Monday, January 23, 2006
TV: Did the end of regulation cause the demise of quality news?
posted: January 21st, 2006 @ 8:26AM
MediaCitizen by Timothy Karr
Lemann: Regulation Fostered Murrow-Style Journalism
Nicholas Lemann, Dean of Columbia.s School of Journalism, has written a
6,000 worder to lede off the January 23-30 issue of the New Yorker.
In .The Murrow Doctrine: Why the Life and Times of the Broadcast Pioneer
Still Matter,. Lehmann praises Edward R. Murrow.s impassioned work while
criticizing the present-day nostalgia for a bygone era of harder-hitting
It's pole position in one of the nation's most respected magazines is
impossible to ignore. Please take note of the underlying theme of Lemann's
article, for it touches on a point that many are reluctant to admit: a
good regulatory structure fostered the type of aggressive journalism that
we now mourn.
Lemann states that the corporate dismantling of this structure -- and not
the dearth of modern-day Murrows -- has mired broadcast journalism in a
sinkhole of infotainment, sensationalism and softball pitching.
It's difficult for many to come to terms with this as it seems that
meaningful government oversight is anathema to our understanding of
independent, hard-hitting journalism.
Lemann makes a good case against this. The story is not available online
but I have typed in Lemann's conclusion below. Coming from one of the most
respected figures in contemporary journalism, it should not go un-noted
(my emphasis and links added):
It shouldn.t be surprising that, half a century later, the standard answer
among journalists to the problems Murrow saw in broadcasting is, in
effect, .Bring back Murrow!. Nostalgia has even set in about the old press
barons, whom journalists took pleasure in detesting back in Murrow.s day .
better to have a Paley or a Luce, or even a William Randolph Hearst or a
Roy Howard, calling the shots than hedge fund managers. The formula is a
kind of romantic dream: larger-than-life heroes backed by public-spirited
owners whose prime consideration is not profit.
The better way to ensure good results in any realm of society, is to set
up a structure that encourages them; we cant rely on heroes coming along
to rescue journalism. The structure that encouraged Murrow, uncomfortable
as it may be to admit, was federal regulation of broadcasting. CBS, in
Murrow.s heyday, felt that its prosperity, even in survival, depended on
demonstrating to Washington its deep commitment to public affairs. The
price of not doing so could be regulation, breakup, the loss of a part of
the spectrum, or license revocation. Those dire possibilities would cause
a corporation to err on the side of too much .See It Now. and CBS
Reports.. In parts of the speech which aren.t in the movie, Murrow made it
clear that the main pressure on broadcasting to do what he considered the
right thing came from the F.C.C. The idea that, in taking on McCarthy,
Murrow was .standing up to government. greatly oversimplifies the issue.
He was able to stand up to Senate committee chairman because a federal
regulatory agency had pushed CBS and other broadcasters to organize
themselves so that Murrow.s doing so was possible.
It isn.t possible anymore . not because timid people have risen to power
in journalism but because the government, in steady increments over the
past generation, has deregulated broadcasting. The Fairness Doctrine no
longer exists. Regulation, license revocation or reallocation of the
spectrum are no longer meaningful possibilities. The advent of cable
television brought a new round of debates over government mandated public
affairs programming. With the result that private companies were granted
valuable monopoly franchises in local markets; in return, they were
required only to provide channels for public affairs, not to create
programming. That.s why cable is home to super-low-cost varieties of
broadcast news, such as C-SPAN, local public access channel, and national
cable-news shout-fests, rather than to reincarnations of the elaborately
reported Murrow shows from the fifties. The rise of public broadcasting
has freed the networks to be even more commercial.
On network television no news star would openly disavow Murrow.s legacy.
The standard today is to have smart, competent, physically magnetic people
who do straight news gravely and celebrity interviews emphatically, and
who occasionally, strategically, display moral passion and then retreat,
as Anderson Cooper, of CNN, did during Hurricane Katrina. Everyone
suspects them of being lightweights when they first ascend, and then, when
they retire, wonders if we.ll ever see their like again. If being in the
Murrow mold entails occasionally editorializing on the air, and letting it
be known that you aren.t getting along very well with your superiors,
there are only a few Murrow legatees . Ted Koppel and Bill Moyers come to
mind, and they.ve left network television.
News that makes money is alive and well; the incentive to present news
that doesn.t, like all of Murrow.s great work, is gone. It is difficult
for journalists to grapple with the idea that pressure . from government
officials! . could have been responsible for the creation of the superior
and memorable journalism whose passing we all mourn. But look what has
happened since it went away.
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