Joseph Wershba, a former CBS news reporter and "60 Minutes" producer died last Saturday at the age of 90. In 1948, along with Edward R. Murrow, Wershba helped produce the CBS’s first salvo against McCarthyism. We spoke to Joe and his wife Shirley in 2005 about the film "Good Night, and Good Luck," which was partly based on their life.
DAVID STRATHAIRN AS EDWARD R. MURROW: We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That clip you just heard was actor David Strathairn playing CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow standing up to McCarthyism in the 2005 film Good Night, and Good Luck. Joe and Shirley Wershba were also at CBS then. In fact, it was Joe who, in 1953, interviewed Lieutenant Radulovich, kicked out of the Air Force Reserve because his father, an immigrant from Serbia, subscribed to foreign newspapers, and because his sister was an avowed liberal. The New York Times noted that it was the first salvo fired by the network against Senator Joe McCarthy. Joe Wershba died last Saturday at the age of 90. We spoke to Joe and Shirley about the film, in which they were played by Robert Downey, Jr. and Patricia Clarkson, and about the bygone days of smoke-filled newsrooms and courage on the air. We decided to re-air that interview in honor of Joe. The couple agreed that the film’s depiction of Murrow was uncanny.
SHIRLEY WERSHBA: It was unbelievable.
I'll tell you how unbelievable it was. When I first saw Strathairn, I saw him from the back of his head and I said, "My God, it's Murrow's head." And the minute he opened his mouth and looked towards us, it was Murrow all over again. He didn't try to imitate Murrow. He exuded Murrow.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: George Clooney plays the legendary Fred Friendly as a relatively quiet, wry person. He was Murrow's producer. He also functioned in some degree, it seems, as his heat shield.
JOE WERSHBA: Fred Friendly was the enforcer. Murrow came up with what he wanted to do with the, the line that he was taking, and Fred saw to it that all the stuff that we had was edited with that in mind. If anybody [CHUCKLES] ever terrorized people, it was Fred.
SHIRLEY WERSHBA: I think he wanted Murrow to have all of the attention.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: One thing I noticed was that during Murrow's broadcasts, we see Fred Friendly literally crouched at his feet, obscured partly by his desk, and he cued Murrow by tapping a pen on Murrow's knee. And he lit Murrow's cigarettes during the taped segments, speaking quietly, still crouched there. Was that what it was really like?
SHIRLEY WERSHBA: Yes, exactly. That was the way he cued Murrow to start, because they were in very, very tight quarters. As a matter of fact, some of the people who saw a screening of it, people like Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather and Morley Safer and Walter Cronkite, they said they have never seen a newsroom film that was as authentic as this.
Cigarette smoke seems to fill nearly every frame, mostly coming from Murrow's cigarette.
SHIRLEY WERSHBA: Everybody smoked in those days. I smoked. Joe smoked. [LAUGHS]
JOE WERSHBA: At a time when we went to Korea to cover the Korean War in '52, Ed and I shared a room and at 4:30 in the morning I would hear "Zip!" And that was Murrow starting his morning with a cigarette. And he was doing a minimum of two packs a day, but I think he went up to four packs a day.
SHIRLEY WERSHBA: He did. Yeah. He always had a cigarette.
JOE WERSHBA: Oh, he, he just couldn't be talked out of it until he developed lung disease later on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And he died of lung cancer in 1964.
SHIRLEY WERSHBA: Yes, he did. The interesting thing about the crew of actors in this scene is that I don't think any of them smoke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [CHUCKLES]
SHIRLEY WERSHBA: And here they had to. But I know they were not inhaling. They were just [LAUGHS] puffing it out. And when George Clooney learned from Ruth Friendly that Fred Friendly had never smoked, he was so relieved -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
SHIRLEY WERSHBA: - because he's not a smoker. He didn't have to smoke, but everybody else did.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I want to move to the political environment now, and I'm talking about Politics with a big "P" and politics with a small "p." In terms of office politics, there was a rule that professional colleagues at CBS weren't allowed to marry.
SHIRLEY WERSHBA: They were - you weren't allowed to be in the company if you had a relative there, whether it was a cousin, an uncle, a sister, and certainly you couldn't be married.
JOE WERSHBA: Well, what's a fancy word for that kind of situation?
SHIRLEY WERSHBA: Nepotism.
JOE WERSHBA: Well, that was supposed to be nepotism at 45 dollars a, a week, and that was a big word to spread over 45 dollars.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
SHIRLEY WERSHBA: We knew that one of us would have to quit. As a matter of fact, the boss at the time said he thought that we ought to get married, and I said, "Well, we would, except I don't want to quit working." So he said, "Well, don't tell anybody about it. I'll try to clear it with Personnel," which he never did, so we had to keep it a secret.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So did you really take off your wedding rings before you went to work?
SHIRLEY WERSHBA: Absolutely. Joe actually didn't wear one.
[LAUGHTER] But I put it on a gold chain around my neck. [LAUGHS] I always had high-necked blouses. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let me move on to William Paley. He ran the CBS network for, what, about 50 years?
SHIRLEY WERSHBA: Well, he started it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: He's depicted by Frank Langella as a figure who is as huge and as immovable as the Washington Monument. What role did he play in the real life drama?
JOE WERSHBA: Bill Paley created the Columbia Broadcasting System. He backed the best news and news people that he could find. Murrow was his boy.
SHIRLEY WERSHBA: And his friend.
JOE WERSHBA: And his friend. It was a rarity for anybody to be Bill Paley's friend, who wasn't a member of the family.
Okay. But we see in the film a rather testy exchange between Murrow and Paley.
It got to that stage only because Murrow and Friendly were not going to quit cold on the stories that they did. Paley knew that they weren't going to quit. And I thought that it was a fair shake that somebody should know that going on the air with an attack on McCarthy, this was breaking the rule which Paley and Murrow themselves had set up, which could lead to closing down the whole news business.
FRANK LANGELLA AS WILLIAM PALEY: Somebody's going to go down. Have you checked your facts? Are you sure you're on safe ground?
DAVID STRATHAIRN AS EDWARD R. MURROW: Bill, it's time. Show our cards.
FRANK LANGELLA AS WILLIAM PALEY: My cards. You lose, what happens? Five guys find themselves out of work. I'm responsible for a hell of a lot more than five goddamn reporters. Let it go.
[END OF CLIP]
JOE WERSHBA: You could tell that a lot of the people were worried stiff about what the consequences of this program would be, and Murrow caught that and said, "Terror is right here in this room." And then he followed up with another line, which unfortunately is not in the script, but I remember it and I didn't, couldn't have made it up myself. "No one man can terrorize a whole nation unless we are all his accomplices."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, in the end it wasn't politics but bottom line pressures that compelled Paley to act and essentially push Murrow off of his prime time perch.
Well, you know, Paley, I think he once said his sorriest day was when he went public with the company because then he had to answer to the economic pressures that would come from shareholders. You had to turn a profit. I think Paley, given his druthers, would have gone along with Murrow all the way.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, you two have in the film an exchange in bed one night.
SHIRLEY WERSHBA: Mm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
It's of such critical dramatic significance, I kind of thought it was added by the writers. Joe, you sort of muse what if we – “we” meaning Murrow's boys - are wrong? What if there are Communists out there poised to take down our government? And you said, "What if we're protecting the wrong people?" Did that exchange happen?
SHIRLEY WERSHBA: Mm, not really. [LAUGHS]
[BROOKE LAUGHS] We talked about not so much were we wrong but were we doing the right thing, because we grew up in this atmosphere of you don't take sides. You just present the news straight. That was the discussion that Joe and I used to have. Should we break with it? And I can remember that thought in particular. You've got to do it. You've got to go with this program or else what happens to the country? Also, he did offer McCarthy equal time to answer.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Some say that the wise, deadpan news anchor of old is passing out of time. Some of them see this as the model of the Murrow tradition but, actually, if you look at the film, Murrow wasn't the very model of the objective, opinion-free anchor. His legend is built on when he took a stand. Nowadays, that would be seen as questionable journalism, and I don't think he'd last long in the anchor chair.
SHIRLEY WERSHBA: Well, he wouldn't be doing it every night or every week. It was on very, very special occasions. If you recall, Walter Cronkite stepped out behind that wall of impartiality when he said the Vietnam War was unwinnable. On rare occasions, if someone you respect who has been impartial, if he or she should say, "There is only one side here. I will give it to you." And then it's up to your audience to make the decision.
JOE WERSHBA: I, I must tell you [CLEARS THROAT] that Murrow agonized over what right did he have to use the whole power of a network to go against one man? And the answer to that is he - that man is strong enough to take care of himself. And that's where that line from Shakespeare comes in.
DAVID STRATHAIRN AS EDWARD R. MURROW: Earlier the senator asked, "Upon what meat does this, our Caesar, feed?" Had he looked three lines earlier in Shakespeare's Caesar, he would have found this line, which is not altogether inappropriate: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves." No one familiar with the history of this country can deny that congressional committees are useful. It is necessary to investigate before legislating, but the line between investigating and persecuting is a very fine one. And the junior senator from Wisconsin has stepped over it repeatedly.
SHIRLEY WERSHBA: Right after he came out of the studio, having done the McCarthy broadcast, I knew I was gonna be having children, and I said, "Ed, if it's a boy, I'm gonna name him after you."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
SHIRLEY WERSHBA: And he answered, "Do you think it was worth it?" And I said, "It has to be."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Did you name your child after him?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] So you guys didn't take your work home.
SHIRLEY WERSHBA: We lived our work. [LAUGHS]
JOE WERSHBA: Yeah.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Joe Wershba died last week at the age of 90.