Bob Edwards, long-time host of NPR’s Morning Edition program, has a new book out on the life of Edward R. Murrow and his role in the creation of news broadcasting. It’s quite short — 192 pages — but chock full of amazing tales: Murrow packed a couple lifetimes’ accomplishments into one all-too-short one.
Edwards quotes a speech he gave to the Radio-Television News Directors Association and Foundation on October 15, 1958. He was distressed at the increasing commercialization of what he saw as an educational and informational medium. He wasn’t opposed to entertainment, but in the 20 years since he had been working in the medium, the culture was moving away from what had made the medium indispensable. News reporters were becoming secondary to producers and the exposition of facts in the service of truth was considered too hot to handle.
I am frightened by the imbalance, the constant striving to reach the largest possible audience for everything; by the absence of a sustained study of the state of the nation. Heywood Broun once said, “No body politic is healthy until it begins to itch.” I would like television to produce some itching pills rather than this endless outpouring of tranquilizers. It can be done. Maybe it won’t be, but it could.
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[T]his nation is now in competition with 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 the future. 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. We are engaged in a great experiment to discover whether a free public opinion can devise and direct methods of managing the affairs of the nation. We may fail. But we are handicapping ourselves needlessly.
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Just once in a while let us exalt the importance of ideas and information. Let us dream to the extent of saying that on a given Sunday night the time normally occupied by Ed Sullivan is given over to a clinical survey of the state of American education, and a week or two later the time normally used by Steve Allen is devoted to a thoroughgoing study of American policy in the Middle East. Would the corporate image of their respective sponsors be damaged? Would the stockholders rise up in their wrath and complain? Would anything happen other than that a few million people would have received a little illumination on subjects that may well determine the future of this country, and therefore the future of the corporations? This method would also provide real competition between the networks as to which could outdo the others in the palatable presentation of information. It would provide an outlet for the young men of skill, and there are some even of dedication, who would like to do something other than devise methods of insulating while selling.
He started out as an educator but in the broadest sense, that of a learner who wants to share what he has learned. It shows in his remarks above. And he didn’t share the view that the American people couldn’t handle the truth. He knew better.