Edward R. Murrow's “Orchestrated Hell”: A Rhetorical Analysis

by Belyn Rodgers

[Edited and submitted for web publication 12/8/00] 


On December 3, 1943, Edward R. Murrow delivered a radio broadcast from London, England via CBS News World Radio. Murrow entitled the message “Orchestrated Hell” (hereinafter "O-Hell"). At one level, the broadcast was a factual account of Murrow’s experiences while flying with a Royal Air Force Crew on a mission to bomb Berlin. Murrow intended to inform his listeners, which included hundreds of thousands of Americans and British, about a "day in the life of" an R.A.F. crew.

However, O-Hell was much more than an exercise in informative reporting. As with all Murrow’s broadcasts, it had the subtle but definite persuasive purpose, in this case the purpose of drawing American and English people together. Murrow's "news" went beyond "the mere facts" to appeal to a range of human emotions and experiences which would serve to unite rhetorically audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. To this end, Murrow's address was designed strategically to convince the people of England and America that the fight against their common enemy had to continue for the good of both countries, and indeed for freedom itself. A final purpose of O-Hell was to pay particular tribute to two colleagues who had died in course of the war, as well as to the R.A.F. crews they were covering in general.

Murrow’s prior credibility as a first-rate journalist was well-established by the time of O-Hell's broadcasting 1943. Murrow had been CBS News Radio’s major journalist in London since 1938. He had, quite literally, let his listeners hear the footsteps of the English people as they hurried to bomb shelters just before an air raid. He had let them see the rainbow that arched over London’s smoking East End just as the “all-clear” siren sounded. The truths he told them were ones they believed. Irving Fang put it well when he said, “he [Murrow] not only reported the news, he conveyed an actuality” (312).

The purpose of my paper is to analyze the rhetoric of O-Hell. How did Murrow use rhetoric to paint a picture, and thereby construct an experience, alien to most of his listeners? How did Murrow provoke emotional states in an audience in the absence of nonverbal channels of communication? Did Murrow succeed in inspiring his listeners to be courageous in the face of war’s grim realities? This analysis seeks to contribute to our understanding of how rhetoric, employed through the medium of radio, may achieve persuasive purposes in the guise of  journalistic reporting of "the mere facts." Clearly, Edward R. Murrow was at home in the medium of radio. What is less clear is how Murrow was able to achieve his purposes in view of that medium. First, I will discuss Murrow’s background and how it was that he came to be such an effective rhetor. Second, I will explain this essay's critical approach. Next, I will address this essay's central questions in light of my approach. Finally, and in view of this case study, I will suggest some tentative conclusions about the rhetorical nature and effect of radio news broadcasting during WWII.


The man who would become radio’s voice in and for London throughout the second World War was born into a farming family in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1908. Edward Murrow’s parents gifted him with innate intelligence, strong work ethic, and moral rectitude. At the age of 18, Murrow entered Washington State College. He graduated in 1930, not with a degree in journalism, but in speech and history. Murrow first found employment with the National Student Federation of America. His primary duties involved arranging European tours for student groups. The experience taught him to communicate effectively with a wide variety of people.

In 1935, Murrow took a job with the Institute of International Education. There, Murrow placed scholars who were refugees from Hitler’s Germany into teaching, research, and other professional positions. The stories he heard from these men and women shaped profoundly his political worldview. Consequently, Murrow came to believe that Hitler was more than just a political dictator, but an actual force of evil capable of bringing substantial harm to any  individual, community, or country who stood in the way of his ambition. In all of his wartime broadcasts, Murrow would hold unswervingly to the view that Hitler must be destroyed no matter how high the cost. Later in 1935, Murrow joined CBS. In 1937 he was appointed European News Director for CBS, a position which brought him to London.

By the time O-Hell was broadcast Edward Murrow had been in London for six years. His reports aired at least once a week and, as the war escalated, with increasing frequency. Murrow was able to convey the reality of the war in England because he had lived that reality. His own office was bombed three separate times and displaced people slept on the floor there at night. Murrow grew to have tremendous admiration for the courage of the British people. In his broadcasts he made it clear that the English could not attain victory without assistance from other nations. Of course, Murrow did not cause America’s entry into the war, but there is no doubt he believed that action to be the morally correct course.

Critical Approach

All of Murrow’s broadcasts relied upon his use of reason, language and delivery. One type of critical approach available in such cases is known as Neo-Aristotelian method of speech criticism. The first part of  this method is invention. Invention involves the discovery of arguments that will probably persuade a particular audience in a specific situation. Logos, a subcategory of invention, concerns the structure and substance of the arguments used. The materials of logos are enthymemes and examples. An enthymeme is derived from a syllogism, which is a form of deductive reasoning. One type of syllogism states that if A=B and B=C, then A must equal C. An enthymeme is a kind of abbreviated syllogism that does not have all the claims of the syllogism explicitly stated. In an enthymeme, the audience makes inferences which "fill-in" its logical gaps. In terms of persuasion, enthymemes are thought to be superior to syllogisms simply because they fit more easily into natural speech patterns.

Pathos, a second subcategory if invention, deals with appeals to the emotions of the audience. Persuasive rhetoric demands that the audience be in an emotional frame of mind, particularly if they are to be motivated to action. Ethos, the third subcategory of invention, involves the character, intelligence and goodwill of the audience. An audience needs to believe that a speaker has the requisite intelligence to comprehend and convey his subject. The listeners must also believe that the speaker is of sound moral character and perhaps most importantly, that he has their better interests at heart. It is important to remember that each of these subcategories pertain to what is actually done in the speech itself.

The second part of Neo-Aristotelian speech criticism is arrangement. Speeches may be arranged in a variety of ways. Spatial arrangement looks at things in the physical order in which they occur. With topical arrangement, the rhetor divides his subject matter into smaller sections and arranges them according to relative degrees of important or significance. Another organizational pattern is chronological. Here, the rhetor discusses events in the order they happened in time. The rhetor must carefully determine which organizational pattern will be most effective for a given topic and a given audience.

The third critical element is style. Style involves the the choice of language, to "dress up" the ideas. Here, rhetorical figures may play a major role. Metaphors and similes serve to draw comparisons between dissimilar items. Many times such devices engender realizations that would not be possible with relatively literal word selection. Another stylistic device is narrative dialogue. Believable conversation lends credibility and interest to a piece because it gives the audience a character with whom to identify. Finally, the use of vivid adjectives and adverbs can shape the overall tone of a rhetorical object.

In order to further extend my analysis of style, I will depart from the constraints of the Neo-Aristotelian method to include several of rhetorical critic Kenneth Burke's ideas. One of these ideas involves the use of "God" and "Devil" terms. These are words whose mere voicing creates, or tends to create, strong emotional impact. The rhetor needs no additional explanation to get a powerful response from his audience. Indeed the words "God" and "Devil" themselves exemplify Burke's observation. Few auditors would hear these words without some type of emotional reaction. Another Burkeian concept is identification. According to this idea, a rhetor should try to make himself appear at least somewhat similar to his audience -- to "close the distance" between speaker and audience. Identification may be achieved by using words to establish "common ground." Identification may also be achieved by defining an idea, a person, or a group in opposition to the speaker and audience. Here, the speaker and audience become united by what or whom they are against.

The final aspect of Neo-Aristotelian criticism is delivery, which includes verbal and nonverbal elements. Since this analysis concerns an exclusively aural medium, my analysis will focus on the verbal dimension of delivery. Verbal delivery involves such things as rate, pitch, and tone. Rate is the speed at which the rhetor speaks, while pitch is the relative highness of lowness of the sound utterance itself. Tone, a difficult quality to define, may be understood as is "the quality of voice" which suggests the rhetor’s attitude toward an object. Taken together, the quality of delivery can significantly amplify or distort the content of a speech.

Critical Analysis


As discussed earlier, Edward R. Murrow enjoyed excellent prior credibility with his audience(s). His character, intelligence and goodwill had been unquestioned during his coverage of the war. Murrow attains credibility within O-Hell by actually flying with the bomber crew. During the broadcast, Murrow comments, “My knees should have been strong enough to support me, but they weren’t.” He wants the audience to "know" that while the experience is frightening for him, he has courage enough to see it through. His character is on display for his audience. While Murrow might have given a good report by conducting extensive interviews with flight pilots and crews, Murrow traded on his audience's likely belief that there is "no substitute for 'being there.'” We see this concept at work in television journalism today. When we turn on the evening news and see Dan, Tom, and Peter in some remote corner of the world, we know that the current news item is a major one. The networks gain credibility by having their big guns on location. Essentially, Murrow’s flight to Berlin was based on this notion, and it helped him gain the respect of his audience.


The element of pathos in O-Hell is an interesting one. We know that Murrow did not want to sensationalize his report, but he did want his listeners to feel an emotional connection to the soldiers. How did he achieve this goal? First, he uses numerous emotive terms. Murrow notes that the briefing room “was that of a school and a church.” These words allow the listeners to feel the full weight of the instructions given in the room and the reverent attitude with which the men receive them. Murrow then describes one of the pilots as “ the red-headed boy with the two week old mustache ....” The word “boy” shows the man’s youth as does the idea that it is taking him some time to grow a mustache. Both English and Americans could picture some red-headed boy in their own experiences. Murrow apparently intended his audience to think about the sacrifices that so many young men like this one were making for the Allied cause. Surely, the emotions of sorrow, admiration and gratitude would follow from the use of such appeals.

Murrow also devotes an extended section to how the flight crew feels toward each other. He says, in part,”...we were over the enemy coast. And then a strange thing happened. The aircraft seemed to grow smaller. It was as though each man’s shoulder was against the other’s. The understanding was complete.” Without being overtly emotional, Murrow's "covert" appeals enable his listeners to feel and share feelings of empathy, right along with the crew.


Murrow uses very specific examples such as “4000 pound high explosives,” “fourteen searchlight beams...thirty miles from Berlin” to paint a picture for his audience. He also uses expert testimony in the form of dialogue by the soldiers. Additionally, Murrow employs an enthymeme when he states that the crew failed to deploy one small package of explosives. However, had the package been a large one, the pilot would have again braved enemy anti-aircraft fire to drop it. The enthymeme reads, “If there had been a good, fat bundle left, he would have gone back through all that stuff to drop it.” The syllogism might read as follows:

MP: Great soldiers are willing to complete the mission even at extreme
risks themselves.

mp: The D-Dog crew are great soldiers.

C: Therefore the D-Dog crew are willing to complete the mission at
great risk to themselves.


The second area of criticism deals with arrangement. O-Hell is arranged in chronological order. The broadcast is explicitly narrative, displaying the five major plot elements. The introduction includes the pre-flight readying of the crews and planes. The lengthy middle section utilizes an ever-escalating sense of action and intrigue and includes a number of unanticipated plot developments that the crew endures as they make their way to Berlin. The climax occurs when D-Dog finally drops her bombs on Germany. Following this is a detailed account of the frightening trip back to England. In the conclusion, the story is resolved with the safe arrival of the crew, as a thankful Murrow reflects on all that he has experienced. Like all good stories, O-Hell holds the reader’s attention. Undoubtedly, Murrow’s listeners were on the edge of their seats as they wondered what would happen next.


The title of the speech is itself a metaphor. Murrow explains it at the end of the broadcast when he says, “Berlin was a kind of orchestrated hell, a terrible symphony of light and flame.” Orchestration indicates careful organization or planning. While the word “hell” means different things to different people, it generally indicates an extremely frightening and threatening place. Murrow’s metaphoric title conveys the idea that the bombing was both meticulous in planning and devastatingly horrible in its realization. Many times metaphors of light and flame are used to indicate goodness or purity. In this case, they are indicative only of death. Perhaps the knowledge that many flight crews were actually burned alive influenced Murrow’s choice of these fiery words.

A fine simile occurs when Murrow describes how their black plane flying in the white clouds looked when caught in a German searchlight. “D-Dog seemed like a black bug on a white sheet.” In addition to painting a vivid picture, these words also call to mind how easy it would be to smash a single black bug against a white sheet. Clearly, the simile is more effective than saying, “Our small black plane was vulnerable.” Murrow states that the glare of the anti-aircraft fire was “red, sullen and obscene.” By using these adjectives, Murrow in effect personifies the glare and makes it much more menacing.

Further analysis of O-Hell reveals obvious elements of identification. Toward the end of the broadcast, Murrow tells of the time he shared a plane ride with two refugees from Vienna. When the pilot told them they were outside German territory, the couple clasped hands and displayed visible relief. Murrow then says, “The work that was done last night (the bombing) was a massive blow of retribution for all those who have fled from the sounds of shots and blows of a stricken continent.” Clearly, Murrow intends for all of his listeners to feel hatred for Hitler’s regime and therefore identify with one another. In Burkeian terms, this is identification through antithesis.

A second less obvious use of identification occurs when Murrow notes that Jack, the tail gunner, is watching a hawk fly. Jack says, “It would be nice if we could fly like that.” While this incident does not further the plot of the narrative, I believe Murrow includes it to help his audience identify with the soldiers. After all, what person has not longed to soar like a bird? Surely, the audience must feel great empathy for these men who did fly, but found no freedom or joy in it.

Murrow also uses the term "Berlin" as a devil term to create an emotional reaction. He repeatedly says that the crew is going to Berlin and that the shots are coming from Berlin, although the audience knows this at the outset. Murrow apparently repeats the word to gain the the emotional attention of his audience and to leverage that emotion toward the whole of World War II. For Murrow’s listeners, Berlin was the home of Hitler, the place where the war had originated, and the city that had to fall for an Allied victory to be assured. While a bombing run over another German city might have been strategically important for military purposes, Murrow's targeting of the term "Berlin" achieved a unifying rhetorical effect that could be parlayed into an "emotional dispersion" toward the whole of the war.


Like all good storytellers, Murrow heightened his pitch and volume at climactic points during his report. When he told his audience, “I was frightened,” his tone reflected that fear. Murrow’s articulation was always clear. According to some reports, even excessive alcohol intake did not detract from Murrow’s powers of articulation or of his ability to convey subtleties of tone. As Kendrick states, “Murrow’s pleasant baritone could encompass the full range of human emotions without once losing its professional tone” (223). The audience knew Murrow’s voice well. He was both a friend and an authority.

Conclusion and Implications

In this analysis, I have examined the circumstances and exigence of O-Hell, a radio report of a B-52 flight over Berlin. I have examined the background of Edward R. Murrow, the piece’s rhetor. Murrow’s background in speech, history, and public relations led him to become among London’s most famous radio correspondents during WWII. A few questions remain to be answered. How effectively did Murrow achieve his purposes? What does the piece tell us about WWII rhetoric, specifically radio news broadcasts?

As a journalist, Murrow’s first aim was to accurately report an incident to his audience. According to my analysis, and however ostensibly its seems otherwise, Murrow's Orchestrated Hell was purposefully and effectively rhetorical. Murrow’s account was couched in language that allowed audiences to visualize the crew and the events of their dramatic mission. Narrative argument and structure, pathos, and ethos each worked together to achieve a persuasive effect on an audience who simply took it all in as "brilliant, objective reporting."

This leads me to the second purpose of the broadcast which was to draw the American and English people together. As previously discussed, Murrow never flew with an American crew. However, there are no accounts that any letters criticizing his actions ever came to CBS News. I believe that the American public so strongly identified with the British people that, in effect, their soldiers were our soldiers. Anyone who could help defeat Hitler was good, no matter their nationality. Due to this mindset on the part of his listeners, Murrow achieved his second purpose, even without giving the Americans equal play.

In his third purpose, which was to pay tribute to his fallen colleagues, Murrow failed. Today, we see T.V. tributes to ever major and minor celebrity, and these often seem to serve no purpose other than to ratchet up the E-Bay price of the dead person’s belongings. But these men were Murrow’s comrades, and he should have had more to say about their lives than the story they were unable to file. In a way, the story seems more important to Murrow than the deaths. Surely the families of these men would have found comfort in Murrow saying something more specific about their loved ones. In his desire to remain professional, Murrow ignores a deep human need he could have easily met. This is not commendable, and can only be viewed as a flaw in the broadcast.

Nevertheless, O-Hell remains a fine example of WWII radio rhetoric. The voices of Edward Murrow and other reporters of his day made the war come alive for their listeners. The citizens of America pictured the events in Europe through the polished prose of these broadcasters. I believe the fact the people could hear but not see World War II contributed to their overwhelming support for it. The radio rhetoricians filtered the news through their careful word choices and professional tones. American citizens heard voices they knew telling them that their cause was just and worth the sacrifices it demanded of them. Apparently, most people believed those voices.

Two decades later, the American people would watch a war on television. A large number of them were so distressed that they took to the streets in protest. Of course, books have been written about why Americans have considered WWII veterans heroes and Vietnam veterans baby killers, and undoubtedly this is a complex question. I believe, however, that at least some of this difference must be attributed to the mediums through which rhetoric was delivered in each war. In any case, Murrow must be understood not merely as a brilliant reporter of "the facts" but as a skillful weaver of words -- a consummate rhetorician who constructed for his audiences an experience of a war that would be indelibly etched in their imagination and to which they could claim a lasting rhetorical allegiance.

Works Cited

Fang, Irving E. Those Radio Commentators! Ames, Iowa: The Iowa State University Press,1977.

Kendrick, Alexander. Prime Time The Life of Edward R. Murrow. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company,1969.

Logue, Calvin M. Ed. Representative American Speeches 1937-1997. Bronx, New York: H.W. Wilson Company, 1997.

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