The times, they are not a'changing

November 17, 2019

On October 15, 1958, in a speech to the Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) convention in Chicago, CBS News correspondent Edward R. Murrow challenged the broadcast industry to live up to its potential and responsibilities. The speech is often remembered for these words:

 

“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’s nothing but wires and lights in a box….”

 

In the following quotation, I have substituted “the internet” for “television” and made slight adjustments to account for modern time.

 

Murrow said, “It is my desire, if not my duty, to try to talk to you journeymen with some candor about what is happening to the internet. I have no technical advice or counsel to offer those of you who labor in this vineyard that produces words and pictures. You will forgive me for not telling you that 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 that the fact that your voice is amplified to the degree where it reaches from one end of the world to the other does not confer upon you greater wisdom or understanding than you possessed when your voice reached only from one end of the bar to the other. All of these things you know.

 

“And if there are any historians about fifty (2008) 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 posts presented in that intellectual ghetto in the early mornings. But during the daily peak viewing periods, the internet in the main insulates us from the realities of the world in which we live.

 

… It may be that the present system, with no modifications and no experiments, can survive … 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 the internet in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse and insulate us, then the internet and those who finance it, those who look at it and those who work at it, may see a totally different picture too late.

 

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 screen is flickering now and we will soon see that the whole struggle is lost.

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