Wednesday, April 11, 2007

For I propose to tell you of Buchenwald …

Much coverage elsewhere of Tim O'Reilly's proposed blogging code of conduct, although thankfully it is not needed here as the readers On An Overgrown Path are a very civilised bunch. But the dire quality of much of today's 'user generated' content was brought home to me recently when I read Norman Finkelstein’s life of the pioneer of broadcaster journalism, Edward Murrow. Where today can you find the equivalent of this economic but powerful prose describing London in 1939 weeks before the outbreak of war, when the city’s children had been evacuated to the safety of the country?

‘It’s dull in London now that the children are gone. For six days I’ve not heard a child’s voice. And that’s a strange feeling. No youngsters shouting their way home from school. And that’s the way it is in most of Europe’s big cities now. One needs the eloquence of the ancients to convey the full meaning of it. There just aren’t any more children.’

Everyone in the media, from newscasters to bloggers, should study Edward R. Murrow’s style. His mentor was Ida Lou Anderson, at Washington State University, and she taught him to use pauses and intonations to best advantage, and to use as few words as possible to make a point. “She demanded not excellence so much as integrity,” Murrow later said, and he told his staff, “You are supposed to describe things in terms that make sense to the truck driver without insulting the intelligence of the professor.” Broadcast historian Erik Barnouw described Murrow’s prose as having “a quiet dignity. It avoided stuffiness and also the condescension of folkiness. It abhorred the frenzied – it favored short, concise statements.”

On April 15 1945 Ed Murrow described the Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald outside Weimar for CBS listeners. When the dedication ceremony of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC took place in April 1993 it included a reading from Murrow’s account. I wonder how many blog posts, newscasts and YouTube videos will receive similar treatment in fifty years from now? Here is what they will be measured against:

Permit me to tell you what you would have seen, and heard, had you been with me on Thursday. It will not be pleasant listening. If you are at lunch, or if you have no appetite to hear what Germans have done, now is a good time to switch off the radio, for I propose to tell you of Buchenwald …. There surged around me an evil-smelling horde. Men and boys reached out to touch me; they were in rags and the remnants of uniform. Death had already marked many of them, but they were smiling with their eyes … When I entered, men crowded around, tried to lift me to their shoulders. They were too weak. Many of them could not get out of bed. I was told that this building once stabled eighty horses. There were twelve hundred men in it, five to a bunk. The stink was beyond all description …

In another part they showed me the children, hundreds of them. Some were only six. One rolled up his sleeve. D-6030, it was. The others showed me their numbers; they will carry them till they die … There were two rows of bodies stacked up like cordwood. They were thin and very white. Some of the bodies were terribly bruised, though there seems to be little flesh to bruise … Murder had been done at Buchenwald … I pray you to believe what I have said about Buchenwald. I have reported what I saw and heard, but only part of it. For most of it I have no words … If I’ve offended you by this rather mild account of Buchenwald, I’m not in the least sorry.

With Heroic Truth, the Life of Edward R. Murrow by Norman H. Finkelstein is printed on demand by Authors Guild Backinprint.com ISBN0595348068. Now read how few words can tell a huge story in Childhood Luggage.


With thanks to the US 2nd Air Division Memorial Library in Norwich for their invaluable collection of American titles, which includes With Heroic Truth. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included for "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

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