It’s a fascinating film, but what struck me most, in light of the discussions Studio 60 has provoked about the role of television, was Murrow’s speech which opened and closed the movie. It was given in 1958 to a RTNDA convention in Chicago, four years after the cancellation of Murrow’s once-primetime current affairs show See it Now.
Although in the speech Murrow is talking about the demise of current affairs and the rise of entertainment on television, I think much of what he had to say was both prescient and still extremely relevant. You can read the whole speech here, but these are the sections that really stood out for me (the emphases are mine):
“Our history will be what we make it. 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. I invite your attention to the television schedules of all networks between the hours of 8 and 11 p.m., Eastern Time. 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. If this state of affairs continues, we may alter an advertising slogan to read: LOOK NOW, PAY LATER.”
Fifty years on, I wonder if we’re paying that price? Decadence, escapism and insulation from the realities of the world. Isn’t that exactly what we expect – no, demand – from television? We come home from work, tired, and expect to be entertained. Simply entertained.
“For 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. 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. If Hollywood were to run out of Indians, the program schedules would be mangled beyond all recognition. Then some courageous soul with a small budget might be able to do a documentary telling what, in fact, we have done--and are still doing--to the Indians in this country. But that would be unpleasant. And we must at all costs shield the sensitive citizens from anything that is unpleasant.”
In this time of global crisis the last thing we should be doing is insulating the citizenry from the hard and demanding realities. And yet how much we want to be insulated. Who wants to think about the reality of global warming or the causes of international terrorism when we can follow the adventures of people with super powers, or a group of Desperate Housewives?
Entertainment has its place, we all love to be entertained. But when you have a media as vastly influential as television existing in a time of genuine global threat, shouldn't we ensure that it’s used for a higher purpose – to improve our understanding of the world, to make us think, and to better our society and our posterity?
“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.
“Stonewall Jackson, who knew something about the use of weapons, is reported to have said, ‘When war comes, you must draw the sword and throw away the scabbard.’ The trouble with television is that it is rusting in the scabbard during a battle for survival. ”