The right to be wrong: Murrow and 'This I Believe'

November 8, 2018 01:30

“The speed of modern communication has largely turned conversation into assertion...with people... overrun and smothered, trampled down by the newest event before they can gain perspective on the one that just passed by.”

 
This reads like something from the editorial page of today's New York Times or Washington Post but it was written more than 60 years ago. And by whom? Who else – Edward R. Murrow. The quote is NOT from the famous “wires and lights in a box” speech to the then RTNDA, now RTDNA.
 
The “wires and lights” speech of October 15, 1958 is worth a read.
 
But this is not another article on that famous speech. Nor is it about his equally famous showdown with “the junior senator from Wisconsin” although one of the points made in his introduction to that segment really applies to today:  
 

'The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.'

 
Remember the point he was making? McCarthy didn't create the fear – “he merely exploited it, and rather successfully.”  McCarthy's response was a series of “false claims,” reminiscent of many we hear today, to which Murrow responded with simple statements of facts. Murrow and his show co-creator, CBS President Fred W. Friendly, ran the McCarthy piece in April of 1954. In December of 1954 the Senate censured McCarthy on a 67-22 vote.
 
That segment of See It Now is also well worth watching, and Murrow's response is well worth reading.
 
See It Now ran for seven years from 1951 to 1958. At the same time, from 1951 to 1954, Murrow hosted another television series – This I Believe. And this is what this article is about. His co-creator on the series was Ward Wheelock, a Philadelphia advertising executive. Never heard of him? Neither had I. Later I will introduce you to a few more people you probably never heard of.
 
The premise of This I Believe was both simple and sweet, ground-breaking and gut-wrenching: “present the personal philosophies of thoughtful men and women in all walks of life... who need have nothing more in common than integrity, a real honesty.” So it was, with “bankers, butchers, painters, social workers,” and, I would add, journalists. The segments were only five minutes long and were provided free to radio stations with a print version offered to a partnering newspaper in the city. In fact, Murrow and Wheelock specifically rejected one syndicator's effort to make it a paid segment.
 
At its peak the show was on 196 radio stations in America reaching more than 39 million people. To provide a little perspective, the population of the United States at the time was 158 million. So, it reached one out of every four Americans, and it didn't just “reach” them, it touched them. Still, no money.   
 
In the broadcast introduction to the series, Murrow made many statements that echo what he said to RTDNA and in his introduction of the McCarthy segment. More critically, he said many things that seem almost prescient of today.  
 
People had traded in their “beliefs for bitterness and cynicism, or for a heavy package of despair.” He called the time “an age of confusion” with “an enveloping cloud of fear” that he likened to “the wet choking intimacy of a London fog.”  There was a physical fear that made you want to “burrow into the ground in the bottom of a Montana valley like prairie dogs, to try to escape,” a mental fear which caused some people to see “witches in a neighbor’s yard and stampedes (them) to burn down this house,” and then the fear of doubt which makes it hard for some people to “distinguish black from white, good from evil, right from wrong.”
 
Again, a little perspective: In 1951 World War II had only ended six years before; the Senate had only just then ratified the peace treaty; America was in another war in Korea fighting the North Korean and Chinese forces; the Atomic bomb which had destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki was being tested in the west with school children practicing hiding under their desks in case of an attack.  
 
This I Believe was Murrow's attempt to counter that fear. In 1952 he and Wheelock published the book with statements from 100 people. This tattered pile of pulpitude is my copy. Yes, I do need to get a better copy, but somehow the war-torn look of this book seems appropriate.
 
 
 
 
It was in the introduction to the actual book version that I found some of Murrow's most telling comments about the state of the world at the time, and possibly the state of the world now, as well as some of his most inspirational thoughts about our profession.
 
The headline on this article is part of one of his introductory comments. He was worried that “the right of dissent, the right to be wrong, may be swamped because the instruments of communication are too closely held.” It is almost funny that Murrow was worried about media consolidation in 1952, but that really wasn't the main point of his argument. He was warning that we members of the “mass media” (yes, he actually used that phrase) are becoming too removed from our audience. In his usual eloquent style, he says the stories we produce are “rather like putting letters in a rusty mail box and never being sure that anyone comes to collect them.”  Despite that, he reminds us, “the job of a reporter who can never see the eyes of his listeners is to provide information upon which opinion and belief can be based.”
 
That “right to be wrong” sentiment is echoed by his advertising partner Wheelock who argued in his introduction that “the only wrong is in not letting your beliefs grow as you grow.” Elmer Davis, a “commentator” for the American Broadcasting Company which had only recently expanded into television echoed Murrow's words even more closely, writing, “you can not think right without thinking wrong.” Clearly the point they, and several other journalists in the book, are making is that different opinions should be encouraged. Murrow carries it a step further arguing that people should defend what they believe in while respecting those who disagree with them because it is “civilized social intercourse.”
 
These sentiments are summed up in the opening of RTDNA’s Code of Ethics, outlining the purpose of the profession: “Journalism empowers viewers, listeners and readers to make more informed decisions for themselves; it does not tell people what to believe or how to feel.” It can be a window into the oft-feared “other,” laying out a shared set of facts, reminding us of our shared humanity and creating a space to learn, to disagree, to grow. It can, to cite Murrow’s “wires and lights” speech again, teach, illuminate and inspire.
 
14 contributors out of 100 people in This I Believe are journalists. I confess that I only knew two of them. Yet these are our forbearers. Each one of them provides their own answer to this – Murrow's challenge or admonition:
 

“Any belief worthy of an individual must be hammered out by that individual on the anvil of experience and cannot be packaged and delivered by print, radio or television.”

 
Later this month, we will look at some of the comments the 14 journalists in the book made. Many are memorable. That's to be expected. But there's a tone in some of them that reflects the time and which also may surprise you.
 

 


 
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