Archive for December 4th, 2016

Many of today’s public affairs programs reflect the polarized political climate and are overtly partisan to entertain listeners and viewers whose minds are already made up.  People no longer tune in to a program for a detached assessment of political matters; they tune in to have their own biases affirmed.  A Murrow program inviting an audience to think might not fare well today.
Morrow never had to put up with corporate bean counters to the degree that today’s broadcast journalists must endure.  In Murrow’s time, new was a loss leader and wasn’t expected to score big ratings and make money.  That changed dramatically in the 1980’s when the networks were acquired by huge firms that dwarfed the Paley-size corporations.  Public service was a luxury the new media conglomerates could not afford.  With network audiences dwindling because of the wider availability of cable TV, the news divisions now were expected to top the competition in the ratings and to make money.  From public service to profit center is a jolting transition, but happened.  It began with deep cuts in expenses, which were fine as long as they involved trading limos for vans and first-class airfare for coach, but then it involved people.  Hundreds of fine journalists lost their jobs in the 1980’s when the networks pared back.  When the bloodletting was over, the quest for profit took a different direction.
The only way a news program can compete in prime time is to become an entertainment program.
Cable relieved the broadcast networks of the pressure to provide live coverage of important breaking stories.  Cable claims to have all-news channels, and indeed it does when there is important breaking news.  In fact, when an important story breaks, the so-called all-news channels cover only that one story, upsetting those who feel “all news” should provide “all of the news.”
On most days, however, cable TV offers no news in prime time (except on the headline channel) because news simply can’t compete with prime time entertainment programs.  It’s a sad fact that cable TV, with plenty of airtime available to explore important, complex issues in great detail, squanders that resource by descending to tabloid sensationalism, personality cult shows, and aping talk radio with high-testosterone shout shows requiring panelists and viewers alike to wake up angry and stay angry.
We should concern ourselves with issues that affect our common welfare, not some tawdry episode that has nothing to instruct us on how to get through a day.  For ratings’ sake, cable news focuses too often on the titillating and not on the news we really need.
Murrow believed it was wrong to recruit a liar to be part of a program in order to balance the truth. *
It’s important to remember that once upon a time we turned to radio and television to entertain us and nothing more.  If we expect the broadcast media to inform us, educate us, and enlighten us, it’s because Edward R. Murrow let us to believe that they would.
    —    Bob Edwards
Excerpts from the “Afterword” to his book:  “Edward R. Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism
[* The emphasis in the above excerpt is mine and does not appear in the original quote.  To read my review of the book, click here.    —    kmab]
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