The New Yorker this week has a great piece called “The Murrow Doctrine” on Edward R. Murrow and government oversight over television broadcasting. The writer Nicholas Lemann contends that the kind of investigative journalism pioneered by Murrow in the 40’s and 50’s would not have come about if there had not been strong governmental pressure on television broadcasters to offer programming in the public interest. Lemann concludes that the federal government is the only stick big enough to force the television broadcasters to do more than simply entertain, but actual elucidate and inform:
The better way to insure good results, in any realm of society, is to set up a structure that encourages them; we can’t 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 its 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 [“Good Night and Good Luck”], 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 a 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.
Interesting perspective. The challenge then is to regain this relationship of government to broadcaster, which is one of regulator and monitor rather than payee and payer.