Ed Murrow’s Prophecy

December 20, 2009 § 2 Comments

“We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men — not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular.”
-Ed Murrow

I’ve been looking forward to my second screening of George Clooney’s Good Night, And Good Luck. I give credit to Dr Bob Armstrong for screening the story of Edward R Murrow and U.S Senator Joseph McCarthy during Mass Media Theory class. The one thing that stuck on my mind that made me revisit GN, &GL is its central message of media responsibility and its role as the Fourth Estate. That and subsequent views of George explaining the movie on Newseum’s Reel Journalism feature that was hosted by veteran journalist Nick Clooney.

Why the interest on the media as the Fourth Estate? That’s an easy one to answer for me: Because traditional media may never play such a role here in Singapore.  Ed Murrow’s words echo the fundamental truth about the need for media to provide the truth and key issues to its people.  For me, this resonates  loud and clear in the Singapore context.

Here in Singapore, media is always under careful regulation and monitoring by the de-facto ruling party, the PAP. Here in Singapore, the media functions more of a broadcast-and-disseminate tool, as opposed to a check-and-balance function of American media. Yet this doesn’t stop many Singaporeans from hoping for more press freedom.

If you asked Ziqi Koey, circa high school and Army days, he might have told you about a career interest in journalism and media,  for my interest in those fields stem from a desire to learn and master the power of words to convey true messages. I have witnessed how the careful and precise use of this art can cause monumental shifts. Mr Murrow and many journalists of his generation have demonstrated this.

Journalism as a career choice in Singapore has an entirely different meaning though. My enthusiasm of finding a job with the biggest media companies in Singapore (SPH and Mediacorp) was doused, for the fact that media in Singapore never always represent the true hard facts in an objective way. Here in Singapore, the media functions more of a broadcast-and-disseminate tool, as opposed to a check-and-balance function of American media. Quality of television programming in Singapore has degenerated to that of mere profit making, the lack of any real substance and depth.

That is why Good Night And Good Luck struck a chord within me. It was the spirit of journalism that I looked up to.

The opening and ending of Good Night, And Good Luck highlights Ed Murrow’s  speech  to the Radio and Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) convention.  Highly prophetic  and relevant, Ed Murrow’s words stirred up thoughts within me about:

  • The state of mass media in Singapore today (TV, Radio, Newspapers)
  • Social Media: Its ability to teach, inspire, or become merely part of “wires and lights in a box”
  • Intelligence, maturity, and perceived apathy of the Singaporean with regards to hard issues

****

Excerpt from Ed Murrow’s  speech to the Radio and Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) convention in Chicago 15th October 1958 ( Article Total Read Time: 12 minutes, Text in Bold, 8 minutes)

This just might do nobody any good. At the end of this discourse a few people may accuse this reporter of fouling his own comfortable nest, and your organization may be accused of having given hospitality to heretical and even dangerous thoughts. But the elaborate structure of networks, advertising agencies and sponsors will not be shaken or altered. It is my desire, if not my duty, to try to talk to you journeymen with some candor about what is happening to radio and television.

….

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.

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.

I am entirely persuaded that the American public is more reasonable, restrained and more mature than most of our industry’s program planners believe. Their fear of controversy is not warranted by the evidence. I have reason to know, as do many of you, 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.

One of the basic troubles with radio and television news is that both instruments have grown up as an incompatible combination of show business, advertising and news. Each of the three is a rather bizarre and demanding profession. And when you get all three under one roof, the dust never settles. The top management of the networks with a few notable exceptions, has been trained in advertising, research, sales or show business. But by the nature of the coporate structure, they also make the final and crucial decisions having to do with news and public affairs. Frequently they have neither the time nor the competence to do this.

We are currently wealthy, fat, comfortable and complacent. We have currently a built-in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information. 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 at the top. Responsibility is not something that can be assigned or delegated. And it promises its own reward: good business and good television.

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. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful.

***

Additional Reading:

Article 19’s report on Freedom of Expression in Singapore

National Geographic: The Singapore Solution

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