‘This Weapon of Television Could be Useful’

By Alex Weprin 

54 years ago today, CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow gave a now-infamous speech at the Ratio and television News Directors Association. The LA TimesJoe Flint looks back on that speech, and laments how so little has changed since Murrow pleaded with the networks to take advantage of the medium of television and use it as a force for good.

Unfortunately for Murrow, when it comes to broadcast TV, little has changed since those remarks were delivered. While the evening news format still exists, coverage of the world has diminished. If a story cannot be summed up in a minute or two, odds are it won’t make the news. The more complex the issue, the less likely it will be explored.

The morning shows are, for the most part, about gossip, celebrities and cooking. Take a look at some old clips of a network morning show from even as recently as the 1980s and compare it to what is on today. The old shows look like serious news programs while the current versions are a notch or two above “Entertainment Tonight.”

The speech in question, while dated, still resonates today:

I refuse to believe that the presidents and chairmen of the boards of these big corporations want their corporate image to consist exclusively of a solemn voice in an echo chamber, or a pretty girl opening the door of a refrigerator, or a horse that talks. They want something better, and on occasion some of them have demonstrated it. But most of the men whose legal and moral responsibility it is to spend the stockholders’ money for advertising are removed from the realities of the mass media by five, six, or a dozen contraceptive layers of vice-presidents, public relations counsel and advertising agencies. Their business is to sell goods, and the competition is pretty tough…

Let us have a little competition. Not only in selling soap, cigarettes and automobiles, but in informing a troubled, apprehensive but receptive public. Why should not each of the 20 or 30 big corporations which dominate radio and television decide that they will give up one or two of their regularly scheduled programs each year, turn the time over to the networks and say in effect: “This is a tiny tithe, just a little bit of our profits. On this particular night we aren’t going to try to sell cigarettes or automobiles; this is merely a gesture to indicate our belief in the importance of ideas.” The networks should, and I think would, pay for the cost of producing the program. The advertiser, the sponsor, would get name credit but would have nothing to do with the content of the program. Would this blemish the corporate image? Would the stockholders 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 right decision–if that premise is wrong, then not only the corporate image but the corporations are done for…

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 is merely 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.

You can read Murrow’s entire speech here.