Where are today's Murrows?




Strathairn as Murrow





Originally published by Hughes for America/ HfA/ on 11/30/2005

And if there are any historians about fifty or a hundred years from now, and there should be preserved the kinescopes for one week of all three networks, they will there find recorded in black and white, or color, evidence of decadence, escapism and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live.

When Edward R. Murrow, played brilliantly by David Strathairn, begins Good Night, and Good Luck, with that prophetic statement, I found myself depressed at how little we've progressed in the nearly 50 years since he spoke those words.


Then, as now, Murrow was right. Our broadcast media are failing us. This, perhaps even more than the gripping political drama, is the greatest lesson to take from a viewing of George Clooney's important movie. And the media will continue to fail us as long as those in power believe the bottom line to be more important than an educated populace.


Blown away and, at the same time, distressed, I left the theater thinking: Where are today's Murrows? Where are the anchors, correspondents and journalists willing to speak truth to power? Where are those brave broadcasters who view their craft as performing a service for America, not as a self-serving, self-promoting chance at celebrity?


I thought the tide was turning after Hurricane Katrina. The typically servile media were doing their job. Anchors like Anderson Cooper and Paula Zahn stunned audiences by showing some teeth in their reportage. CNN, a network more devoted to missing white women than anything, appeared to wake from its slumber.


But it was a mirage, and standout reporting these days is just that: It stands out. Not only because of its worth, but also because of its loneliness among its broadcast peers. In less than 50 years, we've evolved from the Murrows of the world to the Bill Hemmers of the world, empty suits more interested in watching President Bush clear brush than asking him about how he misled America into war.


The closest heir to Murrow's legacy, Keith Olbermann, is a testament to the devolving media climate. His show, which consistently speaks truth to power, challenges conventional wisdom and speaks to an enlightened citizenry, also consistently struggles in its time slot. That "Countdown" regularly loses out to "The O'Reilly Factor" shames the institution Murrow skillfully crafted.


If the problem only existed at the top level – where corporate-owned networks protect their interests and chilled "journalists" pander to the lowest-common denominator – it wouldn't be as systemic. No, this cancer has spread. The no-news-is-good-news, infotainment-first environment has spread to the next generation of broadcasters.


Curiosity, as I've written before, has all but died among a sizeable portion of people my age – journalists included. The path to the top doesn't run though public affairs reporting any longer. It runs through the soundbite-driven, high-sugar, low-nutrition world of breaking news, celebrity breakups and political punditry. The schools that once produced the next Murrows are busy producing the next SportsCenter anchors. The next Republican talking-points machines. The next Rita Cosbys. And that's a shame.


What's an even bigger shame is that audiences are eating this fluff up. While a large portion is aching for some real coverage, an equally large – if not larger – segment simply wants to know if Nick and Jessica are breaking up. And the longer this trend progresses, the more atrophied news operations become, the less capable they'll be to deliver upon their promise when needed most. As Murrow said then:


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. 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...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.


No wiser words can be found - now or then - to describe this crisis.


11/30/2005 at 10:21 PM


We attach some interesting comment on this piece:


The closest heir to Murrow's legacy, Keith Olbermann, is a testament to the devolving media climate. His show, which consistently speaks truth to power, challenges conventional wisdom and speaks to an enlightened citizenry, also consistently struggles in its time slot.


Olbermann's problem is that the enlightened citizenry mostly doesn't watch television. I'm holding hope that we'll win -- that more people will get disgusted and give away their televisions and listen to NPR and read good blogs instead. But of course, the television companies could win. They could make ever greater numbers stupid and helpless and dependent on the escape television offers from eight depressing hours a day in a cubicle.


Posted by: jami | 11/30/2005 at 11:53 PM

Clicked over from Eschaton-good post. I've read the the prez (?) of NBC says liberals don't watch TV or listen to radio, and I found that surprising, being a liberal who does both (however, I do watch the news almost more as a watchdog than as a consumer of what the broadcast media has to offer). Based on comments on lots of lefty whack job blogs, I would say libs do watch, if only to see how the electorate is being mislead and occasionally informed. BTW, any feeling that since 1) Katrina, 2) falling BushCo poll numbers, and 3) removal of Tomlinson that NPR's news has returned to better, more indepth coverage?


Posted by: jawbone | 12/01/2005 at 08:24 AM

I''ve been a keith olberman/countdown fan since its been on. i hope msnbc gives his a lot more promotion!! his ratings are coming up because i let everyone i know aware of his insightful program and in turn they have become loyal watchers.keep the faith keith-we love you here in new jersey!!



"PLEASE REMEMBER: No matter how involved we get in our human causes, we must never forget that one of the cruelest oppressions that which our own species perpetrates every day on billions of defenceless animals."