By Dan Shelley, RTDNA Executive Director
On October 15, 1958, Edward R. Murrow delivered his famous “wires and lights in a box” admonishment to attendees of what was then the RTNDA annual convention in Chicago. The most well-known part of that speech, a reference to what at the time was the relatively new medium of television, is this:
This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and even it can inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise, it's nothing but wires and lights in a box.
Murrow’s remarks had a profound impact on broadcast journalism then, and have throughout subsequent years. As a matter of fact, in 2005, actor/director George Clooney – the son of a longtime local television news anchor and a self-described “lover” of journalism – used Murrow’s RTDNA speech (and other materials provided by RTNDA) in his film, “Good Night and Good Luck,” named for Murrow’s famous sign-off.
It would be an understatement to say that we live in far different times nearly six decades later. Sure, Murrow and his team at CBS News faced challenges and intense criticism for their practice of taking on controversial subjects and public figures, notably Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who, during the 1950s, engaged in a demagogic witch hunt seeking to prove his mostly untrue claim that the U.S. government had been infiltrated by communists.
But Murrow did not live in a time when a president of the United States openly attacked the news media, calling truthful but inconvenient stories “fake news,” or describing journalists as “disgusting” and the “enemy of the American people.”
While we at RTDNA and our Voice of the First Amendment Task Force have been forced to defend against the nearly daily attacks on press freedom, many perpetrated by President Trump and his supporters, a positive result of those assaults has been more and better journalism.
As Jeff Zucker, CNN president, told me recently, the Trump campaign and current administration have “made American journalism great again,” a play on Mr. Trump’s favorite slogan.
Much of that more and better journalism was showcased October 9 at our annual RTDNA Edward R. Murrow Awards Gala. But it has never been more important to acknowledge that every single day across America, journalists are fulfilling their Constitutionally-guaranteed duty to serve the public by seeking and reporting the truth.
In many cases, the responsible journalism produced at the network and local level on a daily basis is serving as a catalyst for positive change. In some cases, it is literally saving lives.
Look no further than the current northern Californian wildfires, where network, San Francisco-based news outlets and particularly local Santa Rosa radio station KSRO have been providing critical information about evacuations, shelters, firefighting progress, searches for the missing and other crucial information to the public.
Look no further than the tragic mass shooting in Las Vegas, where journalists essentially became first responders, some running toward the gunfire to provide crucial information about what was going on; some assisting the wounded. In the aftermath of the shooting, reporters informed the public about the recovery and investigatory efforts and told those who weren’t killed or injured what they could do to help. Journalists are still working hard to try to discover and report the gunman’s motive.
Look no further than Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Florida, Texas, Louisiana and Alabama, where Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria and Nate have wreaked unimaginable havoc.
In Puerto Rico, network and local journalists have been coping with difficult circumstances to chronicle consistently the desperation of the American citizens who live on the island and the federal government’s response to the disaster. The radio industry donated 10,000 battery-powered radios to people there, most of whom remain without power, so they have access to life-saving information.
On the mainland, particularly in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in Texas, many journalists put their responsibility as human beings ahead of their duty as reporters and photojournalists to jump into the floodwaters to rescue people as they were being swept away. In one case, a local TV reporter helped a flood victim deliver her new son.
Clearly, these flagrant acts of responsible journalism occurred during extraordinary times. But even during ordinary times – if one can call the current environment in our country “ordinary” – broadcast, digital and print journalists are serving communities throughout the U.S. despite an increasing level of obstruction, threats, harassment, arrests and assaults.
The difficulty being faced by journalists in America is detailed in the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, of which RTDNA is a founding partner.
The RTDNA Voice of the First Amendment Task Force has two missions. The first is to defend against every attack on press freedom. The second is to help the public better understand why outstanding responsible journalism is essential to their daily lives. Toward that end, we take solace in a lesser-known part of Murrow’s “wires and lights in a box” speech:
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.
From Murrow’s lips to God’s ears. Especially now.
Contact the Voice of the First Amendment task force by emailing email@example.com.
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