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Responsibilities Of Television, The; Part I

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Summary
Following closely on from his speech to a professional group in Chicago, where he made the following quote “Surely we shall pay for using this most powerful instrument of communications to insulate the citizenry from the hard and demanding realities that must be faced if we are to survive”, Louis Lyons interviews 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.
Topics
Mass media--Economic aspects--United States, Mass media criticism--United States, Mass media--Ethical aspects--United States, Mass media--Social aspects--United States, Mass Media--History--United States, Radio journalism, Education in mass media, Mass media and culture--United States, Television broadcasting of news, Documentary mass media
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Transcript

Announcer:
Today and every day, the American people must make decisions on which their whole survival may depend. To make sound decisions the people must be informed. For this they depend on the nation's free press. How well is the nation's press doing its essential job? The people have a right to know the truth. They have a responsibility to ask.
The right to question.
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:
Our guest is America’s foremost television journalist.
Announcer:
No reporter has penetrated more deeply into the forces that move our world, or has had a greater personal impact upon our people than Edward R. Murrow of the Columbia Broadcasting System.
Announcer:
Mr. Murrow says this about television today, and I quote, “Surely we shall pay for using this most powerful instrument of communications to insulate the citizenry from the hard and demanding realities which must be faced if we are to survive.”
Lyons:
His “See It Now” programs, which range searchingly over the great issues of our time, are television’s documentary classic. And his recent treatment of the school desegregation crisis in Virginia was the best – perhaps only – nationally televised program which has attacked the highly explosive issue of integration.
Well, Mr. Murrow, certainly you, in dealing with news and in your documentary programs, have dealt with the burning realities, and yet you say that television tends to insulate us from the grim facts of our time. Won’t you explain?
Murrow:
Mr. Lyons, may I say first of all that I would be much more comfortable on your side of the desk asking the questions than here attempting to answer them. I am grateful for such a generous and gracious introduction, and perhaps you would let me say at the outset that I appear in this academic atmosphere voluntarily, but in no sense as a representative of CBS, merely as an employee.
Lyons:
We’d take you on any terms. We appreciate it.
Murrow:
You are quite right in saying that I have been most fortunate in having an opportunity to do documentaries. The quotation that was used a moment ago was from a little speech I made to a professional group in Chicago. I’m not going to bore you by attempting to recapitulate it, but what I was saying, I think, was that I believe this country is in grave and perhaps mortal danger. And that to a large extent during the hours between 8:00 and 11:00 in the evening the television audience is being fed a diet that tends to cause them to be indifferent, that tends to insulate them from the realities of the world in which they live.
I do not believe that this can be solved merely by the networks or merely by the sponsors. I have nothing against westerns or quiz shows, I merely was contending that the program structure is in some degree in imbalance, and that peak listening times there should be more attention to serious subjects. You mentioned the piece we did on Norfolk. I am happy to report that that one went in peak evening time.
Lyons:
Yes, indeed. We were all impressed with what you said in Chicago, Mr. Murrow. And I’m sure we want to inquire of you as to how inevitable is this lack that you feel and which certainly concerns us all. Well to begin somewhere, what would you say are some of the serious omissions in television coverage of the great facts of our times.
Murrow:
Well, I would think at the outset, Mr. Lyons, that most of the meaningful programming is done in what has come to be called the intellectual ghetto on Sunday afternoons. This is a time when many people find it inconvenient to view television.
Lyons:
When the football game is on.
Murrow:
True. And when the children are at home. I would think that in addition to that that there is very little done in the area of searching examinations of our foreign policy, very little in the way of a critical examination of the state of education in this country.
In short, very little is done to reflect, to use television as a mirror to hold behind the events of the day. And so far as I am concerned, it doesn’t matter to me in the least whether what is reflected is a picture of bigotry, of intolerance, of indifference, or great high achievement. The important thing is that the mirror should be there.
Lyons:
Yes, I understand. Well, sir, certainly millions of Americans have been disappointed that your great “See It Now” series is no longer on television. And as to whether it is because this is just too costly that kind of show can’t be continued.
Murrow:
I’m not sure I can give you an answer as to why it was removed. I do not believe it was primarily financial; the program that has in a sense replaced it, “Small World,” is almost as expensive as “See It Now.”
Lyons:
I suppose you could even have kept the same title. We certainly are seeing some things very immediately on that. Well, people must remember your extraordinary interview with Dr. Oppenheimer, and that program on atomic energy which included the interview with Admiral Rickover. Now, without knowing anything about this except as a kibitzer, I assume it takes enormous preparation, a great staff of technicians, great cost. Would you tell us a little what it means to put on –
Murrow:
Well sir, it takes not only preparation and cost, but also I think a degree of flexibility. You mentioned the interview with Professor Oppenheimer. I went down to the Institute for Advanced Studies with my colleague determined to do the impossible – namely to do a television program on the Institute as such.
We shot a fair amount of film, and as you know, down there every time you open a door you encounter a Nobel Prize winner. Most of them I was unable to understand, and I was becoming very discouraged.
Went in and sat down with Professor Oppenheimer with no advance warning, no submission of questions in advance. We sat and talked for an hour, came back and developed the film, and decided that there we had it, rather than attempting to do the entire Institute.
You mentioned the program on peace-time uses of atomic energy. There we learned a lesson because in our ignorance and inexperience we thought we would really use this television medium. So we shot I think it was 2,800 coal cars in a single switching yard. And then we shot a film of a simulated block of enriched uranium alongside a typewriter to give the comparative size. This uranium was equivalent in fission power of the power of the 2,800 coal cars. And we thought, “Now this will really demonstrate it,” you see.
Immediately afterwards we did a ten-minute interview with Admiral Hyman Rickover. And as nearly as we could discover, no one really saw our coal cars or our little block of simulated uranium. Admiral Rickover – yes, they remembered for the simple reason that here was a man who: 1) knew what he was talking about; 2) had a fire in his belly about it; and 3) was able to communicate. And I think one thing, at least, we have learned out of television, and that is that there is no substitute for a good picture of a man who is talking with conviction and with knowledge of his subject.
Lyons:
And you certainly have learned how to dramatize and personalize great issues to us, as in the case of the Oppenheimer and Rickover interviews.
Murrow:
I hope we are learning!
Lyons:
Well, now your special report on Africa was another great picture that I’m sure is remembered. This dealt, among other things, with the aspirations of the Negros and the way they’re treated in Africa. I wonder to what extent that encountered any banning in the South here. No problem?
Murrow:
None.
Lyons:
No problem?
Murrow:
None. We had a similar experience... About two years ago we did a piece on Clinton, Tennessee. We ran it on a closed circuit four or five days before the program was to be presented on the network. Not a single southern station refused to carry the program, and in fact two southern stations that had not been ordered saw it on the closed circuit and decided to carry it voluntarily and for no fee.
Lyons:
Yes. Well, now just the other day, January 21, you did this program on the last class of 1959, that is the closed schools of Norfolk, Virginia. Pretty soon to have gotten complete reaction, but what sort of reaction, in the South particularly?
Murrow:
Well, it’s a little early to tell what the reaction was in the South, but as an old and experienced and much wiser journalist than I am, you would agree I think, Mr. Lyons, that the real test of a program or a piece in print is whether people involved – those who live there – believe it to be a fair count. Not distorted. And I am told that both newspapers in Norfolk regarded that program as being just that, and many of the participants were quoted as saying that we gave both sides of the question – which was our purpose.
Lyons:
Well, you must feel happy about that reaction then in the newspapers, Mr. Murrow. Well, in this same week you did an extraordinary program: The Business of Sex, tackling a subject which is not much tackled in the press, to say nothing of this more intimate medium of television. I noticed that the television critics dealt with this admiringly, as to your success in treating it.
I noticed also that the police in New York seem to think you ought to join the police force and follow up. Well, as to what kind of reaction you get.
Murrow:
Well, not a massive reaction from that one, which was a radio program. And as you know in the newspaper world, frequently when you deal with sex you see it as a sociological study. Well, we rather regarded this as a sociological study, and I was somewhat surprised, I must confess, when the police regarded it as a matter for sustained examination and possible criminal action. I think I would safe in saying that we did not reveal anything in that program that was not already known to the police force of New York.
Lyons:
Well, you speak of sociology. I remember when Adolf Ochs was alive as the great publisher of The New York Times, he was once chided for the extent to which the Times covered a sex trial. And Mr. Ochs said, “Oh, you don’t understand. In the Times, it’s sociology.”
And it does make a difference how such a subject is tackled, and I think that was one reaction to this program as you handled it, Mr. Murrow. It also raises this kind of question, as to the extent to which our tastes and modes are changing.
Now when James Reston was on this program a little while ago, we were talking about the problem of covering government politics in Washington. He said the pace of our own history is moving so fast that that is really the chief problem of reporting. You must encounter that.
Murrow:
I would agree with that, I think Mr. Lyons. But I think there is an attendant problem which concerns me – I have no competence in the field of print – but it concerns me in regard to television. And that is not so much rushing to keep up with current events, but rather the necessity of trying to convey to the viewer something of the heritage, the ethic, the history of this pluralistic society of ours.
I think one thing that is terribly missing is the reminding of the viewer of what made this country what it is. That it is not an economic plot. That there were people and principles and arguments. And to a frightening extent we are not informing people of our heritage and our background, our root-holds.
And I think, indeed I am sure that in time of crisis – without exception – every nation in history has gone back to its folklore, to its history, to its mythology. Even the Russians did it in the last war in the darkest days. They forgot about orthodox Marxist doctrine and they went back to Suvorov and all of their old-time heroes.
And I think if the times are as desperate as they appear to be, that we in this country with television ought to try not only to report current events, but to tell people how we got here, who did it, what the issues were.
Lyons:
You’re demanding then that the people who do this – the reporters and the television journalists – should know their history, should... As you spoke of sociology in one of your programs, these have got to be informed people with what it takes to move in deep.
Murrow:
Yes, I think it is important that people should know and recognize and assess and evaluate Governor Faubus, Governor Almond. I think it is also important that they know about Thomas Jefferson and Tom Paine.
Lyons:
For perspective.
Murrow:
Yes, sir. And for pride as well. I spent most of the war in Britain and I am quite sure that in the darkest days there, a certain sense of support and sustenance came to those people not just from Churchill, but from Frobisher and Drake and Raleigh and Hawkins and all of the other pirates in British history.
Television in this area, I think, is a limited medium, but I do think that it can arouse curiosity and stimulate interest so that the viewer when he encounters a book or a magazine article or something, will be stimulated to read and inform himself.
Lyons:
Now these great programs that we’ve mentioned of yours must involve great cost. To what extent is cost a limitation in what television can do, what’s the economic problem that limits us?
Murrow:
I can speak only of my own experience. I have never been refused permission to do a program simply because it was expensive. And some that I have done have been exceedingly expensive, and some of them exceedingly unsuccessful.
It is a very expensive operation. An hour’s program of a documentary nature will come into the studio at roughly $150,000. That is just for the program; that does not include the airtime.
But one of the difficulties involved is that if you put that program on in sustaining time, then a substantial number of stations will refuse to carry it. They will sell the time locally for a re-run of a dramatic show or a western or something like that.
And this is why I am tempted to suggest that there should be a degree of cooperation between sponsors and the network, with the network paying the cost of producing the program, the sponsor paying the airtime, and occasionally – I don’t want to turn these networks into educational networks or into long-hair operations – but just occasionally at peak listening time there should be presented programs of an informative nature.
I think it would be good business for the corporations, because I do not believe that most corporate heads want the so-called corporate image to consist of talking horses and dancing cigarettes and so forth.
Lyons:
Mr. Murrow, I imagine a certain number of people saw Jack Gould’s criticism of your speech in The New York Times. In effect he felt that it was up to networks to do this rather than sponsors. What would you say to that?
Murrow:
The primary responsibility rests on the network. But as I mentioned a moment ago: there is 1) the matter of circulation; there is 2) the matter of presentation in peak time. And I feel that if this job is to be adequately done, financially and in terms of network structure, it can best be done on a cooperative basis. I can quote Mr. Churchill who once said, “Not even I have always been right,” but this was the best suggestion I could think of.
Lyons:
Thank you. It was certainly a stimulating suggestion to a great many of us. Well, you asked that we reach into issues deeply. Well, this suggests that some of these may be controversial issues. We keep hearing that sponsors of television worry about controversial issues. Well, what about that? Is this a serious matter?
Murrow:
I think they do. I have personally been very fortunate in that respect, but I think there is a tendency on the part of corporations to say, “Let’s be safe. Let’s not offend any segment of the society.” I think it is entirely appropriate that corporations should refrain from editorializing. That I think we would both agree upon.
Lyons:
That is, the sponsored programs should not editorialize.
Murrow:
That is true.
Lyons:
You don’t want to go out – or do you? I wanted to come to editorials and that problem later. You aren’t saying now that the networks should do no editorializing?
Murrow:
No, sir, I am not. Quite the contrary.
Lyons:
But you would say that the sponsored programs should not editorialize.
Murrow:
Yes, sir, I would. And obviously, if this cooperative venture should be worked out, the control of program content should be in the hands of the network rather than in the hands of the sponsor because that is where both the legal and the moral responsibility rests.
Lyons:
Well, to get back to the sponsor for just a moment before we leave him. We also hear it said very generally that the sponsor feels there is more in it, more public interest in who-dun-its and westerns than in news and information. How do you feel as to his appraisal of the public interest there? Does he underrate the public on this interest?
Murrow:
Louis, I think he does. I regret talking about my own program so much but they are the only ones with which I am familiar.
Lyons:
Those are the ones we’d most like to hear about.
Murrow:
I believe that when the figures are in it will be demonstrated that the program we did on the school situation in Norfolk had as large an audience – perhaps slightly larger – than the two half-hour programs it replaced. I am entirely persuaded that there is an audience for more serious and informative programs provided they be well done, with some attention to showmanship and proper dramatic presentation.
Lyons:
Well, Mr. Murrow, networks seem to get their criticism for any omission in their dealing with great public events, but I’m sure that very often that the networks provide programs that the local stations don’t use.
You may be surprised to know that on two of your programs of greatest interest to us – when President Pusey was the new president of Harvard and you interviewed him, and then when Robert Frost, who lives in Cambridge, was interviewed by you – we read about these in the New York papers. You could not see them in Boston! How much of that kind of experience do you have?
Murrow:
Well, a fair amount. I don’t know how widespread it is, but certainly that is true – that frequently programs of valuable content produced, financed by the network, are not carried by local stations because they can sell that time to their own profit.
Lyons:
Well, many times on this program, the great corps of CBS foreign correspondents have been mentioned with admiration. And yet they come through to us, you know, a snatch from Schoenbrun in Paris, two minutes or a minute from Kendrick in London. Well, is it at all conceivable that we might get them periodically? Half-hour of views from Berlin this time, Moscow another – is that beyond the economics of this business?
Murrow:
I’m not sure it is. One thing – you know from experience – every foreign correspondent, whether he’s working for print, radio or television, is always frustrated. He always wants exposure and an opportunity to tell his story.
Lyons:
And yet your men do a terrific business. It must be a highly developed art to condense into these two-and-a-half minutes really, a crystallization.
Murrow:
Yes, I think they do.
Lyons:
The only thing is, could we get more?
Murrow:
I think I will have to refer that question, Professor Lyons, to the management of CBS. I have no control over that.
Lyons:
Well, you have said that the five-minute news program just isn’t a real news program.
Murrow:
I certainly have.
Lyons:
Well, the problem here is time and the cost of time, I suppose.
Murrow:
Well, it’s only partly that.
Lyons:
Well, you certainly have the talent.
Murrow:
We have. We have. It is not being utilized as well as it might be.
Lyons:
Well, what about radio, Mr. Murrow? Now I think about radio as something which doesn’t cost so much and there’s more time and more leisurely discussions. Well, has radio been overwhelmed by this more dramatic television medium? What’s the chance that in radio we may get more of this? We listen to you at a quarter of eight every night.
Murrow:
I would think rather good. I would hope that radio would seize the opportunity to do what it does best, and that is not only to tell what happened, and where it happened and why, but something of the consequences that may be expected to flow from a given set of events. For example, due to the limitations of the instrument, if Konrad Adenauer arrives at Idlewild, on television he is going to get twenty-five seconds. And he will come down the ramp and say, “I hope for fruitful discussions in Washington,” and so forth.
This is the night for radio. To take itself a good fifteen-minute period and do a profile of this man, some of his political problems, and some of the importance of the position that Germany occupies in the heartland of Europe. This is the sort of thing that radio can do that television cannot – partly because it hasn’t the pictures and partly because time is too expensive.
Lyons:
Won’t you just go on and say a little more? The things radio could do that television can’t, that radio has time for, that you’d like to see done in radio?
Murrow:
Well, radio to me, so far as news is concerned – and this is perhaps heresy – is a more satisfying instrument than television. The reason for that being that I would contend that most news consists of ideas in one form or another. I find it very difficult to transform ideas into words for radio and frequently impossible to translate them into pictures for television.
I think there is an enormous job to be done by radio in reporting this country to itself. I think the absence of regionalism in this country is deplorable. I think the fact that most people talk with the same accent, wear the same kind of clothes, tell the same kind of stories from one end of the country to the other is deplorable and is diminishing the sum total of our strength.
I would like to see radio dealing more with ideas than it does now, less with the five-minute capsule headline, more with biography, more with verbal profile, obviously much more foreign reporting in depth. And I would like to see it also deal more with the image of the United States as viewed from abroad.
One, I think it would be good programming because we’re all curious, we want to know what our neighbor across the fence or across the street thinks of us. It would get an audience and I think might jar us out of some of our complacency and self-satisfaction and our belief that we can do anything better than anybody else can.
Lyons:
Well, we’ve been talking about the limitations of commercial broadcasting, Mr. Murrow, but now how about educational television? It hasn’t any sponsors to get in the way, it hasn’t any revenue from these non-existent sponsors, either. How effective do you feel educational television is?
Murrow:
I don’t want to try to hide, but I haven’t seen enough educational television to be able to make an informed comment. I would guess one thing, which I think has pretty well been demonstrated. And that is that great teachers are rare, but when you find a great teacher he is likely to be able to teach on television as well as in the classroom. But again this is an uninformed comment. I haven’t done my homework or research on that.
Lyons:
Well, we mentioned the problem of editorial on the air. Now in the newspaper, there is a separate editorial page, people know where it is, and the newspaper makes a lot out of separating news from comment. Now on the air your format doesn’t allow you this physical separation, you don’t put a column rule between. To what extent is that itself a limitation on comment in the airwaves?
Murrow:
Well, I think we would both deplore the habit in certain organs of print of editorializing with adjectives. I believe that editorializing on radio or television should be obviously unsponsored, should be clearly labeled – this is not too difficult to do, I mean one can ring bells or flash lights – and make it quite clear that this is the end of ascertainable fact and now comes an editorial comment.
I think the responsibility for the editorial must obviously rest on the network or the local station. It should not be assigned to an individual, no matter what the capabilities or experience of that individual should be. I believe that it would stimulate more serious consideration of national issues. I think it would make the broadcasters themselves more responsible and more concerned.
And the fact that there is no tradition of editorializing in radio and television seems to me no reason why it should not be attempted.
Lyons:
Good. Well, thank you, Mr. Murrow. The problem that deeply concerns Mr. Murrow is that ways be found to get information through to us on the vital issues that as citizens we must meet and deal with. He’s described to us this problem. He’s also challenged the broadcasting industry and its sponsors – and that means the businesses of America – to see that time enough is provided for news and discussion of those things it’s essential that we understand. But it will be interesting to see what the answer to Mr. Murrow’s challenge will be.
So until next week at this time on the Press and the People, this is Louis Lyons.
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