In 1958, Edward Murrow gave a speech in Chicago. “At the end of this discourse a few people may accuse this reporter of fouling his own comfortable nest, and your organization may be accused of having given hospitality to heretical and even dangerous thoughts,” he said. Four years earlier he put his career at risk by taking on America’s most dangerous demagogue, Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
McCarthy exploited the nation’s fear of Communism in attempting to fulfill his political ambitions. He ruined the lives of many Americans only to turn out a fraud and censured for the remainder of his term. His antics were brought to light by Murrow’s editorial broadcasts.
“If there are any historians about 50 or 100 years from now,” Murrow said. “They will [here] find recorded in black and white, or color, evidence of decadence, escapism and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live.” Things have not changed much. There is much we can learn from Murrow. He believed in a journalism that was not reported out of an attraction to sensational stories or out of a sense of self-righteousness. He found murder stories superfluous to cover and he saved celebrity news for his celebrity program, never to be seen on his Sunday night news program.
“I do not advocate that we turn television into a 27-inch wailing wall,” he said. “I would just like to see it reflect occasionally the hard, unyielding realities of the world in which we live.” Murrow was a journalist that was able to communicate with the college professor and the high school dropout, but he saw modern broadcasting as failing its viewers. He advocated for a journalism that did not broadcast simply for advertising profits. Although Murrow only spoke of television, I think what he said that night in Chicago is applicable to every media outlet, whether it is in a newspaper or on your iPhone. He remains one of the most revered and influential journalists of all time. Perhaps it is time we heed Murrow’s advice and add some sustenance to journalism.
There are still examples of good journalism today, such as “60 Minutes” or “Face the Nation.” Both have excellent examples of editorial work. Hopefully the current national crisis with the White House provokes more writers to report on things that affect their readers and not to slander the word “editorial” with articles that deserve the headline “Dear Diary.”
The news is meant to inform, not to patronize. It is an opinion piece not a pulpit. It is an editorial, not a rant. We’ve all read an article with the headline “It’s time to stop…” on Odyssey Online. That is where those articles belong. Americans often shut their ears and open their mouths not because of what is being said but the way it is said. Sometimes they lack the virtue of hearing the facts because it is not properly reported or not reported at all and therefore they lack an educated opinion. By the time they come around to hearing the truth they are too worked up in their own argument to admit they are wrong. This writer is guilty of it, and frankly we are all guilty of it.
Murrow had once proven, sensible journalism and editorial writing can successfully challenge and bring down a demagogue. Perhaps it is time for journalists put aside their opinions on the Kardashians or life instructions and start encouraging critical thinking amongst the readers and watchers. “This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends,” Murrow said that night in Chicago. “Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box.”
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