that appealed to American Midwesterners.
Shirer was soon commanded by his autocratic boss to get the lowdown on Gandhi. However, before undertaking an arduous bunch of flights in new-fangled yet primitive machines, he became a pincushion for syringes containing disease-preventing contents. While in India, he contracted malaria and dysentery, anyway.
Shirer found his career on the skids by the mid-1930’s. He insisted on enjoying a luxurious lifestyle even though he then had a family to support. In the autumn of 1937, desperate for a job, he was hired by Edward R. Murrow to produce CBS radio broadcasts from Vienna; i.e., he marshaled the resources required for them.
On the eve of the Anschluss in March 1938, Shirer found himself fleeing Austria for London via Berlin and then Amsterdam, packed in with a planeload of Jewish passengers. NBC had already scooped the story of the takeover– disseminating Hitler’s speech on the alarming historical development, translated into English, live.
Thereafter, CBS president William Paley allowed Murrow and Shirer to actually gather stories and broadcast them themselves. Shirer was resistant to switching to radio from print. His voice was less than mellifluous and he lacked the instincts of a good announcer or newscaster.
Nonetheless, with their game-changing live five-minute news updates from London, they had listeners in five European cities in six time zones. But most of the airtime was still taken up by music and quiz shows arranged by Murrow and Shirer, because sponsors shied away from news that caused arguments. Finally, in autumn 1938 when Czechoslovakia became Germany’s next victim, radio news woke up. Shirer visited all the different territories suffering from the German takeover.
The author’s text was unclear about exactly how German authorities restricted American broadcasting, aside from censoring it: “By 25 August , the German government had severed radio, telephone, and cable communications with the outside world…” yet “In his August 26 broadcast from Berlin, Shirer somberly declared…”
The author contradicted himself, but related that New Yorkers were supposedly receiving CBS radio broadcasts from Berlin. He failed to state exactly how many listeners there were.
By the end of September 1939, hardships abounded in Europe. In 1940, Shirer tried to report the secret, growing hostility between Germany and the USSR, but was thwarted by three censors. He was able to do intelligence-gathering, though, after being told what to look for– observing the quantity of war resources the Germans actually had, rather than what their propaganda claimed. They lacked troops, tanks, supply vehicles, etc. Top German officials disagreed with each other on how to execute the war.
In late 1940, Shirer took a break from the trauma of war reporting and moved to New York. He wrote a book, delivered a lecture series and starred in a newsreel.
After his previous good luck in journalistic endeavors, fate dealt Shirer a cruel blow. His name appeared in the booklet “Red Channels.” “Suddenly, he was faced with the task of defending himself against an indefensible accusation– the kind of reverse onus proposition, so common in totalitarian states, that puts the burden not on the accuser– the state– but rather squarely on the accused.” This resulted in a rift in his relationship with Murrow, and other adverse consequences.
The owners of “… America’s mass media and advertising agencies… were cowards; none of them had the courage to question the tactics, much less the truthfulness or motivations of the politicians and their disciples who were bullying Congress, spreading fear, publishing lies, and defaming innocent people.”
Nowadays, America’s mass media and advertising agencies are willing accomplices to smear-fests. But at least there’s free speech on each side, and hardly anyone is persecuted (not hired at all or being fired for not taking a loyalty oath, or thrown in jail for having the wrong friends or not naming names) for their political beliefs. Just smeared. Don Rickles would be proud.
Moreover, it is a good thing that both sides are encouraging citizens to vote. Voting is a gesture that shows belief in the democratic process. A significant number of people need to buy into the process of free and fair elections, in order for democracy to work.
Voter apathy breeds dictatorship. In 1972, voter turnout was the lowest since 1948: 55%. It might be recalled that Richard Nixon was reelected in a landslide.
Anyhow, read the book to learn of the catharsis Shirer underwent that revived his livelihood, and much more.