Aug. 14, 2012 By Jack Jodell
Here is the third and final part of a truly visionary speech delivered to the Radio and Television News Directors Association by the late, great, iconic Edward R. Murrow.on October 15, 1058. I have taken the liberty to italicize points which I believe are applicable even today, some 54 years later! My comments will follow at its end.
“I refuse to believe 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. goodBut 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.
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. If we go on as we are, we are protecting the mind of the American public from any real contact with the menacing world that squeezes in upon us. We are engaged in a great experiment to discover whether a free public opinion can devise and direct methods of managing the affairs of the nation. We may fail. But we are handicapping ourselves needlessly.
Let us have a little competition. Not only in selling soap, cigarettes and automobiles, but in informing a troubled, apprehensive but receptive public. 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.’ The networks should, and I think would, pay for the cost of producing the program. The advertiser, the sponsor, would get name credit but would have nothing to do with the content of the program. Would this blemish the corporate image? Would the stockholders object? I think not. For if the premise upon which our pluralistic society rests, which as I understand it is that if the people are given sufficient undiluted information, they will then somehow, even after long, sober second thoughts, reach the right decision–if that premise is wrong, then not only the corporate image but the corporations are done for.
There used to be an old phrase in this country, employed when someone talked too much. It was: ‘Go hire a hall.’ Under this proposal the sponsor would have hired the hall; he has bought the time; the local station operator, no matter how indifferent, is going to carry the program-he has to. Then it’s up to the networks to fill the hall. I am not here talking about editorializing but about straightaway exposition as direct, unadorned and impartial as falliable human beings can make it. Just once in a while let us exalt the importance of ideas and information. Let us dream to the extent of saying that on a given Sunday night the time normally occupied by Ed Sullivan is given over to a clinical survey of the state of American education, and a week or two later the time normally used by Steve Allen is devoted to a thoroughgoing study of American policy in the Middle East. Would the corporate image of their respective sponsors be damaged? Would the stockholders rise up in their wrath and complain? Would anything happen other than that a few million people would have received a little illumination on subjects that may well determine the future of this country, and therefore the future of the corporations? This method would also provide real competition between the networks as to which could outdo the others in the palatable presentation of information. It would provide an outlet for the young men of skill, and there are some even of dedication, who would like to do something other than devise methods of insulating while selling.
There may be other and simpler methods of utilizing these instruments of radio and television in the interests of a free society. But I know of none that could be so easily accomplished inside the framework of the existing commercial system. I don’t know how you would measure the success or failure of a given program. And it would be hard to prove the magnitude of the benefit accruing to the corporation which gave up one night of a variety or quiz show in order that the network might marshal its skills to do a thorough-going job on the present status of NATO, or plans for controlling nuclear tests. But I would reckon that the president, and indeed the majority of shareholders of the corporation who sponsored such a venture, would feel just a little bit better about the corporation and the country.
It may be that the present system, with no modifications and no experiments, can survive. Perhaps the money-making machine has some kind of built-in perpetual motion, but I do not think so. To a very considerable extent the media of mass communications in a given country reflect the political, economic and social climate in which they flourish. That is the reason ours differ from the British and French, or the Russian and Chinese. 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. I would like to see it done inside the existing framework, and I would like to see the doing of it redound to the credit of those who finance and program it. 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.
Perhaps no one will do anything about it. I have ventured to outline it against a background of criticism that may have been too harsh only because I could think of nothing better. Someone once said–I think it was Max Eastman–that ‘that publisher serves his advertiser best who best serves his readers.’ I cannot believe that radio and television, or the corporation that finance the programs, are serving well or truly their viewers or listeners, or themselves.
I began by saying that our history will be what we make it. If we go on as we are, then history will take its revenge, and retribution will not limp in catching up with us.
We are to a large extent an imitative society. If one or two or three corporations would undertake to devote just a small traction of their advertising appropriation along the lines that I have suggested, the procedure would grow by contagion; the economic burden would be bearable, and there might ensue a most exciting adventure–exposure to ideas and the bringing of reality into the homes of the nation.
To those who say people wouldn’t look; they wouldn’t be interested; they’re too complacent, indifferent and insulated, I can only reply: There is, in one reporter’s opinion, considerable evidence against that contention. But even if they are right, what have they got to lose? Because if they are right, and this instrument is good for nothing but to entertain, amuse and insulate, then the tube is flickering now and we will soon see that the whole struggle is lost.
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.
Stonewall Jackson, who knew something about the use of weapons, is reported to have said, ‘When war comes, you must draw the sword and throw away the scabbard.’ The trouble with television is that it is rusting in the scabbard during a battle for survival.”
Edward R. Murrow, who died far too early from lung cancer caused by continual cigarette smoking at the age of 57 in 1965, presented us with a great deal of food-for-thought here. His proposal that networks and advertisers alike forego a tiny amount of their profit-seeking to develop and broadcast informative and educational programming dedicated to the pure discussion of new ideas is as revolutionary and shocking today as when he first delivered it in 1958! For, had his recommendation been adopted, ours would be a far better and even stronger country today. “Low information voters” would simply not exist, or would be far less prevalent than they are now. I dare say the reactionary Republican resurgence would have never occurred, nor would have emerged the ignorant and racist aspects of the Tea Party, or the greedy excesses of Wall Street as well.
Murrow would be absolutely horrified to see how television and radio news has devolved since his time. He would be appalled to see the likes of poorly-educated fools like Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Sean Hannity having the access to network time they have, let alone their own shows or feature spots, and that these people actually have sizable audiences who believe their slanted, far-right nonsense! He would be aghast to see that major corporations now control nearly all our mainstream media, and that an expansion of this media, via cable and satellite, has yielded very, very, VERY little expanded discussion of ideas or even increased knowledge among its audiences! He would be utterly disgusted, as most of us serious thinkiers are, at the very existence of the extremely slanted and highly propagandistic Fox “News”, and to see the way that, on other networks, political “discussion” has become mere arguing among polar opposites, with participants often cut short by their hosts due to the pressing need to always have to go to another of an ever-increasing number of paid commercial breaks. For this trend of consolidated corporate media ownership – indeed, the very nature of American television itself – has been perverted by the very forces of unrestrained, “free market” capitalism which provide its economic sustenance! That’s right, folks: free market capitalism itself, with its blatantly malignant push for ever-increasing profits, has turned what should have become a source for mass enlightenment into a hotbed of lying advertisement with a definite material bent. It has permeated our thought and culture in a decidedly negative manner which Murrow would NEVER have condoned!
There would indeed be a great deal for Edward R. Murrow to be unhappy about concerning broadcast journalism today. On the other hand, I believe he would be greatly encouraged by the explosion in new forms of totally free, internet-based social media and by the development of LINK TV, (DIRECTV channel 375 or DISH Network channel 9410), the first completely non-commercial, totally viewer-supported worldwide television network. These forms of alternative news sources represent a reaction against corporatist thought and corporate-controlled media, and provide a much-needed, healthier, more thought-provoking approach to television as a medium in general!