Today in Media History: Edward R. Murrow challenged the broadcast industry in his 1958 RTNDA speech
On October 15, 1958, in a speech to the Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) convention in Chicago, CBS News correspondent Edward R. Murrow challenged the broadcast industry to live up to its potential and responsibilities. The speech is often remembered for these words:
“This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even 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….”
Parts of the speech were recreated in the movie, “Good Night, and Good Luck.”
In a story titled, “50 Years Later, Murrow Speech Sparks Debate Over Journalists as Reformers,” Poynter’s Al Tompkins writes:
“Murrow took on subjects that were tough to report. In his 1958 speech, he mentioned a documentary on Egypt and Israel, the dangers of smoking, radioactive fallout from nuclear tests; he knew he was going to cause a lot of discomfort. He scolded network executives for losing their nerve. He suggested that big sponsors give up their highly viewed entertainment shows once in a while in favor of an occasional program that would serve the public.
And he spoke directly to the news directors, urging them to stiffen their spines and have confidence that if they covered stories of significance, the public would listen and watch.”
Following are some excerpts from the speech. The transcript comes from the RTDNA (formally RTNDA) website.
“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 the elaborate structure of networks, advertising agencies and sponsors will not be shaken or 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. I have no technical advice or counsel to offer those of you who labor in this vineyard that produces words and pictures. 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. It is not necessary to remind you that the fact that your voice is amplified to the degree where it reaches from one end of the country to the other does not confer upon you greater wisdom or understanding than you possessed when your voice reached only from one end of the bar to the other. All of these things you know.
….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 for one week of all three networks, they will there find recorded in black and white, or color, evidence of decadence, escapism and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live. I invite your attention to the television schedules of all networks between the hours of 8 and 11 p.m., Eastern Time. Here you will find only fleeting and spasmodic reference to the fact that this nation is in mortal danger. There are, it is true, occasional informative programs presented in that intellectual ghetto on Sunday afternoons. But during the daily peak viewing periods, television in the main insulates us from the realities of the world in which we live.
….It may be that the present system, with no modifications and no experiments, can survive….We are currently wealthy, fat, comfortable and complacent. We have currently a built-in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information. Our mass media reflect this. But unless we get up off our fat surpluses and recognize that television in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse and insulate us, then television and those who finance it, those who look at it and those who work at it, may see a totally different picture too late.
….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 advertising appropriation along the lines that I have suggested, the procedure would grow by contagion; the economic burden would be bearable, and there might ensue a most exciting adventure — exposure to ideas and the bringing of reality into the homes of the nation.
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 entertain, amuse and insulate, then the tube is flickering now and we will soon see that the whole struggle is lost.
This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even 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….”
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