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Four Years at the Mount

Reflecting upon Edward R. Murrow

August 2015

Thanks for the luck, we need it...

Sarah Muir
MSM Class of 2018

In one of my previous articles, I mentioned my fondness for newspapers. Now, this fondness maybe tinged with the barest hint of a personal bias, seeing how I currently write for one. However, my preferences toward the news being expressed in the written word has less to do with my job and more to do with what I see when I look to television for news.

If I am being honest, I do not watch the news as often as I should, and the reason for this is not because I revel in ignorance. It is rather because it seems as though every time I turn to the news station to educate myself on the events happening in the wide world, I find myself watching some sort of mindless, fluff piece. The fake smiles and seemingly endless, pointless chatter irritate me to no end, and I find myself changing the channel or turning it off altogether. The fact is, when I turn to the news, I tune in, looking for information, for unbiased facts about affairs both foreign and domestic.

"Goodnight and Good Luck" is a movie that depicts the famous speech by Edward R. Murrow in 1958. Murrow was a journalist, a news anchor, and radio personality. He was best known as a World War II correspondent who risked his life to report on the war, most notably, on the bombing of London. He was a highly influential journalist who brought the real world into people’s homes.

In this speech, later titled, "Wires and Lights in a Box," he warns against the complacency and ignorance that will happen to the public if these forms of communication (i.e. television, radio, etc.) turn completely from informing the public, to entertaining the masses. He foreshadows a future that will look back on our history and "…they will there find recorded in black and white, or perhaps in color, evidence of decadence, escapism and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live." If Murrow was still alive today, I feel as though it would be in his right to say "I told you so."

I find, as I look on my own culture, we have fallen into the "escapism and insulation" that Murrow foresaw. We are getting into the habit of child-proofing our media. Anything that the media believes will make us too uncomfortable, that shows something in an honest, but ugly light, is watered-down, sugar-coated, wrapped up in pretty paper and served to us with fake smiles and assurance that everything is going to be "okay."

This timidity and insulation found in media is translating to our culture. People are wary of saying or doing anything that might remotely upset someone, so we are teaching our future generations to always wear their kiddy gloves. However, this timidity is unwarranted and Murrow gives credit where credit is due: "I have reason to know, as do many of you, that when the evidence on a controversial subject is fairly and calmly presented, the public recognizes it for what it is-- an effort to illuminate rather than to agitate."

That is the purpose of news: to provide the facts to the listener without personal vendettas, beliefs, or selfish interests. The media has always been in a seat of power, whether it be radio, television, or plays. Media has always controlled how we view the world, whether it be by posters, billboards, or television ads. Because of this, I believe the media feels obligated to protect us from things that make us uncomfortable, but these are the things that show the world as it really is. This sense of security is dangerous because it leads to complacency, and again, as if he was seeing the future Murrow stated, "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."

My favorite comic strip is Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson. I remember this one, where Calvin is talking about his television shows and he says something that reflects our current culture pretty well, "As far as I’m concerned, if something is so complicated that you can’t explain it in 10 seconds, then it’s probably not worth knowing anyway."

Our attention span has become accustomed to short versions of long stories, fast results to difficult problems. We want to know what is happening, but we rarely have the patience for the whole story. Murrow has a moment of nostalgia in his speech, where he thinks "back to the time when singing commercials were not allowed on news reports, when there was no middle commercial in a 15-minute news report, when radio was rather proud, and alert, and fast." A vast majority of the news we have today, news that is considered as something to be commercialized and sold to the masses, is not news at all.

To make an informed decision, one must have all the facts, no matter how uncomfortable those facts make us. We must beware of becoming a culture that is solely reliant on five minute news stories.

I shall end this article with yet another quote from Edward R. Murrow, for I find his words better suited than mine: "We are currently wealthy, fat, comfortable and complacent. We have currently a built-in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information. And 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."

Read other articles by Sarah Muir

Wires and lights in a box

Leeanne Leary
Class of 2017

Edward R. Murrow’s address to the Radio-Television News Directors Association & Foundation is, in part, showcased in the 2005 movie "Good Night and Good Luck." His full speech, given in 1958, serves as a warning to anyone either involved in television and anyone who is merely a consumer of anything on television, which would be most of the population.

In 2005, when the movie that uses Murrow’s speech as a framing device was released, the industry had come a long way in the means of technology and appearance, but still faced a lot of the same problems that Murrow had concerns about in ’58.

There was one particular part of Murrow’s speech that struck a chord with me and I believe is still, with a little editing, relevant today. It reads:

"…But I am seized with an abiding fear regarding what these two instruments are doing to our society, our culture and our heritage."

By "these two instruments," Murrow is referencing radio and television, which would have been the two major sources moving information during that time. Today, I do not think much has changed in regards to what our attitude towards these instruments should be. For one, they truly are "instruments." They can move and manipulate information to all of America in a way nothing else can. Also, they have a massive influence on our lives and I can only imagine they had a similar influence during Murrow’s time. Today we are surrounded by news in almost everything we do.

I wake up every morning and, if I wake up before my alarm goes off, I check my phone. After checking my messages I often go straight to Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. I know, probably not the most productive start to my day, but once I get to these sites I see not only news about friends’ lives, but world news and local happenings. I first learned about the recent terrorist attack in Paris through a hashtag on Twitter. I searched a reliable news site after seeing this, but social media offered me the news first.

After I get out of bed, I have about half an hour where I am news free until I drive to the gym and once there, I hear about all the things everybody else has read or seen recently. Here the news is travelling, almost like an old game of telephone, but I am still surrounded by news whether it be news that one of the gym owners had her baby or the new governor is proposing something about taxes, it is news.

Then I make my way to work, where I stand behind the counter and hear news from nearly every customer that walks through the door. This news is a little different, since it is normally more geared towards local scandals than politics or world issues, but often they received their information from a local news sharing site. Again, more news.

I go home and sit with my dad as he watches the 6 o’clock news, where I receive my first dose of "real" news of the day, but did you notice how much information I already gotten in this one day before ever sitting in front of the television? I do not think I have ever noticed it, but by the time I watch the "real" news, I already know most of what they are telling me.

Also notice how driven our conversations are by the news. If you do not know a person well enough to spend a conversation talking about your personal lives, current events and happenings are the next logical topics.

That right there is the beginning to my personal amendment to Edward R. Murrow’s statement. Let’s clarify, I am in no way qualified to amend anything Murrow ever said, but for the purposes of this discussion I want to help it remain relevant in today’s society. I would like to propose that our fear now should lie, not just in the deliverance and reception of the news, but in the massive amount of news sources and their wavering reliability.

It does not come close to ending there. The next part of our 21st century fear should be the influence we are allowing the media to have on our "society, culture, and heritage." Here is where our fear will remain the same as Murrow’s, but the reasoning will change.

Yesterday, I was half watching a talk show on a random network and they were making fun of one of the hosts for her minimal knowledge on the Kardashian family.

Let that sink in.

They did not ask how up to date she was on the ISIS presence in the world and did not care that her focus was on the future presidential candidates. Her co-hosts were laughing at her limited "pop culture" knowledge.

Here is where we see the influence that the media can have on our society, culture, and our heritage. We are being force fed images of models, Hollywood scandals, and more from the moment we join the social media world. We are expected to know information that, trust me in my very limited 20 year-old knowledge, really is not that important, but what is the solution? Staying away from social media? I don’t know. I think we still walk into a check out line at the grocery store and are bombarded with magazines meant for bathroom reading but which are used by teenagers to develop ideas about the world. I think we still change the channel and have to flip through way too many entertainment stations before ever getting to a news source.

I do not mean to sound too negative, since I know that pop culture and pure entertainment are in our nature and we cling to them for their mindless comforts. I do not think they are always destructive, but look what they are doing to our culture. They are turning our focus to the wrong things, and for that reason, I think we as Americans need to be careful with the news we surround ourselves with. I think we are going to become a mindless culture if we continue to mass produce and mass consume mindless material.

And finally, I think that in Murrow’s time, the concern was more over television media whereas today, our concern lies more in the social media and popular culture realm. Despite this difference, I still believe that he had it right when he closed his speech saying -

"This instrument [media] can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and even it can 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. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful."

Read other articles by Leeanne Leary

The trouble in front of the teleprompter

Katie Powell
MSM Class of 2015

The scene is a classic: beautiful people in black and white, laughing and drinking around fancy tables, women dripping in diamonds with their glamorous elbow-length gloves and dramatic dark lipstick. As Edward Murrow takes the stage, the crowd goes quiet, and the celebratory atmosphere feels wrong. His eyes are shadowy and lips pressed into a flat line as he singlehandedly, in just a few sentences, completely changes the mood. The drinks appear flat, the jewels and outfits look gaudy, and the red lipstick makes the ladies look like clowns, as Mr. Murrow calls them out for their ignorance, as if scolding a misbehaved child.

"If we go on as we are, then history will take its revenge and retribution will not limp in catching up with us," Murrow warns.

Murrow is sincerely concerned with the future of the United States, and with good reason—he sees his country heading down a dangerous path, following the rich and famous into obliviousness. He worries that the United States will only grow more ignorant in the years to come, if Americans indulge themselves solely with the lives of the beautiful people of Hollywood. Murrow’s conviction is that, without proper focus on the exchange of information and the knowledge of what is going on, the country will descend into a new dark age.

I wish I could tell you that the movie ends with everyone standing up and applauding him as they realize he is right, and that immediately, every one of them runs to their respective stations to reform the use of television to more properly educate and inform the people. But I think you would know I was lying. Change is a process.

I will admit, there are so many channels on television these days that some of them are absolutely aimed at educating and informing the public, but honestly, it is safe to say history could be taking its revenge as I write this. As I watched the movie, Good Night and Good Luck, which is based during Joseph McCarthy’s 1950s communist witch-hunt, I noticed that the media has absolutely learned something from that time—how to scare the life out of the public. The people of the United States see so much negativity and danger on the news that the fear of violence has crept into the minds of good-hearted Americans and made a nest, and the culprit is sitting in front of the teleprompter.

Murrow’s warning for the United States of the 1950s was that if people did not begin to give information and education the respect they deserved, the country would fall into a rut of pop culture obsession. In actuality, what we are up against is much graver. So much so that it is not just a rut; it is a ravine of disrespect for information.

Newscasters have taken to dramatizing the truth to raise intrigue because honest and pure facts do not improve ratings—they are too dry. News companies have to spice things up a bit to get viewers. They have to have an angle on a story to make it work. So, news channels will pay top dollar for footage that raises ratings, and what they learned from the Red Scare is that fear raises intrigue. Broadcasting is no longer about providing information for the people. It is all about the stories that will make people watch. Americans watch the news so that they know what is going on around them, but the news only shows what they want people to see. By doing this, they can keep you scared and keep you coming back for more, even if the fear is only fabricated.

These days, any time one turns on the news, all one can see are the terrible things happening around the country and around the world. The news has become less of a collection of daily events and more of a daily death count. Fires, break-ins gone wrong, terrorist attacks, or serial killers . . . you name it, news stations are reporting on it. Very rarely are topics discussed positively—even positive events are spun towards the negative, and it is all sincerely meant to scare you. Scared people watch the news. People who are unafraid of the world around them don’t have a reason to.

Think about it; imagine you are sitting on the couch, and you see a commercial for the evening news about a new bill that was passed so that your city can build a park. A positive thing—absolutely! Probably not something you will watch a whole news segment about though. But wait! This new park could potentially attract a rare breed of poisonous ants to your area—tune in at six to find out more! Now you’ll watch, just to figure out how big of a threat there is, won’t you?

As I said, the problem here is that we have lost our respect for information. But it is not just the news stations that are to blame. It is also Americans who watch television on a daily basis who are responsible. It is the fault of those who turn off the news when the politics come on. It is the fault of the people who watch exclusively Family Feud and turn off the T.V. when the news starts (guilty). What we have done is cultivated an environment where only shock tactics are used, because it is all we respond to. As a culture, our desire to learn and actively seek out information regarding our world and its future has diminished. Yes, the media is responsible for showing the public what we need to know. But, the blame is also on us for craving the shock value, and tuning in, only when we have a personal investment. In that sense, we have dropped the ball.

It may seem like it is hopeless: the news channels are controlling what you see and there is nothing you can do about it, right? Well that is not entirely true. Remember, the news is controlling what you see, but we control what they show. The only reason they only show negative images is because that is what we are telling them we want to watch. By only tuning in to the news when we are scared, shocked, or personally involved in the outcome, we are literally asking news stations to scare, shock, and make us feel invested even more.

News channels can only disrespect information for as long as we are willing to allow them to. The simple solution is that we must make our informants care about what they show us. We must hold our newscasters and journalists accountable for the purity of their facts and the honesty of their segments. We must only support those broadcasters who provide us with sincere news. We must make them respect knowledge and information. We must bring the dignity back to broadcasting.

Read other articles by Katie Powell

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