Just a break from free press in Egypt to note a day of importance:
Today marks the 50th anniversary of Edward R. Murrow's famous speech at the convention of the Radio-Television News Directors Association.
Murrow believed the media served competing purposes: distraction and illumination. Although television was still a nascent industry, Murrow foreshadowed its looming problem, which I believe has come to its nadir. The lines of entertainment and information have been blurred together, while the sheer amount of information available is overwhelming yet often inaccurate. Knowledge and free thought, once the hallmarks of a liberated society, have become of less consequence than the personal lives miscreant celebrities.
Those who point to the fall of media due to declining revenues would do the profession–and the public– a greater service by observing the capitulation to corporate interest above the need to inform and serve. Yes, journalism is a profession that serves the public. If we can stop gazing at our navels for one minute thinking we are better, smarter, better looking or more deserving than our audience, we could understand how fortunate we are to have the opportunity to engage and inform the citizens of the world.
I do not mean to self-aggrandize; I have accomplished very little in my career and I have more than once taken a copy editing job for a brochure or advertisement. I like to believe I have done so only because of the loans I owe because of my study at Medill and elsewhere, but I know in my heart that had I no debt, but a family to feed, I would likely make the same choice. Survival is the unfortunate consequence of a profession with limited opportunities.
Murrow believed the media was at a critical juncture 50 years ago. One could contend that with the US government illegally using former generals as propaganda tools
and $200 million to garner a favorable image in Iraq through local press
, the decline of the media has been set on an irrevocable course. And if Tribune VP Lee Abrams' defense of the informative value of advertorials
does not reflect the precipitous decline of the institutions of journalism, then I do not know what will.Excerpts from the speech of Edward R. Murrow before the RTNDA convention, October 15, 1958:
(please excuse any errors, as I copy and pasted the text from a website without editing it)
I have no technical advice or counsel to offer those of you who labor in this vineyard that produces words and pictures. You will forgive me for not telling you that instruments with which you work are miraculous, that your responsibility is unprecedented or that your aspirations are frequently frustrated. It is not necessary to remind you that the fact that your voice is amplified to the degree where it reaches from one end of the country to the other does not confer upon you greater wisdom or understanding than you possessed when your voice reached only from one end of the bar to the other. All of these things you know.
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.
If Hollywood were to run out of Indians, the program schedules would be mangled beyond all recognition. Then some courageous soul with a small budget might be able to do a documentary telling what, in fact, we have done--and are still doing--to the Indians in this country. But that would be unpleasant. And we must at all costs shield the sensitive citizens from anything that is unpleasant.
I am entirely persuaded that the American public is more reasonable, restrained and more mature than most of our industry's program planners believe.
Editorials would not be profitable; if they had a cutting edge, they might even offend. It is much easier, much less troublesome, to use the money-making machine of television and radio merely as a conduit through which to channel anything that is not libelous, obscene or defamatory. In that way one has the illusion of power without responsibility.
In this kind of complex and confusing world, you can't tell very much about the why of the news in broadcasts where only three minutes is available for news.
One of the basic troubles with radio and television news is that both instruments have grown up as an incompatible combination of show business, advertising and news. Each of the three is a rather bizarre and demanding profession. And when you get all three under one roof, the dust never settles. The top management of the networks with a few notable exceptions, has been trained in advertising, research, sales or show business. But by the nature of the corporate structure, they also make the final and crucial decisions having to do with news and public affairs. Frequently they have neither the time nor the competence to do this.
There is no suggestion here that networks or individual stations should operate as philanthropies. But I can find nothing in the Bill of Rights or the Communications Act which says that they must increase their net profits each year, lest the Republic collapse.
If he always, invariably, reaches for the largest possible audience, then this process of insulation, of escape from reality, will continue to be massively financed, and its apologist will continue to make winsome speeches about giving the public what it wants, or "letting the public decide."
But this nation is now in competition with malignant forces of evil who are using every instrument at their command to empty the minds of their subjects and fill those minds with slogans, determination and faith in the future.
Why should not each of the 20 or 30 big corporations which dominate radio and television decide that they will give up one or two of their regularly scheduled programs each year, turn the time over to the networks and say in effect: "This is a tiny tithe, just a little bit of our profits. On this particular night we aren't going to try to sell cigarettes or automobiles; this is merely a gesture to indicate our belief in the importance of ideas."
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.
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's nothing but 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.
Labels: 50th anniversary, decline, distraction, illumination, media, Murrow, RTNDA