A proposal put forth by Edward R. Murrow 54 years ago that big corporations regularly sponsor primetime documentaries deserves a fresh look today. Why should all the corporate do-good money wend its way to PBS? If I were the commercial networks, I would target the likes of Google, Apple, Samsung, Microsoft, Facebook, Cisco and Verizon. They have been driving the never-ending media revolution and making billions without giving back much in the way of what actually passes through their devices, networks and apps.
Reporter Joe Flint at the Los Angeles Times reminded us of the extraordinary speech that Edward R. Murrow gave at the RTNDA convention in 1958 on the 54th anniversary of the speech last Monday.
Flint posted excerpts from the speech that reflect what the speech in large part was — an indictment of the then infant medium. “[I]f there are any historians about 50 or a 100 years from now, and there should be preserved the kinescopes for one week of all three networks,” Murrow said, “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.”
In a way, the speech presaged that of FCC Chairman Newton Minow at the NAB convention three years later, in which he dismissed television as “a vast wasteland.”
Minow’s comment forever earned him the enmity of broadcasters. His speech may have hastened his departure from CBS where he had become a burr under Bill Paley’s saddle, but it cemented his standing as the conscience of broadcast journalism. Having helped invent it, he was entitled to criticize it. He remains its patron saint.
Joe believes Murrow’s criticism of TV is still valid today. “Unfortunately for Murrow, when it comes to broadcast TV, little has changed since those remarks were delivered,” he wrote. “While the evening news format still exists, coverage of the world has diminished. If a story cannot be summed up in a minute or two, odds are it won’t make the news. The more complex the issue, the less likely it will be explored.”
Joe is being too hard on broadcasters. In the 500-channel world, they don’t have to do it all. Cable offers plenty of news, public affairs and educational programming — far beyond what Murrow could have imagined.
And it’s not like the broadcast networks don’t do anything. Those evening newscast provide worthy and credible daily doses of what is going on the world, even if they don’t meet Joe’s standards. And, as I pointed out last week here, the networks regularly give up primetime for important breaking news and coverage of important happenings like the presidential debates. (How did you like this week’s episode, “The Empire Strikes Back?”)
That said, the networks could do more, which brings us back to Murrow and his speech.
Most overlook that at the very heart of the speech is a proposal. It is that major corporations should regularly sponsor primetime documentaries — pay for an hour so that the network news departments could go to town on any topic they deemed worthy.
“Why should not each of the 20 or 30 big corporations which dominate radio and television decide that they will give up one or two of their regularly scheduled programs each year, turn the time over to the networks and say in effect: ‘This is a tiny tithe, just a little bit of our profits. On this particular night we aren’t going to try to sell cigarettes or automobiles; this is merely a gesture to indicate our belief in the importance of ideas.'”
The corporations should do it to burnish their images, Murrow said. “I refuse to believe that the presidents and chairmen of the boards of these big corporations want their corporate image to consist exclusively of a solemn voice in an echo chamber, or a pretty girl opening the door of a refrigerator, or a horse that talks.”
More than most, Murrow recognized that corporations try to avoid political controversy, figuring blowback is not good for business. But, he said that the sponsored documentaries could be “straightaway exposition as direct, unadorned and impartial as fallible human beings can make it.
“Several years ago,” Murrow continued, “when we undertook to do a program on Egypt and Israel, well-meaning, experienced and intelligent friends shook their heads and said, ‘This you cannot do. You will be handed your head. It is an emotion-packed controversy, and there is no room for reason in it.’ We did the program. Zionists, anti-Zionists, the friends of the Middle East, Egyptian and Israeli officials said, with a faint tone of surprise, ‘It was a fair account. The information was there. We have no complaints.'”
Single-sponsor primetime documentaries are still a good idea that is worth pursuing. Why should all the corporate do-good money wend its way to PBS? If I were the commercial networks, I would target the likes of Google, Apple, Samsung, Microsoft, Facebook, Cisco and Verizon. They have been driving the never-ending media revolution and making billions without giving back much in the way of what actually passes through their devices, networks and apps.
With the anti-regulators closing in on Google, it might be a particularly good time for the search engine giant to think about stepping up its corporate citizenship.
So, how do the networks go about getting the corporations to line up behind primetime documentaries? They go to the highest level of these corporations and they ask.
And when they are sitting in the office of Apple of CEO Tim Cook, they might say what a wonderful device the iPad is and how it can teach, illuminate and even inspire, but only if there is equally wonderful and important programming for it to convey. “Otherwise,” they might add, “it is merely wires and lights in a box.”