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Murrow and the prospects for television

It was fifty years ago this past week that Edward R. Murrow delivered his famous speech on radio and television to the Radio and Television News Directors Association (Murrow was born 100 years ago, and so there is a double anniversary).  Now remembered as the “wires and lights in a box” address, Murrow (speaking on 15 October 1958) urged his industry colleagues to deploy programming in ways that would inform rather than simply entertain.  The most famous quotation, made so in part because it appears in the 2005 George Clooney film Good Night, and Good Luck, is this:

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.

Murrow is a broadcasting legend but wasn’t perfect.  Even as his famous Report on Senator McCarthy was being aired it attracted controversy beyond the partisans, from media critics who found the methods of editing unfair (much of this is summarized in Tom Rosteck’s 1989 essay); Gilbert Seldes, for instance, argued that the use of long clips that were edited at start and finish but not reliant on quick cuts created an accumulating sense of giving McCarthy the rope to hang himself, but because the long clips nonetheless framed the scene, it created an editing tactic able to bring down any public figure with a long video record.  Rosteck argues that the apparently objective modes of documentary representation of the world as it is are actually contradicted by its equal tendency to induce ironic readings from viewers.

When Murrow spoke those “wires and lights in a box” words, the number of networks was limited and the idea that their accumulated commitment to social betterment could elevate American culture had more salience.  Today, in a world of a thousand digital channels and a connected defense of a radically segmented viewership, Murrow’s ambition for the industry can easily sound either naive or implausible.  As I read the text again the other day, I kept categorizing his remarks with Eisenhower’s Farewell Address:  both articulated noble, even compelling, cases, but they also called attention to dangers that were already too far underway to avert, and today read as prophesies of outcomes that given industrial pressures were never going to be diverted.  Murrow himself knows this and addresses it in the speech’s opening sentence:  This just might do nobody any good.

Still, Murrow’s thought experiment – tape one week’s programming on the three networks and see what they say about American culture were they to be examined 50 years hence (and thus now is the time the hypothetical becomes an actuality) – does not produce an outcome all that different from that resulting from an analysis of last week’s prime time schedule.  As Murrow put it,

Here you will find only fleeting and spasmodic reference to the fact that this nation is in mortal danger.  There are, is true, occasional informative programs presented in that intellectual ghetto on Sunday afternoons.  But during the daily peak viewing periods, television in the main insulates us from the realities of the world in which we live.  If this state of affairs continues, we may alter an advertising slogan to read:  Look Now, Pay Later.

It is true that today’s reality programs and home decorating shows and 24-7 sports coverage are also complemented with public broadcasting documentaries (although it seems here in Atlanta that every time pledge week comes around all those are tossed aside in favor of New Age/quack medicine/1950’s juke box shows) and news networks.  The proliferation of entertainment networks also makes possible the multiple C-SPANs.  But if Murrow might have argued that information programming only occupied 5% of the late 1950’s prime time schedule, it is also probably the case that information networks occupy only 5% of the networks producing content today.  And on those networks (I mean Fox and MSBNC and CNN and Bloomberg and the business news channels), a shocking amount of time is given not to information conveyance but to people sitting around shooting the shit.

Defenders of this system sometimes argue that they are simply making the newsgathering process transparent (and so when we watch Nancy Grace talking with cops and private detectives and her posse about the latest Apparently Normal Guy Kills Fiance scandal, we’re just seeing for ourselves the work any journalist would be doing behind the scenes).  But what is more striking is how much time is occupied in revving up the hype when not very much new information is being conveyed.  In watching some of Fox News’ ongoing work to document (critics would say manufacture) evidence of voting fraud, which today produced the claim that more than 7000 incidents of fraud and intimidation had poured in via email, I was struck by how we are truly seeing the sausage getting made.  When the cops put out a public request for information relating to an ongoing murder investigation, no one would give two seconds thought to treating all the tips that pour in as worthy of publication – some having come from wackos, some from partisans, some from serious but misinformed witnesses, some reporting true malfeasance – but Fox is treating the number of responses as itself newsworthy and reflective of a nationwide scandal.

Part of Murrow’s concern fifty years ago was that because networks pursue profit, they have a financial interest in not covering controversy.  News coverage of difficult issues like Middle East politics will only drive viewers away, and this risks (in turn) a schedule of lowest-common-denominator TV shows.  To some extent Murrow got it wrong, for the very fragmentation that was enabled by the cable/digital revolution also means networks can succeed by appealing to narrowly segmented audiences.  And so if only one percent of Americans are attracted to far left programming, then the one channel catering to it will succeed anyway.  And Murrow actually recommended that stations engage more freely in editorializing, when recent trends make the news networks seem like all-editorials-all-the-time.

But in other ways his critique was prescient.  His proposal that networks “tithe” to produce neutral coverage of public affairs is almost exactly the C-SPAN model.  His sense that models of profit would not be easily supplanted by civic-mindedness otherwise has been validated by everything from the miserly slots now given by the main networks to the political conventions to the extent to which news programming (20/20 and Dateline) is filled with pulp fiction-like crime coverage and gotcha stunts.  I love the Murrow line uttered at a different time, that a “nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves.”

Writing on Murrow’s legacy in this month’s American Journalism Review, Deborah Potter quotes Don Hewitt (of 60 Minutes fame) as noting that “Ed always figured it was all right to look in Marilyn Monroe’s closet if you were also willing to look in Robert Oppenheimer’s laboratory.”  Potter notes with some sadness, that today, such “balance is gone.  Today, it’s all about celebrities’ closets.  A nuclear physicist would have to be found hiding in one to have a chance of getting on the air.”  It is perhaps the saddest irony to note that Murrow’s own career on the networks had already been undone by the forces he noted and decried.  By the time he gave his famous speech in October, Murrow’s See It Now program, already reduced to occasionally aired special reports, had been canceled altogether for three months.  The legendary (some would say notorious) CBS chairman Bill Paley said he couldn’t stand the stomach aches he got wondering who Murrow would offend with each new report, and the audiences numbers were lousy.  Although Murrow did distinguished work afterward (including the 1960 Harvest of Shame, his 1962 work to introduce educational television to New York, and his direction of the U.S. Information Agency under Kennedy), his address in 1958 was seen as a broadside against CBS and Murrow’s relationship with Paley was forever damaged.

SOURCES:  Deborah Potter, “What Would Murrow Do?  Half a Century After He Castigated the Broadcast Industry, Problems Persist,” American Journalism Review (October/November 2008), pg. 74; Gilbert Seldes, “Murrow, McCarthy, and the Empty Formula,” Saturday Review (24 April 1954), pgs. 26-27; Richard Schaefer, “Editing Strategies in Television News Documentaries,” Journal of Communication 47.4 (Autumn 1997): 69-88; Thomas Rosteck, “Irony, Argument, and Reportage in Television Documentary:  See It Now Versus Senator McCarthy,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 9 (1989): 277-298.


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