Lights and wires in a box-Murrow’s speech that predicted today’s media

There was no taller giant in the early days of television news than Edward R. Murrow (born Egbert Roscoe Murrow). His broadcasts from London during World War 2 captured the attention of Americans.

From Biography:

Murrow became a fixture on American radio during World War II. During late 1939 to early 1940, he risked life and limb to report on the bombing of London. Murrow transmitted his reports from a rooftop instead of an underground shelter and was able to make the blitz real for listeners across the pond. As poet Archibald MacLeish said, according to The New Yorker, Murrow “burned the city of London in our houses and we felt the flames that burned it.” He also was the first to incorporate ambient sound into his broadcasts, allowing listeners to hear the news happening.

His legendary battle with Senator Joe McCarthy over a communist witch-hunt in the United States government should be instructive to us today, from both perspectives.

On October 15, 1958, Murrow gave a speech to the RTNDA (now the Radio Television Digital News Association), attended by many of the industry’s best and brightest. It came to the known as the “lights and wires in a box” speech.

This speech, given in 1958, could be given today with little editing necessary. Here’s an excerpt:

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 I am persuaded that 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 in this generous and capacious land. I have no technical advice or counsel to offer those of you who labor in this vineyard the one that produces words and pictures. You will, I am sure, forgive me for not telling you that the instruments with which you work are miraculous, that your responsibility is unprecedented or that your aspirations are frequently frustrated. It is not necessary to remind you of the fact that your voice, amplified to the degree where it reaches from one end of the country to the other, does not confer upon you greater wisdom than when your voice reached only from one end of the bar to the other. All of these things you know.

[…]

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 perhaps in 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, AND 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 indeed be faced if we are to survive. And I mean the word survive, quite 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 perhaps, some young and courageous soul with a small budget might 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 citizen 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.

[…]

This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and even it can inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise, it’s nothing but 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 is generally believed to have known something about 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. Thank you for your patience.

In closing, let it be noted that if a kid named Egbert from Polecat Creek, North Carolina can change broadcast journalism, few of us are left with excuses for not making an impact in our particular arena.

Marty Duren

Just a guy writing some things.