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Walter Lippman Goes Surfing
Is not sure it was wise
Fred Friendly and Edward R. Murrow dominated documentary broadcasting on radio and television from their positions at CBS for the better part of two decades; Murrow in front of the microphone and camera, and Friendly an innovative producer, collaborator, and executive. The two reshaped radio news and essentially invented television news.
Murrow is the better known, with his on-air contributions to the unravelling of Joseph McCarthy, his bomb-throwing 1958 speech to the Radio and Television News Directors Association (RTNDA), and his signature “good night and good luck” broadcast signoff, which originated with his nightly radio broadcasts from London and elsewhere during World War II, ably conveying a note of fraught circumstances, but Friendly had an equally profound influence on broadcast journalism.
Preceding those two men into the journalism hall of fame was author, press critic and columnist Walter Lippman, whose 60-year career defies encapsulation (but whose political philosophy was that of a socialist who thought workers were utterly incapable of understanding governance, never mind undertaking it). His influence on journalism was enormous during his lifetime — September 23, 1889 – December 14, 1974— and still lingers.
Friendly resigned from his position as CBS News president in 1966, a year after Murrow’s death, saying that “television makes so much at its worst that it can’t afford to do its best” — a sentiment echoed on the flip side in 2016 by CBS president Les Moonves, when he said of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign that “[i]t may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS” — to become the inaugural Edward R. Murrow Professor of Broadcast Journalism at Columbia University, where Lippman agreed to participate in a recorded graduate seminar in 1969.
The results were edited and published as an interview in Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), and then reprinted last year as part of the magazine’s 60th anniversary. Lippman had some trenchant comments about broadcast news, one of which supports our own refusal to watch since 1991, after the late Bernard Shaw narrated the first live war spectacular of the modern age, and most of which remain relevant.
How many problems do you think this country can digest at one time without breaking at the seams? We have Vietnam, the cities, the race problem. Are these likely to create a permanent cleavage?
Well, that’s a problem I’ve been worried about all my life, but I have begun to realize, since I wrote Public Opinion and also while I was writing it, that the capacity of the general public—on which we’re dependent for votes—to take on many problems is very limited. I wrote a book called The Phantom Public , arguing that really what public opinion in the end could do was to say yes or no. It couldn’t do anything very much more complicated than that. It couldn’t say three-quarters or five-sixths but not two-sevenths—it isn’t able to do that. That’s what a scientist has to do. That’s what an administrator has to do, what a public servant has to do. But public opinion as a mass can’t do that. And it’s one of the great unsolved problems of democracy: how are you going to make popular government—because it’s always going to be popular, in the sense of involving a great many people—how are you going to make that work in the face of the problems which have become infinitely complicated even in the last twenty years?
So what should the mass media do?
That is the question, I admit, but first of all, I don’t know enough about the mass media. I know something about journalism, but I know very little about broadcasting. I listen to broadcast journalism, but for the news at night; I don’t get the news from it. I feel utterly dissatisfied almost always. Of course, I’m very interested to see a picture of something happening. That’s very interesting—a splashdown, that’s wonderful. But as for the problems which are very difficult, urban problems and all, you can’t find out about them. You can get a smell of them. You know a little bit about what they’re like, and then you can read about them, or somebody can lecture to you about them. But broadcast journalism has not only a terribly simplifying effect, but a distorting effect, I think, because it makes everything more dramatic than it should be, more interesting, more amusing. And the world of life isn’t that. It’s prosaic.
Emphases ours. Lippman is touching on complaints both Murrow and Friendly made from inside the machine: the distorting effect of trying to make the news entertaining, or at least riveting, enough to retain first the viewer’s attention and then the advertiser’s. Murrow’s 1958 RTNDA (now RTDNA, don’t ask) speech is a miracle of judgement, and everyone who watches television news ought to read it annually at least.
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It may be that this present system, with no modifications and no experiments, can survive. Perhaps the money-making machine has some kind of built-in perpetual motion, but I do not think so. To a very considerable extent, the media of mass communications in a given country reflects the political, economic and social climate in which it grows and flourishes. That is the reason our system differs from the British and the French, and also from the Russian and the Chinese. We are currently wealthy, fat, comfortable and complacent. We have currently a built-in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information. And our mass media reflect this. But unless we get up off our fat surpluses and recognize that television in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse and insulate us, then television and those who finance it, those who look at it and those who work at it, may see a totally different picture too late.
I do not advocate that we turn television into a 27-inch wailing wall, where longhairs constantly moan about the state of our culture and our defense. But I would just like to see it reflect occasionally the hard, unyielding realities of the world in which we live. I would like to see it done inside the existing framework, and I would like to see the doing of it redound to the credit of those who finance and program it. Measure the results by Nielsen, Trendex or Silex-it doesn't matter. The main thing is to try. The responsibility can be easily placed, in spite of all the mouthings about giving the public what it wants. It rests on big business, and on big television, and it rests on the top. Responsibility is not something that can be assigned or delegated. And it promises its own reward: both good business and good television.
Perhaps no one will do anything about it. I have ventured to outline it against a background of criticism that may have been too harsh only because I could think of nothing better. Someone once said--and I think it was Max Eastman--that "that publisher serves his advertiser best who best serves his readers." I cannot believe that radio and television, or the corporations that finance the programs, are serving well or truly their viewers or their listeners, or themselves.
All three men recognized but underestimated, we think, the potential for rage and conflict to become a vital element of the television news format, along with anaesthesia. Murrow suggested that his bosses were aware of what they were doing to the public, and were uncomfortable with it, and would one day come to deeply regret it; obviously he underestimated the capacity of that breed to come fully to terms with what they became.
We’re writing about this today, in the wake of the 911 anniversary, because the 20 years since then have been a continuing demonstration of how effectively vast numbers of people can be manipulated by and through television news, even when the people doing it really aren’t that good at it, because the audience and the medium have been prepped so well for so long.
We’ll give Mr. Lippman the final word from his interview, noting that the field was still fully dominated by men at the time, and that Lippman was speaking of left and right globally.
Does it seem to you that political writers of the country are swinging to the right? If so, how far to the right do you think they will go?
Well, there’s no doubt that—whether that’s age or personal ambition or what—men do that. It’s a rule any journalist would know: it’s always safer to be conservative than not. You’re much less on the defensive. You have much less to explain yourself for. The Left has recently done some very vicious things, I think. But on the whole, in the lifetime of most men who are now fifty or more, the Right is the one that’s done the vicious things. Fascism was very vicious. I don’t think anybody can predict how far it will go, because it’s action and reaction, how the Left acts and how the Right acts.
Emphasis ours, again.
In other news, we have an entertaining gecko exercise — in no way related to Geico, which has really polluted the gecko joke field — for you all, and that is to take any title of a song, film or book with the word “devil” in it, and swap “devil” out for “gecko.”
Aldous Huxley wrote a book called The Devils of Loudon, which would become The Geckos of Loudon. Skip James wrote and recorded an oft-covered song called Devil Got My Woman, which would become Gecko Got My Woman.
And so on. The inspiration for this comes courtesy of the youthful gecko at present patrolling our kitchen for ants.
You’ve been a lovely audience. Good night, and good luck.
(If you have music recommendations, please drop them in the comments. Musical contributors to this post include The Del Fuegos, “The Best Of The Del Fuegos;” Waxing Poetics, “Bed Time Story;” The Bongos, “Drums Along the Hudson;” Translator, “sometimes people forget;” Tones on Tail, “Pop;” and Letters To Cleo, “Wholesale Meats and Fish.”)