Bob Edwards' colossal Murrow goof.

Media criticism.
Feb. 1 2006 7:04 PM

Bob Edwards' Big Goof

His Murrow biography packages Good Night, and Good Luck'sfib as fact.

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Murrow agreed.

I discovered Edwards' error while researching my Good Night, and Good Luck pieces and brought it to the attention of his publisher, John Wiley & Sons. They've conceded the error and have promised to correct the next edition. Edwards' editor e-mailed to say that Edwards was "not available for interview," but that she'd be happy to forward to him any questions I had. Compare this moat-drawing with the enthusiastic Wiley press release that accompanies review copies of Edward R. Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism: "For additional information, or to schedule an interview with Bob Edwards, please contact. …"

I browbeat, hector, and bully about the Edwards goof for several reasons: 1) it's a monumental error, indicating that he is less familiar with the Murrow story than he pretends to be; 2) it's reflective of what Murrow hagiographers and Hollywood liberals want to believe happened in the McCarthy era, i.e., that broadcasting's Gary Cooper shot the villain dead in High Noon fashion all by himself and then had to leave town; 3) it illustrates the lax standards of modern book publishing.

Edward R. Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism is one of those undersized, brief biographies you find displayed at the front of book stores these days. My Slate colleague Blake Wilson calls this genre of midget-bios written by famous authors "half-lives." Nearly every publisher competes in this niche. Henry Holt & Co. has its "American Presidents Series," edited by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and its author list includes James MacGregor Burns, Garry Wills, Kevin Phillips, and Gary Hart. Other half-lives publishers include HarperCollins, with its "Eminent Lives" series (Michael Korda, Robert Gottlieb, Paul Johnson), Oxford University Press' "Lives and Legacies" (Paul Addison), Penguin's "Penguin Lives" (Peter Gay, Tom Wicker), and the Modern Library "Chronicles" (Frank Kermode).

In theory, Edmund White on Marcel Proust, Larry McMurtry on Crazy Horse, Jane Smiley on Charles Dickens, or even Bob Edwards on Edward R. Murrow should produce authoritative copy. Again, in theory, shorter biographies could be a worthy countertrend to the obese, 900-page biography. But as the Edwards book indicates, shorter isn't always better.

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When the Washington Post's Philip L. Grahamdescribed newspapers as a "first rough draft of history," the implication was that the last draft would be found in books, and that version would be more accurate because it would be completed on a longer deadline. Anybody can make a mistake. I've made at least a couple hundred in print (that I know of) in the course of my career, and by writing in such a snotty fashion about somebody else's error I'm asking fate to strike me dead-wrong somewhere on this page. The scale of Edwards' blunder demands that his publishers give the book's next edition a brisk fact-checking before publication.

Another reason to browbeat and hector is that Good Night, and Good Luck received good reviews and six Academy Award nominations, which means audiences will be viewing it for decades to come. The unsuspecting among them will accept its account as fact, and one major distortion will be confirmed as fact in a major publisher's hardcover. A dust-jacket sticker on my copy of Edward R. Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism encourages viewers of the Clooney movie to read it for the "real-life story behind Good Night, and Good Luck."

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I'm really asking for it. E-mail my errors to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.