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Murrow's Criticism of Broadcast News Still Resonates 50 Years Later: Prof. Jeff McCall '76

October 12, 2008

Jeff McCall 2006.jpgOctober 12, 2008, Greencastle, Ind. - October 15 will mark the 50th anniversary of a "visionary speech" delivered by Edward R. Murrow, "widely regarded as the godfather of the broadcast journalism industry," writes Jeffrey M. McCall in the Indianapolis Star. The professor of communication at DePauw University offers his thoughts on "a speech that challenged broadcasters to more effectively serve the public interest. It was a speech that foresaw the broadcast news industry's weaknesses and foibles. It was a speech that should be revisited in broadcasting's executive suites today."

Dr. McCall notes, "Murrow was the conscience and spiritual leader of broadcast news in October 1958 when he addressed the Radio Television News Directors Association convention. He declined to provide the ceremonial pat on the back. Instead, he On the Air Sign.jpgscolded the radio and television world for failing to live up to its potential in informing the citizenry. 'I am seized with an abiding fear regarding what these two instruments (radio and TV) are doing to our society, our culture and our heritage,' Murrow said. He proceeded to criticize broadcast management for its preoccupation with the profit side of the news, saying if 'news is to be regarded as a commodity, only acceptable when saleable, then I don't care what you call it -- I say it isn't news.'"

The professor points out that Murrow himself bowed to commercial pressures by hosting Person to Person, a series of "soft interviews ... Murrow's longtime news editor, Ed Bliss, later said Murrow hated doing the Tv Set Beach.jpgprogram, but yielded to the CBS suits to help save funding for more traditional news efforts."

The best remembered part of Murrow's 1958 address was his conclusion that "Television in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse and insulate us." If not used to "teach," "illuminate" and "inspire," television is "nothing but wires and lights in a box." McCall ponders, "One must wonder how Murrow would assess broadcast journalism today. He would probably be delighted to see 24-hour cable news services such as CNN, MSNBC and Fox News, but be disappointed that the highest profile figures on those channels -- Larry King, Keith Olbermann and Sean Hannity -- are considered personalities more than journalists."

McCall Book Viewer Discretion.jpgIn McCall's opinion, Murrow "would be happy that local television now programs more news than 50 years ago, but be disappointed that some 30 percent of newscasts are filled with 'cop shop' news of traffic wrecks, fires and random holdups. Murrow also would likely decry the celebrity status that TV news anchors have achieved, and remind them, as he once said, '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.' He would question whether today's political campaign coverage -- with its focus on polls, logistics and cheap shots -- does anything to teach or illuminate."

In summary, McCall offers, "Although much fine work is done in the broadcast news industry, Murrow's speech of 50 years ago can still serve to challenge the superficiality and profit mentality that too often relegate the medium to 'wires and lights in a box.'"

The complete essay can be found at College News.org.

Jeff McCall, a 1976 graduate of DePauw, has been cited in articles published by more than 80 newspapers and is the author of Viewer Discretion Advised: Taking Control of Mass Media Influences. He recently wrote an op-ed column on the Fairness Doctrine, which can be accessed via this previous story.

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