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Responsibilities Of Television, The; Part II

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Summary
Louis Lyons continues his interview with America’s foremost television journalist Edward R. Murrow on the state of television broadcasting. Murrow believes that the program structure is in imbalance, and that the American television audience is being fed a diet of programming that insulates them from the realities of the world around. Louis Lyons talks to Murrow about the relationship between media broadcasting and press journalism.
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Mass media--Economic aspects--United States, Mass media criticism--United States, Mass media--Ethical aspects--United States, Mass media--Social aspects--United States, Television broadcasting of news, Documentary mass media, Education in mass media, Mass media and culture--United States, Mass Media--History--United States
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Transcript

Announcer:
The following program is an extension of last week’s interview between and Louis Lyons and Edward R. Murrow on the program The Press and the People.
As moderator from Harvard University, the winner of the Peabody Award for television and radio journalism, and the Lauterbach Award for outstanding contributions in the field of civil liberties, Mr. Louis Lyons.
Lyons:
Mr. Murrow, suppose we should consider broadcasting and the press together – these two great media of communication. To what extent do you feel that they are just competing, or to what extent do they supplement each other? That is, I’m thinking from their different limitations – are there some things that one does better than the other?
Murrow:
Well, as you know, Louis, we recently had a newspaper strike in New York.
Lyons:
We heard of it.
Murrow:
And anyone who doubted the importance and the necessity of newspapers certainly had his answer there. I believe that they are basically not competitive, I think they are supplementary. There are some things that radio and television can do better, more effectively, than print, and the other side of the coin is also true.
Lyons:
I’m in the habit of hearing newspaper editors say, “Well, television has come in now and they’re faster, they can beat us to the spot news. So, we must do the interpretive, the background, the reporting in depth,” but that’s the very thing for which you yourself are famous on television.
Murrow:
You know, we both remember the days when it was said by uninformed people that radio news would destroy newspapers. The people who now say that television news will destroy radio are equally wrong. I would like to see –
Lyons:
There’s a lot of editors who would like to hear you say that.
Murrow:
I would like to see more reporting in depth on radio. But I find that when I work on a story myself, I try to do it in depth. The first thing I do the next morning is to grab a handful of newspapers and read on the same subject. I think this is true with sports, that people who go to a sporting event want the next day to read about it, to find out what the expert’s view was.
The competition comes in the area of competition for the advertising dollar. And I would guess that a certain amount of the criticism – not specifically by professional critics of radio and television – but a number of the feature articles that have appeared in various publications recently have as their basis the competition for the advertising dollar.
Lyons:
That’s an argument then for an expanding economy, so that there’s dollars enough to go around.
Murrow:
I would think so!
Lyons:
Well I think, Mr. Murrow, of Mikoyan talk before the National Press Club the other day. This had an hour on television, which is certainly all you can ask for television, a full hour. In full text in The New York Times, it was less than a page, one of about sixty pages. The proportion of this tremendous use of time on television, but a relatively small part of the total of a newspaper – that suggests one of the limitations.
Murrow:
That is quite true because radio and television have no second pages, no turnovers. They have a front page and nothing else. Whatever is there for that fifteen minutes or that hour is their front page, and there is no alternative.
Lyons:
I suppose as you cover the news you really think of yourself as limited to the page-one story. I know I pick up The New York Times every morning not so much in the first instance to find out what’s the news; to find out what they have that I didn’t have at 6:30 last night. And did they put the day in perspective, and there is a –
Murrow:
Yes, that’s true. I find that each morning I look at The New York Times to see whether the night before I chose the same lead for the 7:45 radio piece that the Times chose.
Lyons:
Yes, two or three hours later.
Murrow:
Yes. You were speaking of Mikoyan.
Lyons:
Yes.
Murrow:
I think there is here raised a very interesting question. Perhaps it isn’t fruitful to pursue it here.
Lyons:
Yes, indeed it is!
Murrow:
But it seems to me one of the most interesting things he said was that he was convinced that the American people wanted peace above everything else. I would rather interrogate him on that subject than any other, because if this is the message that he carries back to Moscow, this could be the basis of a major miscalculation. He could have concluded that we in this country have become so soft, so indifferent, that we will pay any price for peace. And if that is his interpretation of the phrase, it could be disastrous.
Lyons:
You say you’d like very much to interview him, many remember an interview with Khrushchev and it is what I was coming to. As a part of the differences, perhaps, between the newspapers and television – a difference in the standards applied by the public, and I gather by the government. You remember the criticism that was made so generally of that interview of Khrushchev, it was a great scoop on television. Even the President in a press conference was critical of it.
And yet later, when Reston had an interview with Khrushchev in The New York Times, why that was assumed a great scoop – no criticism. Do you feel this difference in attitude toward the medium, because it is perhaps a more intimate medium – gets into the living room – or for some other reason?
Murrow:
I think perhaps more intimate and also more powerful.
Lyons:
Partly because of this intimate impact.
Murrow:
Yes. And I felt that the criticism of the Khrushchev interview was entirely unwarranted, and I say that not because it was done on CBS. But that anywhere you can get microphones and cameras to interview the devil – it should be done.
Lyons:
To what extent do you think that things have moved along since then? That was a break through – the first time anything happens it sort of surprises people. You spoke of Mikoyan – he was interviewed, at least on “Meet the Press” here, he was interviewed before the National Press Club. Do you feel that we have moved beyond the time when people would be critical of interviewing the head of the Communist government?
Murrow:
Yes. Yes, I think very considerable progress has been made in that area.
Lyons:
Well, we were mentioning the problem of editorial on television, and I am concerned a little with the... simply the limitations of the format. Now, many people are certainly familiar with your evening broadcast on radio. You run over the news, and then you do a powerful editorial piece at the end. I think that anyone who becomes familiar with the Murrow program knows that the piece at the end is his editorial. That’s one way to segregate it; I’m sure there are other ways.
Is it as easy as it is in a newspaper to let the listener know when it’s editorial and when it’s news? And how much of a risk do you feel there is in any broadcast program of mixing up the reporting and the commenting too much?
Murrow:
I think there is a real danger, and I think there is also a danger that we may get involved in semantics here, but let’s try it anyway if you’re agreeable. I do not regard the end five or six minutes that I do on radio as an editorial, and that requires a little explaining. I do not advocate action. I do not urge a policy. What I attempt to do is to set out a set of developments or circumstances, and then to suggest what consequences may flow from that.
I say this because I think it is very important that the listener should be exposed to the same conditions – the same set of facts – so that if he reaches a different conclusion from the one that I reach, I have at least prior to that given him such information. Perhaps I have said more than I know – I frequently do! I think we all do. But I do not regard this as an editorial in the sense of urging or advocating action.
Lyons:
Well, that’s very interesting, although I think I’d be inclined to argue, Mr. Murrow, that very often the most effective editorial is a complete analysis, an adding up and interpretation of the facts. And very often it leads to a point where the conclusion is pretty obvious.
Murrow:
This is the most difficult thing to do because I am certainly aware that through the accident of position and sponsorship, I occupy a monopolized opportunity five nights a week.
Lyons:
And to that extent you’re different from a newspaper. Sometimes we have only one now, but usually you have some choice.
Murrow:
And also to that extent, I must not abuse this monopolized opportunity by advocating my own prejudices, or doubling my own prejudices in an effort to advocate a given line of policy. That I do, I’m sure you’re right, because I’ve never known – and I don’t think you have – a completely objective reporter. There isn’t such thing, we’re all –
Lyons:
You mean where there’s any place of mind there’s going to be some point of view.
Murrow:
We’re all a prisoner –
Lyons:
And you wouldn’t want to eliminate it.
Murrow:
No, we’re all a prisoner of our own reading, our own experience, our own conversations, our own travel and everything else. No one can eliminate his prejudice; the only thing he can hope to do is to recognize it and try to beware.
Lyons:
And discipline. And wouldn’t you agree that the really essential discipline of journalism is that the reporter shall be faithful to the facts. He shall deal factually with his subject, which doesn’t eliminate his putting in his judgment. His point of view, I would say, is inescapable.
Murrow:
That is certainly true. I know in my own case, having spent ten years in England, and having acquired a reputation of being pro-British, when writing a story about England I try to be unusually careful about my facts because I know that prejudice is there and I can’t do anything about it.
Lyons:
Well, as to news on television, that is other than radio, the visual news – to what extent, Mr. Murrow, is it apt to be limited to what can be visual? That is, to what extent is the accessibility of the picture the determining factor in the news? I imagine it’s pretty hard to get a picture of an idea. And I often wonder how much is left out of a television news presentation which the broadcaster would love to put in if he could find a picture to justify it.
Murrow:
That is the sort of question that would only come from an old pro like you. I should preface this by saying that I have never worked on a daily television news show, so what I am about to say applies only to weekly, monthly programs, mostly of a documentary nature. There is no doubt that your editorial judgment is twisted or warped by the availability of pictures and animation support. If you have got good pictures or animations for a second- or third-grade story, there is a terrible temptation to play it on top.
Lyons:
Well, that’s your dramatization.
Murrow:
There is no question about that.
Lyons:
Of course you can always get a picture of the President or Mr. Dulles making a statement – these are the which are pictured – but except for that it is a little hard to get –
Murrow:
My own disposition is that it always is that if we haven’t the pictures – this was true when we were working on a weekly basis – if you haven’t the pictures, you just sit there and say it, and say it as simply as you can. But you try to prevent those pictures from twisting your judgment as to what’s important. But it is very difficult, it is... well, it’s the same problem that would confront the boys in Mr. Luce’s empire if they were trying to edit Time and Life in the same book. It would be very difficult.
Lyons:
Yes, I’m sure. Well, as to other problems in the business of getting the news and getting it to us on the air, when a correspondent voices critical opinions – editorial or what – to what extent may he be restrained because of this equal time consideration, which we’re all at least dimly aware of? That if he isn’t awful careful, he may involve his network in having to give away fifteen minutes to somebody sometime. Does that get in his way?
Murrow:
I don’t think that’s a serious consideration, no. I think the equal time provision operates in a different and rather more limiting fashion. For example, in the last campaign in New York state I wanted to do on the same program Averell Harriman and Nelson Rockefeller. I couldn’t do it because there were either two or three additional candidates in the field, and if I... no one knew who they were.
Lyons:
Vegetarian, prohibition...
Murrow:
No one knew who they were. But if I had done those two, I would have had to do the other three, and this is where the limitation of equal time is very onerous, I think.
Lyons:
Well, we hear a lot from England about their broadcasting, which until recently was not commercial, and which is still partly public at least. We hear about that third program as a quality program, just as we hear in England the difference between the quality press and the popular press, a conception that at least we don’t admit and recognize here. Well, as you look at it, how much of a bulge do they have on us in the quality of their television? The standard, the level they pitch to?
Murrow:
I shouldn’t think there is very much difference in the level of excellence – or lack of it – in commercial television in England and here. A great many of the top-rated programs in this country are also the top-rated programs in commercial television in England.
But I think there’s a very interesting point here. I would suggest that in most countries the radio and television operations are an accurate reflection of the political, social and economic climate in which they grew. And that if you compared, for example, the BBC in England and commercial broadcasting here, you would end up with a comparison between Britain and the United States – the BBC being factual, rather pedantic, cautious, somewhat paternalistic; the American system being highly competitive, commercial, experimental, willing to try almost anything. I think if you really made a detailed comparison between the two systems you would end up with a comparison of the two cultures.
Lyons:
Very interesting.
Murrow:
I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s possible.
Lyons:
Well, a newspaper reporter doesn’t need anything but a pencil, and sometimes he can get along without that if his memory is good. He can get into all kinds of places. A television reporter has a lot of gear, and a lot of accessory companions and so on, which must be a physical limitation in all the preparation it takes, but I suppose also there are other limitations.
Well, we know that in most courts you can’t televise, and in Congress. To what extent does this physical limitation plus the attitude toward the more intimate exposure of the camera reduce the range that television can report? Is it a serious limitation as you see it in covering public affairs that way?
Murrow:
As you suggest, there are artificial limitations on television and radio reporting. Certain Congressional committees, both houses of Congress, the court... I think they are artificial, and I think as the gear becomes less bulky and the lights less blinding, that gradually the cameras will be permitted into areas from which they are now barred. I would hope that is the case. About televising court proceedings, I don’t know. I rather favor the suggestion that this is a matter that should be left up to the judge in each case.
Lyons:
Do you remember Joe Welch once saying about this that when the public in general, including witnesses, have become as conditioned to television cameras and lights as they were to newspapers and the reporter’s pencil, then yes, television in court. Until then, it really was an additional ordeal on the witness, and an additional tenseness. Do you see anything in that?
Murrow:
Yes, I do. And I think it tends also, to a certain extent, to make actors out of participants. The Australians for a long while broadcast their proceedings of Parliament, and they had great difficulty because Parliamentarians, being intelligent and able read a clock and a schedule, were always scrambling to make their speech in Parliament at the peak listening period, which tended to distort the proceedings in the ears of the listeners.
Lyons:
As to the kinds of pressures that anybody in such a medium becomes aware of, as to how serious they are and a little about... well, we all think of certain business interests, we think of special groups – labor groups, religious groups – and we think of general prejudice, not only such a regional prejudice as we might now feel in the South, but in other areas and other... How much does this hem you in?
Murrow:
I would think much less than the average layman believes. Again, I can speak only of my own experience.
Lyons:
That’s good enough.
Murrow:
When you lose a sponsor, you can never be quite sure why you lost him. Just as frequently, or inevitably, you can’t tell why he bought you in the first place. But in my own experience, this matter of pressure, of people saying, “don’t do that, don’t do this,” or after the event saying, “you shouldn’t have done that,” just doesn’t happen.
Lyons:
Well I was thinking more, not so much as to whether you actually lose a sponsor or the sponsor loses business, but as to how much the consciousness of these pressures tend to make sponsors timid and to make broadcasters cautious, or their employers cautious. How limiting a psychological factor is it? I just assume it must bear perhaps more heavily on a great network with its vast audience than on an individual newspaper, which depends largely, you know, on the outlook and courage of an individual publisher. There’s a great variation there.
Murrow:
I would think that you are right. The individual publisher or editor has more freedom of maneuver, fewer taboos, but in radio and television the timidity I think is exaggerated, and I think what there is of it is to a large extent unwarranted.
Lyons:
Well, it’s a relief to hear you say so.
Murrow:
I really believe that.
Lyons:
Let me speak of something else, and that is taste and standards of taste which are certainly not unaffected by the terrific impact of these great media. I remember my dear old friend, Professor Ernest Hocking, did a little book on the press which he called Framework of Principle. His chief accusation against the press, and this was over quite a long haul – the trend – was, he said, debasement of standard of taste.
Well, it’s pretty harsh, you know. Well now since he wrote that, this great new medium of television has had its far greater impact. I’m not going to accuse anybody of anything, but just ask you to what extent you feel such a medium has a responsibility as to taste, and whether if the critics say the appeal is to the lowest common denominator, there’s any responsibility in television to try to gradually to get that up.
I’m sure you’ve thought about this, whether other people in the business end of television have or not.
Murrow:
Well, the responsibility exists, no one can deny. I would think that any mass instrument of communication can accelerate or retard a trend in public opinion or taste, but it cannot reverse it.
I would think further that if it be true that the broadcasting of philharmonic concerts has in fact raised the general level of music appreciation, that it is equally true that the persistent broadcasting of material of a low intellectual order can depress the taste. I think this is certainly true.
I think it is a matter of in this area perhaps appreciating the old British phrase of the inevitability of gradualness, that gradually tastes may be improved because it will come to be demonstrated that it is profitable and that there is a larger audience in the upper levels than is generally believed. That’s badly put, but –
Lyons:
Not badly put at all. Very graphically put. Mr. Murrow, it’s an old cliché of journalism that there’s more interest in people than things, that is the human-interest story. You seem to reach for personalizing and dramatizing the news in your “See It Now,” “Person to Person.”
You must be inherently conscious of this, the importance of the human drama, and I often suspect that you see more in it than that. You see it as a way of reaching to something. Would you say a little about the way you pattern these things?
Murrow:
I see much more than that. In the first place, we never work with a script. We don’t write a line of copy. We only shoot film. We shoot it, generally, a thousand feet for every hundred that makes it on the air.
Lyons:
I wish we could.
Murrow:
Yes, this is a luxury, I agree. We are looking always for the individual who is believable, not necessarily eloquent. We did a piece once during a flood on the Missouri. Four o’clock in the morning I shot a little film with a little man who worked in an insurance office during the day. He’d been there for thirty-two hours controlling traffic across the river, and that bridge was thrumming underneath – just at crest time of the flood.
And I asked him why he’d been there so long. I will not even attempt to paraphrase his answer, but in substance it was that he and his family and his grandparents had fought that river. This was something that had to be done. I came back to New York and a friend of mine said, “Who is the writer on that program? Who wrote the copy for that man on the bridge?”
And I said, “I know a number of people who can write moderately well. I know no one who could write that kind of copy.” It just has to come from the middle, and when it does that, the viewer understands it, appreciates it, and believes it. I think.
Lyons:
Yes. And also this must be the inspiration, the fun of this kind of business. You go out into the field with these things yourself – you’re a reporter.
You spoke of the, I think you called it luck of running into Oppenheimer. We say in sports that the team gets the breaks that’s making the breaks, and we used to say in the newspaper office that you don’t get scoops sitting at your desk. Now, you must feel quite strongly that this enterprise, as we call it in journalism, is a very key part of doing the job – being in the field and seeing the things.
Murrow:
Oh, yes. I have the sort of peasant’s mind that really can’t grasp a thing unless I go and look at it, however superficially. And I think particularly in television in addition to getting the people, you can frequently get them in a setting that is very eloquent. While I was ad-libbing so badly I was trying to think of an example of that...
Oh, yes! We did a piece in Louisiana and the only thing we saw was the hand of a colored man making letters in a very painful fashion. And his voice said, “I want to learn to write so that I can form pretty letters and write to my children.” This in terms of the necessity for more teaching of literacy in this country, was to me at least, very eloquent.
Lyons:
Yes, indeed. It was a surprise to me, as ignorant a kibitzer as I am about your profession, that you say you will actually go out into the field without knowing what it’s going to be. And this involves taking all the gear and the apparatus and the expense and the commitment and the stake... well, it takes a good deal of confidence to be able to keep one’s mind open to that point, where you’ll take it as it comes.
Murrow:
It also takes a degree of luck.
Lyons:
I don’t know, but I’d suggest you’re making your luck.
Murrow:
We did a piece on Marian Anderson, a trip through Southeast Asia – an hour’s program. When we started on it, the camera crew and the reporter said, “Look, all we’re going to get out of this is an opera singer traveling through Asia singing songs. This doesn’t make a program.”
Well it so happened that she also did some talking and was interviewed about segregation in this country and so forth. Sang at Gandhi’s memorial. Turned out to be one of the best things to which we have ever put our hand.
Lyons:
I’ll bet.
Murrow:
And it just happened.
Lyons:
Well, Mr. Murrow, if you were going to take, say, a couple months off, could go out and explore the story that you really most wanted to do, are there one or two things you’ve got on the top of your mind you’d most like to get into?
Murrow:
Oh, in two minutes I couldn’t begin to list half of them.
Lyons:
We’d settle for half.
Murrow:
I would like to do an hour-long piece on Canada, because I think it is an important and relatively unknown country.
Lyons:
Good.
Murrow:
I would like to do a whole series of pieces around the world as to the image of the United States from the outside – how we look to other people. I would like to do a lot of reporting of this country to itself. As we both know, the lines of communication have broken down in the South between the white and the colored people. I think to a certain extent they’ve broken down in this country and we are so concerned about the Russians are doing that we are not paying enough attention to what we ourselves are doing and are capable of doing in this country. It’s a big plate!
Lyons:
That’s an eloquent statement. Thank you, Mr. Murrow.
Murrow:
Thank you.
Lyons:
Well, we’ve heard one of our wisest journalists telling is we need to be informed – that’s essentially what he’s telling us. Telling us we need to be informed about what’s going on in our world, the great issues of our times. And also to be informed about ourselves, as he was just saying at the end.
And I think we might well consider this statement. For Mr. Murrow’s concern is with communication, and that’s one he can share with all of us, for communication is sharing. It’s not a one-way street. We all participate in it, either negatively if we shrug it off, or positively if we respond.
And it’s a problem for all of us whether our channels of communication are to be kept open and made as broad and deep as possible, for on this depends the kind of images we get in our heads and they are, after all, our heads. So until next week at this time on The Press and the People, this is Louis Lyons.
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