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Edward R. Murrow, Welcome To the Full-Spin Zone

By Mark Leibovich
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 27, 2005; Page D01

Edward R. Murrow is rolling over in his grave at how often people say he is rolling over in his grave.

Perhaps no one's name has been more commonly affixed to the "rolling over in his grave" cliche as Murrow's, the pioneering broadcaster who made CBS the seminal name in radio and television news during the middle of the 20th century.

Former CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow remains a journalism icon long after his death. (The Washington Post Archives)

This has been an especially restless time in Murrow's grave after the controversial "60 Minutes II" story that questioned President Bush's service in the National Guard and the subsequent upheaval at CBS News.

"Edward R. Murrow rolls over in his grave every five minutes," bemoaned Marcy A. McGinnis, CBS's senior vice president for news coverage, in the Buffalo News recently. No kidding. He's also "spinning," "turning over" and "twisting," according to widespread reports.

NPR's Ed Gordon says Murrow is "revolving in his grave" over the Bush administration's manufactured "news" spots. Media critic Jeff Alan told CNN that Murrow would "turn over in his grave" at the declining standards of TV news. And gosh-forbid Murrow was alive last November when CBS fired the producer who decided to interrupt "CSI: New York" with news that Yasser Arafat died.

"As Edward R. Murrow spins in his grave," MSNBC's Keith Olbermann lamented, "the decision will at least give CBS viewers another new spinoff, 'CSI: Journalism.' "

Among dizzy dead icons, Murrow spins with heady company. Politicians (usually Democrats) lament that FDR is spinning in his grave whenever someone (usually a Republican) threatens to tamper with a New Deal-era program like Social Security. Bert Parks somersaults when the traditions of the Miss America pageant are flouted and E.B. White flips whenever someone uses bad grammar. In 1957, Chuck Berry's "Roll Over Beethoven" asserted that rock-and-roll was shunting aside classical composing dinosaurs such as Beethoven and Tchaikovsky.

Baseball broadcaster Ralph Kiner once said, "If Casey Stengel were alive today, he'd be spinning in his grave."

Given the media's penchant for self-absorption and self-flagellation, it's no surprise that they would produce a legendary grave-spinner. Other media giants have been known to spin in outrage -- William Paley and David Brinkley, among others. But they are no match for Murrow, for whom there is a small plaque hanging in the lobby of CBS headquarters inscribed, "He set standards of excellence that remain unsurpassed."

Fleetwood Mac even has a song titled "Murrow Turning Over in His Grave," which includes barely sensical lyrics ("Murrow turning over in his grave / Better watch out / Murrow turning over in his grave / He's gonna turn wild") that might cause Murrow to spin in his grave if he had any idea who Fleetwood Mac was (Murrow died in 1965).

"Oh, I hear that all the time," says Murrow's surviving son, Casey Murrow, of Putney, Vt. (He is referring to the "turning over in his grave" refrain, not the Fleetwood Mac song.)

With the sobriety and earnestness one would expect from the descendant of Edward R. Murrow, Casey adds, "I believe that the line honors my father's memory and the standards he tried to uphold in his own work."

And that's a fine place to end, except for this footnote:

Edward R. Murrow was cremated.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company