Television and Responsibility

Published: January 26, 2012

By Jim Lichtman
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Following a screening and discussion of the film Good Night and Good Luck, which documents news journalist Edward R. Murrow’s fight with Senate demagogue Joseph McCarthy, some students in Stephen Ambra’s Contemporary Ethical Issues class – a class I was invited to participate in – were asked to read a copy of Murrow’s famous “wires and lights” speech and examine if his words remain relevant today.

“Our history will be what we make it,” Murrow addressed his colleagues in 1958.“And if there are any historians about fifty or a hundred years from now, and there should be preserved the kinescopes for one week of all three networks, they will there find recorded in black and white, or color, evidence of decadence, escapism and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live.”

“Yes,” one student wrote, “we are, as a society, practicing decadence and escapism through television, but we are not insulated from the realities of life. On the contrary,” she continues, “we have gone too far… the networks will show anything that will entertain the public at almost any cost.”

The student shares a personal story to illustrate her point.

“My mother was visiting… At 6:30 in the morning the day of 9/11, I put my mom on bus heading to [Boston’s] Logan airport back to San Francisco. When I got home, the kids and I went back to sleep. Suddenly, I was awakened by a phone call from my neighbor. ‘A plane crashed into one of the twin towers. Turn on the television!’

“I was half asleep and confused and turned on the news.

“ ‘What plane is your mother on? What plane!?’

“I watched in horror as a second plane crashed into the second tower. My mother was flying stand-by and could have been on any plane.

“I was lost; my husband was away… I called my sister [in San Francisco] and they had no idea about the whole event. It was only 5:00am. After several hours, we were fortunate to hear from my mother. Her plane landed somewhere in Iowa and she ended up taking a bus for 10 hours back to San Francisco. It was a close call. My mother had boarded a United Airlines plane at 7:00am, the same time as the terrorists, but she was flying to San Francisco, and they were flying to Los Angeles.”

“It took me a month to mentally get over it. I felt sad and guilty because she was visiting us. I could not begin to imagine what the families of the victims felt watching that footage over and over again.

“…some argue that showing the twin towers burning and crashing to the ground many times was unethical and hurtful to families. My children were very young at the time and I tried to make sure they did not watch the television so they would not be frightened.

“Should the TV networks commit to the Golden Rule? Do they bear any responsibility for our next generation? I am not a believer in regulating television, but I cannot keep up… The days of Ed Murrow are far behind.”

“I refuse to believe,” Murrow said in that 1958 speech,“that the presidents and chairmen of the boards of these big corporations want their corporate image to consist exclusively of a solemn voice in an echo chamber, or a pretty girl opening the door of a refrigerator, or a horse that talks. They want something better, and on occasion some of them have demonstrated it. But most of the men whose legal and moral responsibility it is to spend the stockholders’ money for advertising are removed from the realities of the mass media by five, six, or a dozen contraceptive layers of vice-presidents, public relations counsel and advertising agencies. Their business is to sell goods, and the competition is pretty tough.”

If Murrow were alive today, I’m afraid he would find that the competition for eyeballs and revenue has not only grown fiercer, but that networks have become more practiced and skillful at pandering to the public’s lowest denominator.

While there exists a new and ever-expanding cable universe dedicated to a variety of niche markets that can, in fact, educate and inform on the important issues of the day, far more are given over to the celebrity du jour. Sadly, many of these “celebrities” are famous and followed solely due to their ‘unique’ talent of participating in a “Reality” TV show where anything goes. Watching any of them makes me yearn for the days of Mr. Ed.

“But unless we get up off of our fat surpluses,” Murrow reminds us, “and recognize that television in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse and insulate us, then television and those who finance it, those who look at it and those who work at it, may see a totally different picture too late.”

Is it too late?



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