“Just because the microphone in front of you amplifies your voice around the world is no reason to think we have any more wisdom than we had when our voices could reach only from one end of the bar to the other.” —Edward R. Murrow
During the pioneering days of broadcast journalism, Ed Murrow was the gold standard of journalists. Known for his honesty and integrity in reporting the news, I’m afraid Mr. Murrow would be shocked beyond belief if he listened to the likes of Beck, Limbaugh or O’Reilly, (assuming he only listened to one. Listening to all three would have killed him faster than the cigarettes that eventually claimed his life).
In 1954, Murrow and producing partner Ed Friendly exposed Senate demagogue Joseph R. McCarthy in a series of See It Now broadcasts. Using their own money to pay for air time, Murrow and Friendly used McCarthy’s own words to demonstrate to the American public the reckless and dangerous accusations McCarthy used against individuals he labeled as communists.
However, Murrow paid a price for his integrity. CBS chairman Bill Paley ultimately cancelled See It Now due to the newsman’s continuing focus on controversial topics.
In a speech before the Radio and Television News Directors Association in 1958, Murrow criticized television for its emphasis on entertainment and commercialism at the expense of the public interest in important issues of the time. His “lights and wires” speech, as it became known, would remain a cautionary diatribe against the excesses of a new media with far too much power and influence.
And look what has followed since?
Today, we are inundated and insulated by that great, national, attention-deficit-disorder known as 24/7 cable news that is so melded to commentary, hate-speech and ridiculous “infotainment” that it has become difficult even for the reasonably well-informed to tell the difference between fact and fallacy. And even then, too many are willing to believe the fallacy over the fact.
For one amazingly ignorant reason: They’re on television, they must be right!
What follows are excerpts from that speech; a speech that all of us should take another look at in today’s current context given what the public sees as a lack of “accurate and fair reporting” as I noted in my 2006 Honesty and Trust in Americareport.
“This just might do nobody any good.
“At the end of this discourse a few people may accuse this reporter of fouling his own comfortable nest, and your organization may be accused of having given hospitality to heretical and even dangerous thoughts. But the elaborate structure of networks, advertising agencies and sponsors will not be shaken or altered. It is my desire, if not my duty, to try to talk to you journeymen with some candor about what is happening to radio and television…
“Our history will be what we make it. 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…
“I am frightened by the imbalance, the constant striving to reach the largest possible audience for everything; by the absence of a sustained study of the state of the nation…
“We are currently wealthy, fat, comfortable and complacent. We have currently a built-in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information. Our mass media reflect this. But unless we get up off our fat surpluses 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…
“I do not advocate that we turn television into a 27-inch wailing wall, where longhairs constantly moan about the state of our culture and our defense. But I would just like to see it reflect occasionally the hard, unyielding realities of the world in which we live… Measure the results by Nielsen , Trendex or Silex -it doesn’t matter. The main thing is to try. The responsibility can be easily placed, in spite of all the mouthings about giving the public what it wants. It rests on big business, and on big television, and it rests at the top. Responsibility is not something that can be assigned or delegated. And it promises its own reward: good business and good television.
“This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful…