Edward R. Murrow (Associated Press )
"I invite your attention to the television schedules of all networks between the hours of 8 and 11 p.m., Eastern Time. Here you will find only fleeting and spasmodic reference to the fact that this nation is in mortal danger. There are, it 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."
Those remarks aren't the latest rant from Jon Stewart. They are from a speech delivered 54 years ago at a convention of television and radio news executives by Edward R. Murrow. The speech was incredibly controversial as it took the TV and radio industry to the woodshed for being more focused on profits than on serving the public interest.
"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," Murrow said.
Murrow didn't have too much sympathy for the men in suits running the networks.
"It is not easy for the same small group of men to decide whether to buy a new station for millions of dollars, build a new building, alter the rate card, buy a new Western, sell a soap opera, decide what defensive line to take in connection with the latest Congressional inquiry, how much money to spend on promoting a new program, what additions or deletions should be made in the existing covey or clutch of vice-presidents, and at the same time-- frequently on the same long day--to give mature, thoughtful consideration to the manifold problems that confront those who are charged with the responsibility for news and public affairs."
That speech pretty much cost Murrow his career at CBS News. He remained with the network for a few years after the 1958 Radio and Television News Directors Assn. conference, but his presence at the network was greatly diminished as CBS Chairman Bill Paley felt betrayed by his No. 1 news talent.
Unfortunately for Murrow, when it comes to broadcast TV, little has changed since those remarks were delivered. While the evening news format still exists, coverage of the world has diminished. If a story cannot be summed up in a minute or two, odds are it won't make the news. The more complex the issue, the less likely it will be explored.
The morning shows are, for the most part, about gossip, celebrities and cooking. Take a look at some old clips of a network morning show from even as recently as the 1980s and compare it to what is on today. The old shows look like serious news programs while the current versions are a notch or two above "Entertainment Tonight."
Murrow warned of the dangers of trying to reach everyone by enlightening no one.
"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," Murrow said.
For a while, cable, particularly CNN, filled the void that Murrow worried about. Now cable news has become more about opinion and less about information. It reacts rather than leads.
Murrow concluded his speech by noting that television can teach, illuminate and 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"
It still can.
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