When the Politicians Complain That Television Turns Their Proceedings into a Circus, It Should Be Made Plain That the Circus Was Already There

Edward R. Murrow? David Horsey? Apocryphal?

murrow07Dear Quote Investigator: In March 2016 the political cartoonist and commentator David Horsey of the “Los Angeles Times” published a cartoon showing the prominent journalist Edward R. Murrow seated in front of a television screen that displayed a group of angry clowns. The quotation accompanying the illustration compared political gatherings to circuses. Was the ascription to Murrow accurate? When did Murrow deliver this quotation?

Quote Investigator: In October 1959 Granada Television sponsored a set of lectures in London’s Guildhall on the subject of communication in the modern world. Edward R. Murrow delivered a speech titled “Television and Politics” which included a passage that strongly matched the words in Horsey’s cartoon. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1 2

The relationship between television and the politician should be at arm’s length; the eye of the camera should pursue the politician to the very limits of privacy and decency. When the politicians complain, as they have in several countries, that television turns their proceedings into a circus, it should be made clear that the circus was already there, and that television has merely demonstrated that not all the performers are well trained.

Murrow’s words were remembered, and in December 1959 “The Des Moines Register” of Des Moines, Iowa included the statement in a column titled “Worth Repeating” that contained fourteen other miscellaneous quotations. The passage was streamlined with the omission of the phrase “as they have in several countries”. Also, “television” was converted to “TV”: 3

EDWARD MURROW, CBS news commentator:

“When the politicians complain that TV turns their proceedings into a circus, it should be made clear that the circus was already there, and that TV has merely demonstrated that not all the performers are well trained.”

The version in Horsey’s cartoon closely matched the shortened text given above. There was only one difference: the word “clear” was changed to “plain”.

Here are additional selected citations.

In January 1960 an instance ascribed to Murrow appeared in a Troy, New York newspaper in a column titled “Quotable Quotes” that contained five other miscellaneous items. The text matched the version in “The Des Moines Register”. 4

In October 1961 the quotation appeared in a Cambridge, Ohio newspaper in an article filled with quotations titled “So They Say”. The text was slightly altered and a parenthetical remark was added: 5

When politicians claim that this (news coverage) turns their proceedings into a circus, it should be made clear that the circus was already there, and that television merely demonstrated that not all the performers are well trained.

-Edward R. Murrow, head of U.S. Information Agency.

In 1996 “The Sunday Times” newspaper of London printed a review of a compilation of political quotations. An instance of the remark attributed to Murrow was reprinted within the review. The text matched the streamlined version, but the word “clear” was changed to “plain”: 6

I like the American broadcaster Ed Murrow’s remark: “When the politicians complain that TV turns their proceedings into a circus, it should be made plain that the circus was already there, and that TV has merely demonstrated that not all the performers are well trained.” It is quoted in a splendid new book which prompts only the question why nobody thought of compiling it before: The Oxford Dictionary of Political Quotations (OUP Pounds 15.99). Antony Jay (the author of Yes Minister) has begun an anthology which over time must become indispensable.

In 2006 an instance was used as the solution of a newspaper word puzzle called a Quote-Acrostic. This version also used the word “plain” instead of “clear”: 7

In March 2016 David Horsey published a cartoon on the website of the “Los Angeles Times” in an opinion section called “Top of the Ticket”. The cartoon contained a television screen that displayed a group of battling clowns holding signs stating “Trump” and “Dump Trump”. Sitting nearby was the figure of Edward R. Murrow who was accompanied with the following words: 8

“When the politicians complain that TV turns their proceedings into a circus, it should be made plain that the circus was already there, and that TV has merely demonstrated that not all the performers are well trained.”

Edward R. Murrow

The final citation of this article shows that many years before the advent of television the political arena was being depicted as a circus. On June 23, 1919 a periodical with the motto “A magazine that dares to print the truth” published the illustration below titled “Circus Time Is Here”. 9

1919 Jun 23 Political Circus

In conclusion, the quotation used by David Horsey is very close to an accurate transcription from a speech delivered by Edward R. Murrow in 1959. The cartoon text was streamlined with the omission of a phrase, and the word “clear” was changed to “plain”. These errors were introduced previously during the evolution of the quotation. The original text is specified in the 1959 citation given above.

Image Notes: Picture of the interior of City of London’s Guildhall. Author: Diliff (David Iliff, a Wikipedian from Melbourne, Australia); Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Picture of Edward R. Murrow taken in Wiesbaden, Germany circa 1956. Both pictures were accessed via Wikipedia Commons, and both pictures have been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to David Craig whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to Stephen Goranson for accessing the 1959 book citation. Also, thanks to the Digital Collections and Archives at Tufts University who sent QI the precise text in “Dons or Crooners?” In addition, thanks to John Baker who pointed out the 2013 citation, and to Sue Kamm who suggested contacting Tufts. Many thanks to Peter Reitan who found the 1919 illustration. All errors are the responsibility of QI.)

Notes:

  1. 1959, Dons Or Crooners?: Three Lectures on the Subject of Communication in the Modern World, The British Association Granada Lectures, (Three lectures given in Guildhall London in October 1959 on the subject of communication in the modern world), Lecture Title: Television and Politics, Speaker: Edward R. Murrow, Start Page 47, Quote Page 75 and 76, Published by Granada TV, London. (Verified with text from the Digital Collections and Archives at Tufts University; also scans; thanks to Stephen Goranson and the Duke University Library System)
  2. 2013, A Documentary History of the United States by Richard D. Heffner with Alexander Heffner, (Expanded and Updated Edition), Chapter 28: Decade of Turmoil, (Guildhall Speech on “Television and Politics” by Edward R. Murrow, 1959), Unnumbered page, A Signet Book: Published by the Penguin Group, New York. (Google Books Preview)
  3. 1959 December 28, The Des Moines Register, Worth Repeating, Quote Page 20, Column 7, Des Moines, Iowa. (NewspaperArchive)
  4. 1960 January 20, The Times Record (Troy Times Record), Quotable Quotes, Quote Page 12, Column 6, Troy, New York. (NewspaperArchive)
  5. 1961 October 5, The Daily Jeffersonian (Cambridge Daily Jeffersonian), So They Say, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Cambridge, Ohio. (NewspaperArchive)
  6. 1996 October 20, The Sunday Times, Section: Features, Article: The Commons touch – Books, Author/Byline: Matthew Parris, Page Books 11, London, England. (NewsBank Access World News)
  7. 2006 March 5, Sunday News Journal (The News Journal), Section: Sundaylife, Answers: For last week’s Quote-Acrostic, Quote Page G7, Column 3, Wilmington, Delaware. (NewspaperArchive)
  8. 2016 March 15, Los Angeles Times, Top of the Ticket: If a clown is elected president, don’t blame the news media, Political commentary from David Horsey, Los Angeles, California. (Online Archive of Los Angeles Times at latimes.com; accessed May 30, 2016) link
  9. 1919 June 23, The Non-Partisan Leader, Circus Time Is Here (Full page illustration for St. Paul, Minnesota), Quote page 3, Fargo, North, Dakota. (Chronicling America)