Wires and Lights in a Box: Murrow on Social Media

Edward R Murrow gave a speech in 1958 to the Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) convention in Chicago on how commercial radio and television were becoming base, anti-intellectual and vulgar. Known as his “wires and lights in a box” speech, it marks a moment in time where an emerging commercialised communications technology (television) was being misused by opportunists. Murrow feared reason and thought were being relegated to the base, emotion-driven elements of humanity.

There is always a period of adaptation when new communications technologies interrupt the way societies and institutions are structured. In the 1930s, opportunists manipulated cinema and radio before the public could be aware of the dangers of such propaganda. I have said many times with social media that the cultists and gurus will lose their influence once we can socially adapt and understand how these charlatans and zealots are manipulating our decision-making structures. The question is how much damage they will inflict before we adapt.

Murrow’s conclusions were encouraging: This communications technology can and must be a force for good. It is reassuring to think that some day we will mature enough to reject the emotional stories and rhetoric of the social media gurus and activists zealots.

Murrow was writing this at a time when TV networks were attacking print media (during the age of McCarthyism and the Cold War) and parallels could be drawn with Trump’s fake news attacks on the mainstream media. A personal musing: this speech had been sitting on my computer for some time prior to when Mark Zuckerberg had been called in to do a perp walk in Washington. Murrow’s pronouncements are even more relevant after the Cambridge Analytica affair.

For historical curiosity, I present the main parts of Murrow’s speech below but I have merely changed the words “radio and television” with “social media” (as well as updating some of the older expressions). My editing is in red – the rest is Murrow’s own words. Where I have cut out text, mostly commentary on the news of the day or the structure of TV marketing, I have provided a ““.

This just might do nobody any good. At the end of this discourse a few people may accuse this blogger 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 social media tribes 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 social media 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.

You should also know at the outset that, in the manner of witnesses before Congressional committees, I appear here voluntarily-by invitation-that I am an employee of the Columbia Broadcasting System, that I am neither an officer nor any longer a director of that corporation and that these remarks are strictly of a “do-it-yourself” nature. If what I have to say is responsible, then I alone am responsible for the saying of it. Seeking neither approbation from my employers, nor new sponsors, nor acclaim from the critics of social media, I cannot very well be disappointed. Believing that potentially the commercial system of broadcasting as practiced in this country is the best and freest yet devised, I have decided to express my concern about what I believe to be happening to social media. These instruments have been good to me beyond my due. There exists in mind no reasonable grounds for any kind of personal complaint. I have no feud, either with my employers, any sponsors, or with the professional critics of social media. But I am seized with an abiding fear regarding what these instruments are doing to our society, our culture and our heritage.

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 timelines and feeds for one week of all social 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. 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, social media tribalism 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.

Recently, social media gurus and tribal spokesmen have been disposed to complain that the professional critics of social media have been rather beastly. There have been ill-disguised hints that somehow competition for the advertising dollar has caused the critics in print to gang up on social media. This reporter has no desire to defend the critics. They have space in which to do that on their own behalf. But it remains a fact that the newspapers and magazines are the only instruments of mass communication which remain free from sustained and regular critical comment. I would suggest that if the gurus and tribal spokesmen are so anguished about what appears in print, then let them come forth and engage in a little sustained and regular comment regarding newspapers and magazines. It is an ancient and sad fact that most people who claim “fake news”, have an exaggerated regard for what appears in print. And there have been cases where executives have refused to make even private comment on a program for which they are responsible until they had read the reviews in print. This is hardly an exhibition of confidence in their own judgment.

The oldest excuse of the networks for their timidity is their youth. Their spokesmen say, “We are young. We have not developed the traditions. nor acquired the experience of the older media.” If they but knew it, they are building those traditions and creating those precedents every day. Each time they yield to a voice from Washington or any political pressure, each time they eliminate something that might offend some section of the community, they are creating their own body of precedent and tradition, and it will continue to pursue them. They are, in fact, not content to be half safe.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than by the fact that the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission publicly prods broadcasters to engage in their legal right to editorialize. Of course, to undertake an editorial policy; overt, clearly labeled, and obviously unsponsored; requires a station or a network to be responsible. Most social networks today probably do not have the manpower to assume this responsibility, but the manpower could be recruited. Editorials, of course, would not be profitable. If they had a cutting edge, they might even offend. It is much easier, much less troublesome, to use this money-making machine of social media merely as a conduit through which to channel anything that will be paid for that is not libelous, obscene or defamatory. In that way one has the illusion of power without responsibility.

If they had a cutting edge, they might even offend. It is much easier, much less troublesome, to use this money-making machine of social media merely as a conduit through which to channel anything that will be paid for that is not libelous, obscene or defamatory. In that way one has the illusion of power without responsibility.

My memory — and I have not yet reached the point where my memories fascinate me — but my memory also goes back to the time when the fear of a slight reduction in business did not result in an immediate cutback in bodies in the news and public affairs department, at a time when network profits had just reached an all-time high. We would all agree, I think, that whether on a station or a network, the stapling machine is a very poor substitute for a newsroom typewriter, and somebody to beat it properly.

One of the basic troubles with social media is that these instruments have grown up as an incompatible combination of show business, advertising and news. Each of the three is a rather bizarre and, at times, 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 corporate 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.

Sometimes there is a clash between the public interest and the corporate interest. A tweet or a clip from a proper quarter in Washington is treated rather more seriously than a communication from an irate but not politically potent viewer. It is tempting enough to give away a little air time for frequently irresponsible and unwarranted utterances in an effort to temper the wind of political criticism. But this could well be the subject of a separate and even lengthier and drearier dissertation.

Upon occasion, economics and editorial judgment are in conflict. And there is no law which says that dollars will be defeated by duty. Not so long ago the President of the United States delivered a tweet to the nation. He was discoursing on the possibility or the probability of war between this nation and Communist North Korea. It would seem to have been a reasonably compelling subject, with a degree of urgency attached. Two networks, CBS and NBC, delayed that broadcast for an hour and fifteen minutes. If this decision was dictated by anything other than financial reasons, the networks didn’t deign to explain those reasons. That hour-and-fifteen-minute delay, by the way, is a little more than twice the time required for an ICBM to travel from the Soviet Union to major targets in the United States. It is difficult to believe that this decision was made by men who love, respect and understand news.

I have been dealing largely with the deficit side of the ledger, and the items could be expanded. But I have said, and I believe, that potentially we have in this country a free enterprise system of social media which is superior to any other. But to achieve its promise, it must be both free and enterprising. There is no suggestion here that networks or individual stations should operate as philanthropies. But I can find nothing in the Bill of Rights or in the Communications Act which says that they must increase their net profits each year, lest the republic collapse.

I am frightened by the imbalance, the constant striving to reach the largest possible audience for everything; by the absence of a sustained study of the state of the nation. Heywood Broun once said, “No body politic is healthy until it begins to itch.” I would like social media to produce some itching pills rather than this endless outpouring of tranquilizers. It can be done. Maybe it won’t be, but it could. But let us not shoot the wrong piano player. Do not be deluded into believing that the titular heads of the tribes control what appears on their pages. They all have better taste. All are responsible to stockholders, and in my experience all are honorable men. But they must post what they can sell in the public market.

And this brings us to the nub of the question. In one sense it rather revolves around the phrase heard frequently along Madison Avenue: “The Corporate Image.” I am not precisely sure what this phrase means, but I would imagine that it reflects a desire on the part of the corporations who pay the advertising bills to have a public image, or believe that they are not merely bodies with no souls, panting in pursuit of elusive dollars. They would like us to believe that they can distinguish between the public good and the private or corporate gain. So the question is this: Are the big corporations who pay the freight for social media campaigns to use that time exclusively for the sale of goods and services? Is it in their own interest and that of the stockholders so to do? …

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 (or funny cat pictures). They want something better, and on occasion some of them have demonstrated it. But most of the men whose legal and moral responsibility it is to spend the stockholders’ money for advertising are, in fact, removed from the realities of the mass media by five, six, or a dozen contraceptive layers of vice-presidents, public relations counsel and advertising agencies. Their business is to sell goods, and the competition is pretty tough.

But this nation is now in competition with malignant forces of evil who are using every instrument at their command to empty the minds of their subjects and fill those minds with slogans, determination and faith in the future. If we go on as we are, we are protecting the mind of the American public from any real contact with the menacing world that squeezes in upon us. We are engaged in a great experiment to discover whether a free public opinion can devise and direct methods of managing the affairs of the nation. We may fail. But in terms of information, we are handicapping ourselves needlessly.

It may be that this present system, with no modifications and no experiments, can survive. Perhaps the money-making machine has some kind of built-in perpetual motion, but I do not think so. To a very considerable extent, the media of mass communications in a given country reflects the political, economic and social climate in which it grows and flourishes. That is the reason our system differs from the British and the French, and also from the Russian and the Chinese. We are currently wealthy, fat, comfortable and complacent. We have currently a built-in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information. And our mass media reflect this. But unless we get up off our fat surpluses and recognize that social media in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse and insulate us, then social media and those who finance it, those who look at it and those who work at it, may see a totally different picture too late.

We are currently wealthy, fat, comfortable and complacent. We have currently a built-in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information. And our mass media reflect this. But unless we get up off our fat surpluses and recognize that social media in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse and insulate us, then social media 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 began by saying that our history will be what we make it. If we go on as we are, then history will take its revenge, and retribution will not limp in catching up with us.

We are to a large extent an imitative society. If one or two or three corporations would undertake to devote just a small fraction of their advertising appropriation along the lines that I have suggested, the procedure might well grow by contagion; the economic burden would be bearable, and there might ensue a most exciting adventure–exposure to ideas and the bringing of reality into the homes of the nation.

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 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 social media could be useful.

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 social media 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 sheath.” The trouble with social media is that it is rusting in the sheath during a battle for survival. Thank you for your patience.

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