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Edward R. Murrow’s warnings to news industry ring true today

Edward R. Murrow’s warnings to news industry ring true today
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The godfather of broadcast journalism, Edward R. Murrow, stunned the media establishment in a speech delivered 60 years ago today. His speech to the Radio Television News Directors Association in 1958 blasted media executives for turning broadcast news into “an incompatible combination of show business, advertising and news.”

He said the public interest could not be served when news was merely “a commodity” to sell to advertisers. Real journalism, he pointed out, was the loser in this commodification.

His wise insights were true then and even more so today.

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The speech has been known through the years as Murrow’s “Wires and lights in a box” speech. Near the end of his chastising remarks, Murrow challenged broadcasting’s leaders to use television to “teach,” “illuminate” and “inspire.”  Otherwise, he warned the promise of electronic media would be relegated to “nothing but wires and lights in a box.” Network executives were angry with Murrow because he scolded them for wasting broadcasting’s potential to inform the citizenry. They had been expecting a ceremonial pat on the back. Instead, the executives got straight talk from a media visionary.

Murrow had already long been the conscience and spiritual leader of electronic news when he delivered his critique in 1958. Murrow was the CBS radio voice that informed America of the European war theater in World War II. His broadcasts from London during the Battle of Britain riveted American listeners, Murrow sometimes broadcasting from rooftops as German aircraft roared overhead and explosions were heard in the background.

As a CBS executive, Murrow hired news reporters who were seasoned newspaper and wire service journalists, not simply announcers or showmen. Those reporters became known as the “Murrow Boys,” and many went on to legendary broadcast careers themselves, including Howard K. Smith, Eric Sevareid and Charles Collingwood. The “Murrow Boys” were highly educated. Smith and Collingwood were Rhodes Scholars. They represented all regions of the United States. Odds are none of them would get hired in the glitzy and superficial world of broadcast journalism today.

Murrow oversaw and narrated a series of hard-hitting special reports for CBS television in the early 1950s, including a 1954 report that took on McCarthyism. His authoritative voice and rugged good looks certainly played a role in his broadcast career trajectory, but it was his penetrating insight, his commitment to accuracy and dedication to the audience that forged his broadcasting reputation.

The 1958 Murrow address is worth revisiting in 2018, as media credibility craters and journalists struggle to understand their missions. “I am seized with an abiding fear regarding what these two instruments (radio and TV) are doing to our society, our culture, our heritage,” Murrow worried, “Television in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse and insulate us.”

Today, with around the clock deadlines, cable news provocateurs, social media chaos, and fringe "news" websites, the potential for mediated cultural and information harm is far greater than when Murrow spoke.

Murrow would decry today’s news arena in which television anchors are heavily promoted as high profile celebrities who often mix commentary into their news reports. Murrow once warned his journalistic colleagues, “Just because your voice reaches halfway around the world doesn’t mean you are wiser than when it reached only to the end of the bar.”

Murrow is well remembered for his war reporting, documentaries and hiring of talented reporters, but his greatest contribution to broadcast news was to provide a moral compass in the industry’s formative years. His common sense view of the world was developed through his blue collar work as a young man in the logging camps of the northwest United States. He insisted that news be fact driven and that any analysis be based on those facts.

Today, sixty years after Murrow’s famous speech, the electronic news industry seemingly lacks any individual or organization to impart the professional guidance or moral leadership he once provided. American news consumers suffer because of this vacuum.

Jeffrey McCall (@Prof_McCall) is a media critic and professor of communication at DePauw University. He has worked as a radio news director, a newspaper reporter, and as a political media consultant.