Saturday, January 21, 2006

Lemann: Regulation Fostered Murrow's Journalism

Dean Nicholas
Nicholas Lemann, Dean of Columbia’s School of Journalism, has written a 6,000 worder to lede off the January 23-30 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 broadcast journalism.

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 his 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.