by Jeffrey M. McCall
Edward R. Murrow is widely regarded as the godfather of the broadcast journalism industry. He established bedrock principles of depth, fairness and journalistic independence. Murrow will, of course, be remembered for his many broadcasting achievements, but he will also be remembered for a visionary speech he delivered 50 years ago October 15. It was a speech that challenged broadcasters to more effectively serve the public interest. It was a speech that foresaw the broadcast news industry’s weaknesses and foibles. It was a speech that should be revisited in broadcasting’s executive suites today.
Murrow became the radio voice that informed America of the European war theater. His legendary broadcasts during the Battle of Britain began with “This, is London,” sometimes with bombs exploding in the background.
Murrow’s influence on broadcast journalism continued to grow as he moved into television with hard-hitting special reports, including a 1954 broadcast that took on McCarthyism. Murrow’s impressive voice and handsome appearance certainly played a role in his ascendance, but it was his depth of insight, commitment to accuracy and fearlessness in the face of power that truly forged his reputation as a dynamic communicator.
Murrow was the conscience and spiritual leader of broadcast news in October 1958 when he addressed the Radio Television News Directors Association convention. He declined to provide the ceremonial pat on the back. Instead, he scolded the radio and television world for failing to live up to its potential in informing the citizenry.
“I am seized with an abiding fear regarding what these two instruments (radio and TV) are doing to our society, our culture and our heritage,” Murrow said. He proceeded to criticize broadcast management for its preoccupation with the profit side of the news, saying if “news is to be regarded as a commodity, only acceptable when saleable, then I don’t care what you call it — I say it isn’t news.” He lamented that broadcast news had “grown up as an incompatible combination of show business, advertising and news,” which he said caused “a clash between the public interest and the corporate interest.”
Murrow himself wrestled with the public versus corporate conflict, caving in to host a prime-time program called “Person to Person,” a series of money-making, soft interviews with celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe and Lauren Bacall. Murrow’s longtime news editor, Ed Bliss, later said Murrow hated doing the program, but yielded to the CBS suits to help save funding for more traditional news efforts.
Murrow bluntly concluded his 1958 speech saying, “Television in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse and insulate us.” He exhorted broadcasters to use television to “teach,” “illuminate” and “inspire.” “Otherwise, it’s nothing but wires and lights in a box,” he said.
One must wonder how Murrow would assess broadcast journalism today. He would probably be delighted to see 24-hour cable news services such as CNN, MSNBC and Fox News, but be disappointed that the highest profile figures on those channels — Larry King, Keith Olbermann and Sean Hannity — are considered personalities more than journalists.
He would be happy that local television now programs more news than 50 years ago, but be disappointed that some 30 percent of newscasts are filled with “cop shop” news of traffic wrecks, fires and random holdups.
Murrow also would likely decry the celebrity status that TV news anchors have achieved, and remind them, as he once said, “Just because your voice reaches halfway around the world doesn’t mean you are wiser than when it reached only to the end of the bar.”
He would question whether today’s political campaign coverage — with its focus on polls, logistics and cheap shots — does anything to teach or illuminate.
Although much fine work is done in the broadcast news industry, Murrow’s speech of 50 years ago can still serve to challenge the superficiality and profit mentality that too often relegate the medium to “wires and lights in a box.”
Jeff McCall is a professor of communication at DePauw University and author of the book Viewer Discretion Advised: Taking Control of Mass Media Influences