Technosophy: Murrow’s Lament, or Wires and Lights

The other day, I used my laptop computer to order a copy of James Cameron’s classic 1984 sci-fi film The Terminator from Within a couple of hours, the movie had been delivered to my TiVo, to be watched at any time in the next 31 days when I might feel like getting around to it. There is, of course, a certain irony in using this strange convergence of the Internet, the movie business, and my television set to grab a movie about a war waged by computers to destroy humanity, but something else occurred to me while I was reflecting on this technology.

For years now, we’ve been told – oddly, almost always by computer people, not TV people – that the personal computer and the television set will become one any day now. The supposedly imminent coalescence of TV and computers, we’re told, will mean new heights in convenience, instant access to… well, pretty much everything, all without ever getting up from our Barcaloungers. Mind you, they’ve been saying that and then not doing it for so long now that it’s become something of a joke, this era’s equivalent of the old Popular Science “by the year 2000, cars will fly” thing. (Remember how we were all going to have WebTVs within five years?) Still, I have to admit that, with things like the ability to push content to a TiVo by doing something on the Internet, downloading stuff to your Xbox 360, and whatnot working now, we are getting closer… and that concerns me on a couple of levels.

The first is simple, bordering on prosaic, and I don’t really have the time or the inclination to embark on a deep probing of the “is there such a thing as too much convenience?” question right now. The other is… more complex, and has its roots in a speech delivered by a journalist to a gathering of his peers 50 years ago.

In 1958, the great news broadcaster Edward R. Murrow gave a speech at a gathering of the Radio and Television News Directors Association in Chicago. (You may have seen Edward Strathairn deliver part of this address in the movie Good Night, and Good Luck. If you haven’t, you probably ought to someday, but I digress.) In that speech he sounded an alarm of sorts, outlining for his listeners the fears he felt for the future of television as a medium.

Murrow was such a colossal influence on broadcast journalism that I am by long custom obliged to refer to him as A Towering Figure. He made his name reporting from England during the Battle of Britain, bringing the terror of the London Blitz home to American listeners – many of whom, in those isolationist days before Pearl Harbor, still agitating for the US to stay out of World War II and leave the British to whatever fate awaited them. After the war he was one of CBS’s television pioneers. In 1953, on his program See It Now, he took on Senator Joseph McCarthy – a bold move even for a man as influential as Murrow, and one that, if it didn’t burn many of his bridges, at least left them ready for the flame.

By 1958 his disenchantment with the corporate pressures and market forces acting on television had reached the point where he felt it necessary to deliver a public warning, and he did so before the RTNDA. His remarks were a scathing indictment of those who made television, those who paid for it, and those who watched it, all of whom he viewed as conspirators in an effort to take what could have been a powerful tool for public enlightenment and reduce it to a meaningless toy.

“I invite your attention to the television schedules of all networks between the hours of 8 and 11 p.m., Eastern Time,” he said. “Here you will find only fleeting and spasmodic reference to the fact that this nation is in mortal danger. There are, it is true, occasional informative programs presented in that intellectual ghetto on Sunday afternoons. But during the daily peak viewing periods, television in the main insulates us from the realities of the world in which we live.”

Murrow’s concerns, coming as they do from an era when there were only three television networks in the United States and only a mere handful worldwide, may seem quaint – but look at what he’s saying. Forget for a moment that he’s speaking from the other end of a tunnel that leads back 50 years in time and observe the message itself. “Television in the main insulates us from the realities of the world in which we live.” Does anything about that seem at all familiar?

“Surely we shall pay for using this most powerful instrument of communication to insulate the citizenry from the hard and demanding realities which must be faced if we are to survive,” Murrow said. “I mean the word survive literally. If there were to be a competition in indifference, or perhaps in insulation from reality, then Nero and his fiddle, Chamberlain and his umbrella, could not find a place on an early afternoon sustaining show.”

Further on he noted, “I am frightened by the imbalance, the constant striving to reach the largest possible audience for everything; by the absence of a sustained study of the state of the nation. … The sponsor of an hour’s television program is not buying merely the six minutes devoted to commercial message. He is determining, within broad limits, the sum total of the impact of the entire hour. If he always, invariably, reaches for the largest possible audience, then this process of insulation, of escape from reality, will continue to be massively financed, and its apologist will continue to make winsome speeches about giving the public what it wants, or ‘letting the public decide.’”

Far from being merely an alarmist diatribe against what he saw even then as the corporate control of television (and one wonders what he would make of today’s violently immersive TV adscape), Murrow’s speech contained an optimistic message as well. He deplored the strange and unsavory dance between sponsor, network, and news department, yes, but he also saw a way out, one which depended on two beliefs that the post-modern, pre-cyberpunk Internet cynic will probably find hopelessly naïve:

  1. A belief in the basic decency of men, even men of business. Murrow believed that, if given the chance and properly persuaded that it would do them no harm, sponsors and network executives could reach some sort of understanding, that the businessmen controlling the money and power that really made the mass media work would choose to act for the public good.

    “I refuse to believe that the presidents and chairmen of the boards of these big corporations want their corporate image to consist exclusively of a solemn voice in an echo chamber, or a pretty girl opening the door of a refrigerator, or a horse that talks. They want something better, and on occasion some of them have demonstrated it,” he said.

  2. A belief in the essential righteousness of the General Public. Murrow espoused the view, even in his darkest speeches, that the man on the street would get things right, if only he had enough information to make an informed decision.

    “I am entirely persuaded that the American public is more reasonable, restrained and more mature than most of our industry’s program planners believe,” he said. “I have reason to know… 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.”

But, he argued, none of that was taking place. Because of the corporate structures of networks and sponsors – because of the layers of bureaucracy between the people in charge of sponsoring companies and the people in charge of the actual content appearing on networks, and the fact that most of those layers were inhabited only by salespeople, ad agents, and PR flacks – the open and honest dialogue that was needed wasn’t taking place. Murrow saw it as a question of indolence and timidity rather than malfeasance; today we would probably say that the whole structure was and is rotten and that there is a deliberate effort being made on many levels of the power structure to blunt the edge of what could be a powerful communications tool. Or, well, I would, anyway.

“To those who say people wouldn’t look; they wouldn’t be interested; they’re too complacent, indifferent and insulated, I can only reply: There is, in one reporter’s opinion, considerable evidence against that contention,” said Murrow. “But even if they are right, what have they got to lose? Because if they are right, and this instrument is good for nothing but to entertain, amuse and insulate, then the tube is flickering now and we will soon see that the whole struggle is lost.”

In the modern day, a case could be made – and a strong one too, I think – that the struggle has been lost, at least in television’s case. The line between news and entertainment, already blurry in Murrow’s day, has become almost completely indistinguishable. TV’s power to entertain, amuse, and insulate has reached heights that would have been unimaginable in Murrow’s day, but the only efforts to do anything like what he suggested – “a sustained study of the state of the nation” – are grim, bobbing-head parodies of the whole idea, moronic one-sided puppet-fistings from one side of the political spectrum or the other. There is no fairness. There is no balance. Viewers may be, as Murrow believed they were in 1958, “prepared to listen to both sides with reason and restraint,” but we have no way of knowing, because no one is presenting both sides with reason and restraint (though, one must admit, we’re certainly getting more than “fleeting… reference to the fact that this nation is in mortal danger”).

Is that it, then? Game over? Do we pack up our tents and resign ourselves to an eternity in the wilderness, surrounded by looming ads and leering political puppets who don’t even try to disguise themselves any more?

Well, maybe it is too late for TV. But there’s a new medium in town, one that has the potential to be as revolutionary as television was in its day – and although it might not seem that way at first glance, I don’t think the Internet’s version of that same battle is yet lost. To be sure, there’s a lot of extremism and stupidity out here, and pockets of brainless commercialism so crass and repellent that they make TV infomercials seem like cerebral, publicly responsible programming… but the potential band is a hell of a lot wider than even modern cable TV’s, and – most promising of all – it goes both ways. Television, for all its power, is a one-way medium. It has weight to throw around, but the consequences of throwing that weight around are all indirect, measured by methods that insulate the makers from the results. If something on TV has a negative effect, by the time the consequences of that effect are felt, they’re so far removed from the source that no one can reasonably point to a direct connection. The Internet can create dialogue – instantly, everywhere, with easily visible links of cause and effect.

Moreover, it’s hard to get on TV; getting on the Internet is easy. Becoming well-known in either place takes work, it’s true, but the playing field is much more level for the Internet writer or filmmaker or musician with something to say than it is for someone who wants to break into one of the “conventional” media. Sure, that means there’s a lot of crap is out there – Sturgeon’s Law applies on the Internet as anywhere else, maybe even more so – but if you believe, as Murrow did, that the public can find the right racing line if it’s only given access to the whole racetrack, well, here we are on the biggest track in human history.

The frightening part, and the part about which I have the greatest reservations, is that, as predicted, television and the Internet are slowly growing together. It isn’t happening as fast as the people who first tried to sell the concept predicted, but it is happening – and there’s every chance that, as the process goes on, the same forces that rendered television such a wasteland may follow exactly the same vectors, leaving us eventually with a medium that neither TV’s pioneers nor the Internet’s would recognize, except for the astronomical signal-to-noise ratio and the unmistakable stench of wasted potential.

Some observers, even more cynical than I, might say that’s already happened, but I disagree. I don’t think all is lost just yet. The race may be a mess to look at now, but I think it’s still too early to say that it can only end in chaos. There are more of us out here to resist the worst of the forces that poisoned television. By the time it’s all said and done, we might just win this one – but only if we stay in the race.

If not? If we just give up, shrug our shoulders and say “Well, the public is a stupid animal, human nature tends toward the lowest common denominator – welcome to the Third World”?

Then Murrow’s most famous and oft-quoted prediction comes true, not just for TV, not just for the Internet but for what the combination of the two will eventually become – arguably humanity’s greatest technological achievement:

“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. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box.”

Benjamin D. Hutchins is an author, public relations writer, and semiprofessional muser upon the random. His other nonfiction writings can be found here and here.

About Gryphon

In his career - well, not so much a career as a series of interesting but usually ill-advised vocational choices, if we're being honest - Benjamin D. Hutchins has been a tech support grunt, an Internet operations tech, a small-town print reporter, a public relations writer, and a semiprofessional muser upon the random. Now he's working on several books (none of which, just to buck tradition, is the Great American Novel), eyeing the relentless march of personal gadget technology with bemusement and often suspicion, and wondering what's with these kids today, with their clothes and their hair and that stuff they think is music.His first book, Off the Top of My Head: Personal Reflections of a Small-Town Newsman, can be had here or here.
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  • Stephen Harris

    Of course, recent research shows that people will search out viewpoints that agree with and enforce their already made up minds. People are typically not very good at honest dispationate evaluation. Given the amount of information available on the net, Bush supporters tend to go to sites that support Bush and knock the Democrats; similarly Democrats flock to sites that rubbish Bush, “9/11 truthers” believe all they read on the conspiracy sites and decry anything that doesn’t support their viewpoint.

    In the past TV has the power to influence because it was a push technology with limited channels. Today one can get all the bias they like by picking Fox News over CNN over MSNBC. The internet has even more choice; it only has the power to reinforce existing prejudices and opinions.

    But then I’m very cynical :-)

  • Matthew Farra

    Fascinating thoughts on this topic Benjamin. I really enjoyed it.

  • hdtivo

    Perhaps we should just accept that the internet and anything else that ever comes along will be no different than the real world of drive-ins and the latest Mamet work in NYC.

    There will always be that very thin slice of humanity which will choose to watch the Mamet and the rest who add to the population during the other.