Speaking With Conviction: The Revival of 'This I Believe'

By Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 13, 2005

Over lunch, four powerful men bemoaned the sorry state of the American soul. In 1949, Edward R. Murrow, the legendary CBS newsman who had branded Americans' imagination with the horrors of the bombing of London; William Paley, the head of that dominant network; a wealthy advertising magnate; and the manager of the CBS affiliate in Philadelphia decided that the nation craved uplift and direction. In the doldrums of a postwar funk, people needed to hear about the country's ideals and the spirit that had fostered unity and creativity so often in the past.

The result of the conversation was "This I Believe," a daily five-minute radio program that spread to newspapers and books, delivering the wisdom and inspiration of the nation's best minds every day from 1951 to 1955, when the show died for lack of funding.

"A lot of us have traded in our beliefs for bitterness and cynicism or for a heavy package of despair, or even a quivering portion of hysteria," Murrow said in his introduction to the program. "Opinions can be picked up cheap in the marketplace, while such commodities as courage and fortitude and faith are in alarmingly short supply."

Sensing a similar moment in today's media culture, producers Jay Allison and Dan Gediman have revived "This I Believe" on National Public Radio, this time in the form of audio essays that air Mondays on "Morning Edition" or "All Things Considered."

The pieces vary enormously in tone and approach. Those solicited from prominent names sometimes seem bland or banal. Anthony Fauci, chief of infectious diseases at the National Institutes of Health, concludes that "I believe that as a physician my goal is to serve humankind." The fallen politician Newt Gingrich says, "I look around at our pretensions and our beliefs -- that we are somehow permanent -- and I am reminded that it is the quality of leaders, the courage of a people, the ability to solve problems that enables us to continue for one more year, and then one more year."

But the best of the essays combine a poetic sensibility with the occasional pearl of wisdom. "I believe in wandering through the stacks and picking out the first thing that strikes me," says the novelist Rick Moody. "I believe in choosing books based on the dust jacket. I believe in reading books because others dislike them or find them dangerous."

Journalist Andrew Sullivan says: "I believe in a system of government that places liberty at the center of its concerns, that enforces the law solely to protect that freedom, that sides with the individual against the claims of family and tribe and church and nation, that sees innocence before guilt and dignity before stigma."

And documentary filmmaker Errol Morris says: "Truth is not relative. It's not subjective. It may be elusive or hidden. People may wish to disregard it. But there is such a thing as truth and the pursuit of truth: trying to figure out what has really happened, trying to figure out how things really are."

In the '50s series, prominent politicians, artists and spiritual leaders, as well as ordinary people, spelled out the rules and ideals that governed their lives.

"I feel no need for any other faith than my faith in human beings," said novelist Pearl Buck.

"What I was able to attain came to be because we put behind us, no matter how slowly, the dogmas of the past," said the pioneering athlete Jackie Robinson.

The 1950s essays were more straightforward and better written. "People were more comfortable with the written word," says producer Gediman. Today, the pay has gone up, from a token $1 in Murrow's time to the standard NPR commentary rate of $200, while the word count has gone down: The public radio essays are three minutes long.

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