Rather Outspoken News
From Dan: The 2012 Edward R. Murrow Award for Lifetime Achievement
posted on October 01, 2012 by Dan
This is Dan Rather's acceptance speech upon receiving the 2012 Edward R. Murrow Award for Lifetime Achievement from Washington State University.
In the fine book chronicling Ed Murrow’s life, “The Birth of Broadcast Journalism,” Bob Edwards writes, “Ethel Murrow had a flare for the dramatic, and every night required each of the boys to read aloud a chapter of the Bible.” Along with a flair for the dramatic, the Murrow boys also inherited what Edwards describes as “their mother’s sometimes archaic, inverted phrases.”
Murrow’s mother, it seems, had a profound influence on journalism’s future standard-bearer.
It is also of some interest to this reporter that not only were Ethel Murrow’s phrases “uniquely her own,” but they had a way of cutting right to the heart of any matter. It was an inheritance Ed Murrow honed to a fine art in manhood—as he and the “Murrow Boys” singlehandedly invented broadcast journalism.
One of Ethel’s sayings was “This I believe.” That became the title of Murrow’s book—a book in which the thinkers of his time explained to a curious and insightful Murrow exactly what they believed and why. Another of Ethel Murrow’s favorite phrases was…“It pleasures me.”
In honor of both mother and son, I’d like to begin by telling all of you “It pleasures me” to receive this award, particularly at this time in our country’s and our profession’s history. A time when so much has changed yet, we should also note, sadly so much has not. The loud ignorance and spurious accusations Ed Murrow fought so hard to vanquish are still all too familiar today.
Reporters take note: As confusion in America is on the rise, so is lack of faith in the news media.
A Gallup poll released last week showed Americans' distrust in the media hit a new high this year, with 60% saying they have little or no trust in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly.
This is a far cry from the days of Murrow and the decades-long foundation he and others built during those heady days after the birth of network news.
Simply put, Edward R. Murrow did the heavy lifting during an era tainted with fear, rife with innuendo and colored along lines of ideology and race. And thank goodness he was the first to write upon that empty page.
In so doing, broadcast journalists were given their first standards. And…Murrow set the bar high.
From his reporting we see he was incapable of pretense or pretending, incapable of turning a blind eye or keeping his mouth shut. This was particularly so as he tenaciously fought to educate the American people about what was happening in Europe on the eve of World War II. Murrow didn’t rely on press releases or simple, easy answers. Rather, he reported from Berlin and then from countries swept up by the march of Nazism.
Steely resolve, perhaps learned from those nights spent reading to his mother, never failed him in those crucial moments. Nor did his ability to see past the political propaganda and “spin” that always seems to be the last refuge of the bully, the dictator or the scoundrel.
And I am hopeful tonight that there are some future Ed Murrows in the audience…armed with bravery, a nose for the truth and an internal Geiger counter tuned to register malarkey. Believe me, you will need it.
This democracy is and will always be fragile—as it was in the economic crisis of the 1930s and as it was during the Red Scare of the 1950s. Then as now, the Fourth Estate needs laser-sharp visionaries who can see right through double talk and point the way through the darker tunnels of human greed and ignorance.
When Murrow took the leap from the relative safety of radio to the high-wire uncertainty of television, he came armed with his laser-sharp vision.
Now, as during Murrow’s time, we are also walking a high-wire—the rapidly changing world of the internet.
Rapid is all the rage.
With social networking, the bully, the dictator and the scoundrel can now spread propaganda, manipulate with hyperbole or peddle outright lies in the time it takes to snap a finger.
Thankfully, in that same instant, the truth can also go viral, spreading around the world with the same simple snap or keystroke.
Imagine Ed Murrow with a twitter account. Now, imagine Joe McCarthy with one.
That’s the rub. Although “the current gadget”—the internet—makes television seem archaic by comparison, it is still just a gadget.
Does news and information travel faster? Yes.
Has it made information more accessible? Yes, by quantum leaps and bounds.
And bear with me as I use an old TV man’s term here…
Does it empower the “viewer” in ways TV never could? Absolutely.
But, if the gadget is misused…it becomes just a speed hammer without nails. Murrow once said, “The speed of communications is wondrous to behold. It is also true that speed can multiply the distribution of information that we know to be untrue.”
And that is where Murrow stood guard, at the intersection of speed and truth.
Isn’t that where we stand now?
Many have written that Murrow was a master at taking down bullies. I’d argue that he was a master at exposing them—and letting the world watch—as they self-destructed. He used technology as a tool, framing the words and pictures, but, in the final analysis, he let the words and pictures tell their own story.
And that matters.
While much has changed since Murrow’s time, much has remained the same—still, the self-interest of the self-interested demands a response, and still, as Murrow warned then, “A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves.”
But, it’s important to recognize what Murrow had then…that reporters do not have now.
In Murrow’s time, broadcasters in the United States were covered by “The Fairness Doctrine.” It required those with broadcast licenses to present contentious issues in an honest, equal and balanced manner. CBS did not necessarily want to give Joseph McCarthy equal time. It was required. And Murrow didn’t fear that fairness.
Also, I know it is hard to believe—but it’s true—in the golden age of broadcasting—sales people and money changers were not in charge of the news division. In fact, newsrooms were not expected to turn a profit. It was once considered an acceptable loss on the balance sheet.
To keep our FCC license and the public trust, we had to use the public’s airwaves in the public interest. That is no longer the law…and….
Then came the Telecommunications Act of 1996. And the floodgates opened. Anyone—those with political agendas or simple profiteers—could buy a network. And a radio station. And a newspaper.
In fact, they could buy all of them…nationally, or in the same market. Or both.
There are more than ten thousand radio stations in the United States. As a result of this bill—passed overwhelmingly by Congress, with only five “nays” in the Senate (Feingold, McCain, Wellstone, Leahy and Simon) and happily signed by the President—a single company now owns more than ten percent of those stations. Although many of those stations once presented quality news, the founder has been quoted as saying, “We are not in the business of providing news and information, we’re simply in the business of selling our customers products.” Ed Murrow could not work in radio or television today.
Here’s a quote from the man who controls CBS. "From a Viacom standpoint, the election of a Republican administration has stood for many things we believe in, deregulation and so on…” Still quoting now, he added, “A Republican administration is better for media companies than a democratic one."
The owner of another network, one that makes its coin (in part) by hiring pundits who claim Mr. Obama is un-American. The only goal seems to be heating up the debate and the ratings…much like manure heats up soil.
Today, with U.S soldiers killed in conflicts around the world—one network is 49 % owned by one of the Pentagon’s largest contractors.
However, because of technology, there are also new opportunities to blaze new trails, or, perhaps to clear the scrub-brush from an old one. As young reporters walking out into this brave new world, hopefully, Murrow’s compass can help you define your own.
Remember Murrow did not go after McCarthy by using McCarthy’s tactics. This is a mistake often made today. For every politicized news channel, there is an opposing extreme just down the dial. It is tit for tat news—more like ping-pong than journalism. And it divides for the sake of division. And that erodes trust.
Look no further than that Gallup poll released last week—Americans are sick and tired of tit-for tat news.
Honor your audience by not taking part in that 24 hour circus, or recreating that circus in a virtual reality on-line. Trust your audience by appealing—not to their baser inclinations—but to their common humanity.
Journalism is public service. It is not meant to be an affirmation of beliefs already held. It is about creating understanding. In order to do that, you have to experience what your audience has not. That means getting out of the newsroom and the cubicle, prying yourself away from the screen… and getting out into the world.
While you are out there getting your hands dirty and your mind opened try to remember:
News is not about massaging highly paid egos.
Facts do not have a point of view
And it’s not about spinning them
Affirmation news may make us feel good temporarily, but it will not challenge us, or educate us, or empower us.
Dogma is not journalism.
Stopping this pattern—matters.
A good reporter knows how to engage intellectuals and high school dropouts at the same time.
Collect knowledge everywhere you go.
From the streets of revolutions, to the corridors of power, be willing to listen and learn.
Then it will be your chance to tell the people. And it shouldn’t matter to reporters how large or small the venue. If you become good at it, people will notice and be grateful.
And there is more to remember:
Journalism cannot be about making lots of money.
Nor can it allow us to pretend our own house is in order—when clearly it is not.
We cannot let corporate media equate dissent with lack of patriotism.
Thomas Jefferson, who knew a little something about love of country, said that dissent is the highest form of patriotism.
And Murrow, who knew a little something about journalism, said, “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it.”
It might seem daunting when the media and the news seem so obsessed with celebrity and so disinterested in honest dissent. But it is crucial that reporters not get caught up in celebrity.
Isn’t it telling that the only glimpses we have seen of Syrian refugee camps came to us from the entertainment media following Angelina Jolie there!? What courage she has. She did the job reporters used to. If we as reporters cannot fight our way into countries like Syria, perhaps we can hitch a ride with Angelina. There are worse ways to travel.
The point is, get to where you are needed any way you can.
It occurs to me daily that we are hit like a fire-hose with news. Often it’s not a lack of news that’s the problem; it’s the lack of editors to put it into perspective. So, like buck-shot, Americans try and often fail to put chaos into perspective themselves. That creates frustration.
Again, let Murrow be your guide. About Vietnam, he remarked, “Anyone who isn't confused really doesn't understand the situation.” Americans are still fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq has been left in ruins, and still we are confused about why…why we persist in the former and why we ever went into the latter. It was far too late when our leading journalists asked the questions and admitted their own confusion. Confusion should be the mother’s milk of curiosity. Compliance turns reporters into stenographers.
Dr. Martin Luther King once asked me why so many reporters were failing to report on the civil rights movement. He knew that the best way to encourage ambivalence in American is to ignore problems—by simply not mentioning them. What we do not see on our airwaves is as telling today as what we do.
The more other networks ignored the civil rights movement the harder we worked to get it on the evening news each night.
It seems more crucial than ever to know not only American history, but world history. If reporters had explained more thoroughly and frequently that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were historical enemies…perhaps those who marched off to fight the Taliban would have known they would not find them in Baghdad.
It still matters.
Here is another crucial lesson from the early days of television: Don’t let anyone turn you away because you have a face for radio and a voice for newspaper.
Do not worry about tweeting your first impression, being first is not nearly as important as being right.
Over the last eleven years, hundreds of reporters and photojournalists have died trying to gather and report the wars in Afghanistan and later, in Iraq. Who is celebrating their bravery? Remember, this is no time for cowards. Daniel Pearl comes to mind.
Now, with the growing dominance of the internet and the rise of viral video, the tweet and the Facebook profile, it is time for the next wave of Murrows to set a new standard. We, as he did, have a blank page on which to write.
I’m guessing most of you have all the tools you will need right in your hand to become the next Murrow. You’ve likely got a cell phone with a video recorder that puts to shame the clumsy cameras of Murrow’s day.
The United States military is deployed in 150 countries around the world, most do not have reporters there and they are needed. You don’t need an entourage of specialists to accompany you. You have the world, quite literally, in the palm of your hand.
One internet-savvy reporter—Dahr Jamail—wrote a book entitled The Will to Resist. In it, an American soldier admits that when reporters were around in the beginning of the Iraqi war, soldiers acted with more honor. When reporters left, soldiers acted in ways they regret.
I’ve reported on the ground from almost thirty armed conflicts. There is no other way to know for sure what is true unless you are there. Otherwise the news is much like the childhood game of telephone. Remember that game? The initial sentence might start out being “if you snooze you lose.” But by the end of the game after many have reported the sentence third and fourth hand to one another…it becomes so innocuous it may come out sounding something like, “take off your shoes!”
Like the childhood game of Telephone—this “he said/she said” play-by-play can lead to serious misunderstandings.
Winston Churchill said, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing - after they've tried everything else.”
The American people may get lost for a time, but, as Churchill knew, they always come around.
Be bold, be rock solid, be articulate, and have courage.
Quoting Murrow once again:
“To be persuasive, We must be believable,
To be believable, We must be credible,
To be credible, We must be truthful.”