Another look at Murrow’s 1958 RTNDA address

June 22, 2015 01:30

By Aaron Quanbeck, Minnesota State University Moorhead
Note: RTDNA was known as RTNDA (the Radio Television News Directors Assocation) at the time of Murrow's speech.

 Broadcast journalists often quote Edward R. Murrow’s 1958 famous “wires and lights in a box” speech to describe how broadcasting continues to fall short of its obligation keep the public informed about what is really important. When he said that the programs the networks offered during his time were “evidence of decadence, escapism and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live,” he could have easily been describing what we have available to us today. He believed that an informed society was crucial for the survival of the nation, even if it meant that broadcast journalists have to cover controversial topics. But as much as Murrow’s speech is used to describe what is wrong with broadcasting, how much does it really offer in the way of a viable solution? What advice does it offer broadcast journalists in how to fulfill their obligations?
As a broadcast journalism educator pursuing my doctorate, I had the opportunity to look closely at Murrow’s address as part of my dissertation. As I dug deeper into his persuasive strategies, it became clear that Murrow created a speech that made a rational argument for more informative programming, while at the same time appealing to broadcast journalists. In arguing for more quality programming I found that he made three main points. I have put quotes from his speech after each one as examples of these main ideas.
1. Distraction is Dangerous - “If we go on as we are, we are protecting the mind of the American public from any real contact with the menacing world that squeezes in upon us.”
2. Controversy Can Be Constructive - “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.”
3. Greed should not supersede societal responsibility – “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.”
While he made a rational argument for the industry to change, Murrow appealed to the audience of broadcast journalists in two primary ways:
1. Broadcasting is a Moral Endeavor - “You will forgive me for not telling you that instruments with which you work are miraculous, that your responsibility is unprecedented or that your aspirations are frequently frustrated.”
2. The Moral Struggle with the Profession Lies at the Top - “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.”
As I looked at what Murrow said about the profession, it became clear that he viewed broadcast journalism as a calling that brought with it the responsibility of keeping the public informed. When the industry failed in that task, Murrow placed the blame on corporations who were unwilling to support quality programming. He called for them to improve their public image by setting aside some of their earnings to support such programs. In many respects, this idea would later be a part of the corporate sponsorship structure of programming on public broadcasting. While public broadcasting does help to provide more quality programming, the problems Murrow spoke of in 1958 continue today.

I believe it’s also important to look at what Murrow didn’t talk about in his speech. In creating an address that would appeal to broadcast journalists, Murrow placed in the background the role of the viewer and the struggle of individual journalists. Murrow was also unwilling to put any responsibility for the lack of informative programming on the viewers themselves. Even though his critically acclaimed See It Now news program never attracted a large audience, and his time slot was given over to a game show, he was optimistic that viewers would respond appropriately if given the chance: “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.” Murrow’s evidence was mostly based on the fact that he did not receive many complaints when he took on controversial topics, not that large numbers of viewers tuned to watch the reports. Murrow’s opinion of the viewing public would have certainly appealed to broadcast journalists, who would appreciate the idea that viewers would respond to what they offered, even if that’s not always the case.

In his RTNDA address, Murrow also avoided talking about the struggle that broadcast journalists face in balancing their journalistic obligations to inform the public with their corporate responsibilities to attract viewers. Murrow insisted “I have no feud, either with my employers, any sponsors, or with the professional critics of radio and television.” Murrow certainly did have reason to complain. He had seen sponsors abandon See It Now and was frustrated when CBS decided to cancel the program after the network moved it from prime time to an occasional Sunday afternoon special.

Murrow also failed to mention what some see as his own contribution in creating a prime time schedule of programming that reflected the “escapism” Murrow was speaking out against. When Murrow hosted the celebrity interview program Person to Person, it was an indication to many television critics and colleagues that he was benefiting from viewers’ appetite for fluff. Each week, Murrow would interact with celebrities through a “picture window,” which created the illusion that he was peering into the celebrity’s home. The interviews were a far departure from the serious journalism he produced for See It Now. Murrow insisted that he did Person to Person so that CBS would allow him to do See It Now, implying that there is a give and take when it comes to broadcast journalism. Along with reports that really matter, broadcast journalists may be asked to do the fluffy pieces now and then.

So what does this deeper look into Murrow’s speech mean for broadcast journalists today? For me it was revealing in that Murrow words from the past certainly describe the problem we continue to face today. They do inspire us to do better. They do not, however, offer much in the way of advice to broadcast journalists in navigating the dual mission of informing the public while still attracting viewers. There was an opportunity to challenge news directors to assess what kinds of stories they were producing for their viewers. Were they fulfilling their journalistic obligations or simply doing what they needed to attract an audience? How could they accomplish both? In what ways could broadcast journalists at the local level help viewers develop an appetite for informative programming? Besides his call for changes at the top, Murrow could have helped encourage change from within. That is something all broadcast journalists need to strive for as they face corporate pressures that are as strong now as when Murrow gave his famous speech.
Read more about Murrow's speech and its impact in this in-depth analysis, or read the full dissertation here (fee required).

Dr. Aaron Quanbeck is a Professor of Communication and Journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He recently presented his award-winning paper, A Rhetorical/Interpretive Analysis of Edward R. Murrow's Criticism of Broadcast Journalism, at the Broadcast Education Association’s annual convention in Las Vegas, NV.