Posts Tagged ‘Edward R. Murrow: and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism’

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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This evening’s post is a book review and a movie review.
Book review:  Edward R. Murrow: and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism  (2004©)
This book was written by Bob Edwards and chronicles the life of the famous radio and TV news journalist: Edward R Murrow.  A little background – I grew up listening to the famous record series “I Can Hear It Now (1933-1945)“.  I’m not sure why my mom bought them for me as a child, but I have distinct memories of listening to these albums (actually, 78rpm LPs, as in “Long Playing” for all you music streamers) along with my copy of “The Lone Ranger“.  Incidentally, anyone interested can hear much of, if not all of, the records on YouTube.  You can certainly hear enough of Murrow’s voice to appreciate what he sounded like to Americans who were just discovering radio.
The book is a fascinating account of the parallel track of radio and TV news journalism with early to mid-20th century world / American history.  The main body is 166 pages in my hardbound copy and I found it a VERY fast read.  If you have any interest in the history of broadcast journalism this is a terrific introduction.  Having grown up during the 1960’s, when many of the names in the book were faces on my TV every evening, the book really brought back memories.  Of particular interest, the “Afterword” runs about 13 pages and more or less precisely describes the news we see on TV (broadcast and 24-hour cable) today.  The book would be highly recommended based on the “Afterword” itself, but I found the whole book fascinating.  Final recommendation: Highly recommended!  Needless to say, there will be quotes to follow on my blog…
Movie review:  “good night, and good luck.”  (2005)
This is my second review of this movie / DVD.  The original review can be found at:  Journalism And Fantasy  from back in 2012.  My first review pretty much stands as is.  This is an outstanding movie about a critical time in American history – 1953 to 1958 and covers the conflict between Senator Joseph McCarthy and Edward Murrow.  McCarthy was trying to fight communism in the U.S. government (and then within the U.S. as a whole) and over-reached by using government intimidation to restrict free speech and association and, ultimately, freedom of the press.  When Murrow used the power of television to confront McCarthy and his bullying tactics, McCarthy fell from public grace.  He was censored by the Senate and, ultimately, died in disgrace as a cautionary tale about the abuse of power in a democracy.  Ironically, some of the individuals he “exposed / persecuted” were later found to actually be Soviet agents when the U.S.S.R. fell and some of their spying records became public.  This has not, however, vindicated McCarthy in the eyes of history.  Rather, these instances seem to be the exceptions which proved the rule of innocent until proven guilty.
If I have one critique of the movie, it would be that it leaves you hanging.  There is the drama of Murrow’s (probably) most famous speech – to the Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) convention in Chicago (1958) – popularly known as the “Wires And Lights In A Box” speech (which can be found in its entirety here), which leads into and then ends the movie, but there is no summing up.  The viewer is left to do their own research on Murrow’s career and life, and the result / reaction to his speech.  The fact the speech is actually a prophecy of the type of radio and television news we are experiencing today is also left for the viewer.  This is the type of DVD I would pay more for to get the extras (but I NEVER do this).
Even with that single criticism, this is a terrific movie and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in American journalism, history or the rule of law in a free and open society.
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