A ‘wires and lights in a box’ speech for today

October 15, 2018 11:00

Sixty years ago, on October 15, 1958, Edward R. Murrow delivered his famous “wires and lights in a box” speech to delegates at the then-RTNDA convention in Chicago. During his remarks, Murrow took to task the television and radio industries for prioritizing the desire for increasing advertising revenue above broadcasters’ responsibility to create a more informed and educated society.

Today’s public discourse and political climate are far different than they were six decades ago, which prompted us to wonder, what would Murrow say to our convention attendees now? RTDNA Executive Director Dan Shelley ventured to make an educated guess.

Red text notes updates, and the text has been shortened from the original version.

This just might do nobody any good.

At the end of this discourse a few people may accuse this reporter of fouling his own comfortable nest, and your organization may be accused of having given hospitality to heretical and even dangerous thoughts. But I am persuaded that the elaborate structure consisting of some politicians, other public officials, purveyors of misinformation and the chattering commentariat class must be altered. It is my desire, if not my duty, to try to talk to you journeymen with some candor about what is happening to radio and television in this generous and capricious land, albeit a land now consumed with unprecedented political and ideological rancor.

I have no technical advice or counsel to offer those of you who labor in this vineyard, the one that produces words and pictures. You will, I am sure, forgive me for not telling you that the instruments with which you work are miraculous, that your responsibility is unprecedented or that your aspirations are frequently frustrated. It is not necessary to remind you of the fact that your voice, amplified to the degree where it reaches from one end of the country to the other, does not confer upon you greater wisdom than when your voice reached only from one end of the bar to the other. All of these things you know.

You should also know at the outset that, in the manner of witnesses before Congressional committees, I appear here voluntarily, by invitation, and that these remarks are strictly of a “do-it-yourself” nature. If what I have to say is responsible, then I alone am responsible for the saying of it. Believing that potentially the commercial system of broadcasting as practiced in this country is the best and freest yet devised, I have decided to express my concern about what I believe to be happening to radio and television. These instruments have been good to me beyond my due. There exists in my mind no reasonable grounds for any kind of personal complaint. I have no feud. But I am seized with an abiding fear regarding what these instruments are doing to our society, our culture and our heritage.

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, film, videotape and digital archives of the broadcast and cable news networks, they will there find recorded evidence of decadence, escapism and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live. I invite your attention to all of it, from the mid 1940s through the present day, from McCarthyism to the civil rights movement, to the Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam War, Watergate, the fall of the Soviet Union, the Great Recession, and now Trumpism. This nation is in mortal danger.

Surely we shall pay for using this most powerful instrument of communication both to insulate the citizenry from the hard and demanding realities which must indeed be faced if we are to survive, and to conflate journalistically verified facts with partisan-inspired, opinion-based commentary.

I am entirely persuaded that the American public is more reasonable, restrained and more mature than most of our industry’s program planners and news division leaders believe. 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. Conversely, when information about a controversial subject is presented through a politically jaded prism without being so labeled, the passions of some otherwise reasonable Americans become unnecessarily and harmfully inflamed.

This nation is now being divided by malignant forces of evil who are using every instrument at their command to empty the minds of their subjects and fill those minds with slogans, determination and faith in their interpretation of the future, and their interpretation only. If we go on as we are, we are protecting the mind of the American public from any meaningful contact with menacing forces that squeeze in upon us. We are engaged in a great experiment to discover whether a free public belief can devise and direct methods of managing the affairs of the nation. We may fail. But in terms of information, we are handicapping ourselves needlessly.

Let us have a little competition not only in selling partisan ideological viewpoints, clearly categorized as such, but in informing a troubled, apprehensive but receptive public. Why should not each of the broadcast and cable television networks, and broadcast and syndicated radio companies and programs, decide that they will give up one or two of their regularly scheduled programs each year, turn the time over to their networks’ or their companies’ news divisions or news departments and say in effect: This is a tiny tithe, just a little bit of our profits. On this particular day, or night, we aren’t going to try to sell soap or automobiles; this is merely a gesture to indicate our belief in the importance of fact-based journalism and well-designated commentary, and the importance in the public being exposed to diverse facts and opinions in order to reach the most reasonable conclusions possible. Would this blemish the corporate image? Would the stockholders rise up and object? I think not. For if the premise upon which our pluralistic society rests, which as I understand it is that if the people are given sufficient undiluted information, they will then somehow, even after long, sober second thoughts, reach the correct conclusion. If that premise is wrong, then not only the corporate image but the corporations and the rest of us are done for.

There used to be an old phrase in this country, employed when someone talked too much. I am grateful to all of you for not having employed it here. The phrase was, “Go hire a hall.” I am here talking about editorializing that is consistently and unmistakably noted as what it is, opinion, and about straightaway exposition of the day’s events as direct, unadorned and impartial as fallible human beings can make it. Just once in a while let us exalt the importance of information.

To a very considerable extent, the media of mass communications in a given country reflects the political, economic and social climate in which it grows and flourishes. We are currently wealthy, fat, comfortable and complacent. And our mass media reflect this. But unless we get up off our fat surpluses and recognize that television and radio in the main are being used to distract, delude, amuse and insulate us, then television and radio and those who finance them, 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 55-inch wailing wall, where malcontents 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. Measure the results by Nielsen – 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 television and big radio, and it rests on the top. Responsibility is not something that can be assigned or delegated. And it promises its own reward: both good business and good television.

Perhaps no one will do anything about it. I have ventured to outline it against a background of criticism that may have been too harsh only because I could think of nothing better. I cannot believe that radio and television, or the corporations that finance the programs, are serving well or truly their viewers or their listeners, or themselves.

I began by saying that our history will be what we make it. If we go on as we are, then history will take its revenge, and retribution will not limp in catching up with us.

We are to a large extent an imitative society. If one or two or three corporations would undertake to devote just a small fraction of their air time along the lines that I have suggested, the procedure might well grow by contagion. The economic burden would be bearable, and there might ensure a most exciting adventure – exposure to ideas and the bringing of real reality into the homes of the nation, not just what we have come to call reality 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 divide and insulate, then the circuit is flickering now and we will soon see that the whole struggle is lost.

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. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful.

Stonewall Jackson, a controversial historical character today, for reasons I need not expand upon now, was generally believed to have known something about weapons. He is reported to have said, “When war comes, you must draw the sword and throw away the scabbard.” The trouble with television and radio today is that they are rusting in the scabbard during a battle for survival.

Thank you for your patience.

Founded as a grassroots organization in 1946, RTDNA works to protect the rights of broadcast and digital journalists in the courts and legislatures throughout the country, promotes ethical standards in the industry, provides members with training and education and honors outstanding work in the profession. The Association's members help shape the future of the journalism profession as we protect their interests by advocating on their behalf and lobbying in their interest. We defend the First Amendment, advocate for open government and freedom of information, and promote diversity in newsroom staffing and coverage. 

The Radio Television Digital News Association has been honoring outstanding achievements in broadcast and digital journalism with the Edward R. Murrow Awards since 1971.  Murrow’s pursuit of excellence in journalism embodies the spirit of the awards that carry his name. Murrow Award recipients demonstrate the excellence that Edward R. Murrow made a standard for the broadcast news profession.