Sunday, February 12, 2006

Edward Murrow's dream fulfilled

Having recently seen a viewing of Good Night, and Good Luck I was impressed by the passion and diligence with which Edward R. Murrow, host of the show See It Now which is often credited with helping to bring down Joseph McCarthy, approached his job. After revolutionizing radio broadcast journalism during WWII, he went on to develop CBS's television news services. But it was during the McCarthy hearings that Murrow's genius really shined.

Nearly every school age child in this country knows of the dangers of "McCarthy-ism". It is synonymous with the Salem witch trials yet even today people of influence make unabashed accusations against those who they disagree with. They do this without even a shred of evidence yet they have audiences numbering in the millions and it is this blind faith in that bright box that sits in our living room that Edward Murrow warned us about.

In one of his most famous speeches, Mr. Murrow told the members of the RTNDA convention in Chicago in 1958 about the dangers of filling the airwaves with simple minded programming. His show, though not the highest in the ratings, nevertheless performed a valuable duty by giving Americans a larger view of the world around them. People might forget what the question was a few hours after watching The $64,000 Question but it would be hard to erase the memory of Joseph McCarthy publicly humiliating innocent Americans to satisfy his own personal lust for power. Education and enlightenment were Murrow's goals and he achieved them beautifully.

Unfortunately the major networks were not along for the ride. They preferred the moneymaking shows, the sure bets, the kinds of shows that didn't strain Americans' comfort levels or push them intellectually. Fortunately for Americans, technology doesn't stand still. In 1985, the Discovery Channel first aired and since then television hasn't been the same. It has been joined by other educational channels such as the History Channel, the National Geographic Channel and my personal favorite for world issues, the Discovery Times Channel.

On the future of television Edward Murrow had this to say:
"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. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful."
But before enlightening television can be appreciated, it first requires the use of Man's greatest tool, his brain. So even if all three networks were to air educational and political shows 24/7 I don't think it would do much good unless people actually wanted to see it. Thankfully in today's age we now have that choice.

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