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The main thing is to try

(From July 2009)

Lately, I’ve found myself cringing when I see or hear television, radio, or print media using Twitter or Facebook as their sources for information. It comes across as a desperate attempt to be relevant and to stay afloat in today’s media culture. And, of course, they cannot be blamed for fighting for their survival in an economy as unstable and poor as this one, and in a culture that, in general, no longer seems to value high-quality, informative, well-written/well-presented news and analysis.

This isn’t a completely new phenomenon. For years, American mass media (and I focus on American mass media here simply because it’s what I know most about/what I’ve experienced a great deal of) has been slowly but steadily moving towards an extreme commercialization of the news, leading up to today’s media climate, in which many media outlets seem to think that all news must consist of entertaining, easy-to-digest, and simple stories that require little to no critical thinking, analysis, or self-questioning on the part of the audience. The goal, it seems, is to make everything easily understandable and non-disturbing for the reader/viewer/listener; in other words, they don’t want us, as consumers of media, to have to think or to have to face the reality of what’s happening in the world. This attitude is often justified as “giving the audience what they want.”

It must be admitted that there is some truth to that. If we, as media consumers, choose to spend a great deal of time and money in support of news media that refuses to report on anything that isn’t entertaining or mindless, then, yes, we’re indicating that such writing/reporting is indeed what we want. However, it is also important to remember that media outlets have chosen to value entertainment and advertising revenue above useful, thought-provoking, and important news that informs us and requires us to think, to truly think, about the issue under discussion. It seems to me that the “well, the audience wants it so we better give it to them!” excuse is often simply a refusal to take responsibility for having chosen the easier, more profitable road.

Edward R. Murrow’s 1958 Speech to the Radio and Television News Directors Association convention explains these ideas so very eloquently, insightfully, and thoroughly. I find it to be one of the most inspiring rhetorical pieces I’ve ever read.

A few excerpts:

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. 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.

For surely we shall pay for using this most powerful instrument of communication to insulate the citizenry from the hard and demanding realities which must be faced if we are to survive. I mean the word survive literally. If there were to be a competition in indifference, or perhaps in insulation from reality, then Nero and his fiddle, Chamberlain and his umbrella, could not find a place on an early afternoon sustaining show. 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. Their fear of controversy is not warranted by the evidence. I have reason to know, as do many of you, that when the evidence on a controversial subject is fairly and calmly presented, the public recognizes it for what it is–an effort to illuminate rather than to agitate.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than by the fact that the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission publicly prods broadcasters to engage in their legal right to editorialize. Of course, to undertake an editorial policy, overt and clearly labeled, and obviously unsponsored, requires a station or a network to be responsible. Most stations today probably do not have the manpower to assume this responsibility, but the manpower could be recruited. 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.

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. Heywood Broun once said, “No body politic is healthy until it begins to itch.” I would like television to produce some itching pills rather than this endless outpouring of tranquilizers. It can be done. Maybe it won’t be, but it could.

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.

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.

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.

Every bit of that is, unfortunately enough, still as relevant and as important today as it was in 1958. Things have only gotten worse since that time. I find it to be such an inspirational and powerful work, and one that offers advice that we would most definitely do well to heed.

The wonderful 2005 film, Good Night, and Good Luck, gives a glimpse into Murrow’s professional life and his fascination with and fierce passion for the truth.

In it, David Straithairn, playing Murrow, delivers excerpts from the Radio and Television News Directors Association convention speech, and the excerpts have been collected in this video:


Now, back to what I mentioned at the beginning. It upsets me to see traditional news media relying on social networking sites as a source of content. I want to hear quality news reporting and analysis delivered by experienced, skilled, and passionate reporters. Instead, what many news outlets give us today are talking heads reading out viewers’ responses from Twitter, or Facebook, or reading their text messages aloud, or taking calls on the air. And, unless it’s in the context of a specifically designated call-in program, that’s just ridiculous. It seems as if these media outlets do this to try to be relevant and entertaining, and also because they seem to think that giving all voices equal time and equal value will make the news more interesting to viewers. And perhaps that does make it more interesting to some. But “interesting” isn’t what I’m concerned with. I want these news sources to inform me and to provide explication and analysis from highly-qualified, skilled, and thoughtful professionals. Having a few truly informative and quality voices is so much more important than giving airtime to everyone who fires off 140 characters of nonsense on Twitter.

Ironically enough, Twitter is now one of the best places to follow current news (although it comes with neither context nor analysis, a fact which greatly lessens its usefulness), not only because so many of us now use it on a regular basis, but also because much of the traditional news media has become so obsessed with entertaining us and so focused on selling us things that they rarely choose to offer their audience anything of value or usefulness anymore, let alone any contextualizing of the information or useful analysis of it. Instead, they spend their programs reading aloud from Twitter.

I love to be entertained, and I would never argue that every bit of media we consume should be solely informative, or that news should never be entertaining. However, combining news and entertainment in the way that much of the mass media do today has left us with an under-informed populace who are rarely given the information we need in order to make sense of and make decisions about the world we live in. We’re also being denied quality, thoughtful, and thorough analyses of current events/issues that explain, contextualize, and comment upon the news, providing us with much more food for thought than a simple burst of facts without explanation ever could.

We can handle reality. We can think for ourselves. We can think critically and thoroughly about an issue. We don’t always have to be entertained. We owe it to ourselves and to everyone else to stay informed about and to truly understand the current events of our world. And the media needs to be responsible enough to provide us with that information.

As Murrow said (quoted above), “I would like television to produce some itching pills rather than this endless outpouring of tranquilizers. It can be done. Maybe it won’t be, but it could.”

With our time and our money, let’s make it clear to the media that we’d like a good dose of “itching pills” along with the constant stream of “tranquilizers” they’re currently so eager to force down our throats. To use a cheesy but apt metaphor: let’s close our throats a bit and then open our eyes as wide as they can go.

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