Why Murrow Can’t Rest in Peace

How American journalism and its consumers are bringing out the worst in each other.

By Tim Connor

Although it may sound like something out of Animal House, one of things I’m actually proud of is being publicly denounced, in my last weeks at Washington State University, by a member of the school’s board of regents. My primary sin was to figure out how to use the state’s then-new public records law to expose a hidden account in the men’s athletic department budget and publish the information in the Daily Evergreen. It created a heckuva stir and earned me a very personal and spittle-flying tirade from Wazzu’s then athletic director, Sam Jankovich, who then tried to get me fired from the student paper.

On the bright side, it also helped earn me a gig to speak at the Edward R. Murrow banquet that year and a personal invitation to dine and visit with Janet Murrow, the widow of famed CBS newsman and Wazzu-alum who, you should figure, is one of my heroes.

Mrs. Murrow was a delight. But I’m here to say her husband would be ashamed for us were he alive today because we have, as a profession, fulfilled his worst fears. As journalists we’ve been played too easily and too successfully for fools. We’ve not only been complicit in conveying crucially bad information (e.g. Judith Miller and Iraqi WMD) to readers and viewers. We’ve helped ignite a bizarre, gas-lit world of phantoms and distractions that, at best, only haphazardly illuminates the issues and problems that are most important for our society (our readers and citizens) to understand and solve.

There is more than one ingredient to the disintegration of public communication and discourse and certainly not all of it is the fault of reporters and their editors. To some extent the media is merely reflecting our nutty culture and dysfunctional politics. Indeed, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are now giving us a golden age of satire in which the observably psychotic straight man is broadcast journalism itself. Colbert’s character is a living parody of one of era’s most popular broadcaster’s, Bill O’Reilly, who annually tells his viewers that there’s a nefarious war against Christmas. Stewart’s nightly skewering of how television journalism brings us the world barely requires a punch line. Just roll the tape.Edward R. Murrow in his prime.

Murrow’s epic takedown of the unscrupulous, red-baiting Senator Joe McCarthy in March of 1953 is one of the most courageous confrontations in American history. (It is the subject of the 2005 motion picture “Good Night and Good Luck” starring David Strathairn as Murrow and George Clooney as his producer, Fred Friendly.) But many forget that Murrow also asked his audience to take stock of its own complicity in the corruption of American principles that enabled McCarthy’s success. It was why he quoted Shakespeare at the end of the half hour show:

“The actions of the Junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn’t create this situation of fear, he merely exploited it; and rather successfully. Cassius was right, ‘the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.’ Good night and good luck.”

The fears that McCarthy was exploiting, then, were that America was under attack from within by communists. In our era? Well, take your pick. Let’s see, there was the completely bogus notion that the Obama Administration would ban the sale of firearms that led to a dramatic nation-wide surge in gun sales last year.  Or, my personal favorite, the extraordinary fraction of Americans (nearly 7 in 10) who, for two years following 9/11/01 (and despite all evidence to the contrary), still believed the Bush/Cheney snake oil that Saddam Hussein was involved in planning or executing the attacks.

The issue that tracks the closest to McCarthy’s red scare is our post 9/11 fixation with terrorism, to the point that nearly half of Americans surveyed say that they condone torture as a means to combat it.

Over the past two weeks, it seems we can’t possibly get enough out of the story of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the troubled Nigerian young man who tried to blow up an airliner arriving in Detroit Christmas day. Abdulmutallab didn’t succeed in blowing up an airliner with nearly 300 people aboard because he couldn’t successfully ignite the explosives stitched into his underwear. Not to worry, Al Qaeda’s best ally in its efforts to disrupt, terrify, and ultimately bankrupt America is, well, America, in all our fright-night, house of mirrors glory. Abdulmutallab couldn’t ignite his underwear, but we could oblige Al Qaeda, anyway, by lighting our collective hair on fire.

Murrow came to prominence during the London blitz of World War II where the people of Great Britain were subject to far greater losses (more than 43,000 killed),  and personal risk than we’ve experienced, even if you include the spectacular 9/11 attacks. Murrow’s broadcasts from London were noteworthy in part because he captured the admirable commitment of the British people to resist Hitler’s efforts to terrorize them.

In contrast, the American response to 9/11 and Al Qaeda has been so distorted by our media-amped hysteria that it evokes analogy to auto-immune disease and similar afflictions in which severe illness or death is caused not by the external agent itself but the body’s acute or chronic over-reaction to the insult (i.e. an allergen triggering an asthma attack). Just in economic terms, think of how it cost Al Qaeda only about $500,000 to mount the 9/11 attacks.  Now consider that we’ve spent close to a trillion dollars, already, just to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mrs. Murrow was a delight. But I’m here to say her husband would be ashamed for us were he alive today because we have, as a profession, fulfilled his worst fears. As journalists we’ve been played too easily and too successfully for fools.

In addition to our morality and commitment to civil liberties, what is also being tested here is our capacity, as a democracy, to get a reasonable grip on what our real problems and challenges are, prioritize them, and make the changes we have to make in order to get through what is, without question, one of our most difficult periods.

Frankly, our biggest threats come from within. They’re not from Afghanistan, or Iran, or the tribal areas of Pakistan. They’re from Wall Street and K Street, where increasingly the very nature of our republic is to foster and accommodate corporate power at the expense of small businesses and ordinary people. And largely it’s happening because our media have far less interest in this story than they have in all the details associated with Abdulmutallab’s unexploded underpants.

A year ago last September the western world narrowly averted a wholesale collapse of its economic system because of government intervention to prop up mega-banks and the insurance giant AIG. If we were lucky that this was only a near disaster, we’re still left with double digit unemployment (the current recession has already resulted in the loss of 7.6 million jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics), and major unanswered questions about why the people and institutions whose greed and carelessness got us into this mess have not only reaped the benefit of the public bailouts, but seem poised to thwart any meaningful reforms in the way they’re allowed to do business.

As former International Monetary Fund chief economist Simon Johnson and others continue to point out, this is a remarkable moment because, more than a year after the bubble burst, we’re actually more vulnerable to the same kind of collapse that we saw 15 months ago. Why? Because there is neither the political will nor leadership to fix the “too big to fail” syndrome. This is the dangerously unaltered environment in which large institutions like Citibank can expect to profit when they win their under-secured bets in Wall Street’s casinos, but be bailed out by taxpayers if they lose.

This is a hugely important story. But it just isn’t sinking in. In a year where a “tea party” movement focuses public anger on things like long-overdue health insurance reform, the plutocrats in the big banks skate by without contrition, let alone remorse.

This is how Frank Rich put it in his January 10th New York Times column, “The Other Plot to Wreck America”:  “Americans must be told the full story of how Wall Street gamed and inflated the housing bubble, made out like bandits, and then left millions of households in ruin. Without that reckoning, there will be no public clamor for serious reform of a financial system that was as cunningly breached as airline security at the Amsterdam airport.”

Murrow’s epic takedown of the unscrupulous, red-baiting Senator Joe McCarthy in March of 1953 is one of the most courageous confrontations in American history. But many forget that Murrow also asked his audience to take stock of its own complicity in the corruption of American principles that enabled McCarthy’s success.

For those who need a concrete example of how broken the feedback loop in our media/civic/political system is, consider the fate of U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan. Dorgan, a Democrat from North Dakota, was a lone but clear voice on Capitol Hill in warning his own party that America would live to regret decisions to not regulate derivatives and to do away with the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act’s provisions that barred bank holding companies from owning other financial institutions. You’d want to think that any sane American would have to conclude that Dorgan took an informed, principled and politically unpopular stand a decade ago because he correctly saw the handwriting on the wall and knew it would spell disaster for his country. Right?

Well, in case you missed it, last week Byron Dorgan announced he won’t seek re-election this year. While he explained, publicly, that he wanted to do other things, it’s also the case, according to USA Today, that a December opinion poll showed him trailing his likely Republican challenger by more than twenty percentage points.

I can’t prove it, but my guess is that many more people know about Glenn Beck than are even aware of Byron Dorgan’s existence, let alone his courageous opposition to financial system de-regulation.

“It’s official,” the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank wrote a week ago Sunday. “Americans admire Glenn Beck more than they admire the Pope.”

Milbank was referring to the results of a recent Gallop poll that found Beck more widely admired than even Billy Graham or Bill Gates. Milbank is one of the nation’s more talented young reporters. In his column, he made no effort to disguise his contempt for Beck and “his nightly diet of falsehoods and conspiracies” on his Fox News show. And, yet, it’s a very profitable formula that has “propelled his popularity past even Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity.”

“His method is simple,” Milbank wrote. “He goes places where others are forbidden by conscience.”

This is the strange and pathetic new ground that journalism is covering these days. Milbank noted that Time Magazine recently put Beck on its cover with the question: “Is Glenn Beck Bad for America?”

“A better question might be: ‘Is Glenn Beck America?’”

If the answer is yes, then the whole relationship between American journalists and American citizens and voters is, at best, coming unhinged. Glenn Beck is not going to guide us toward solving our problems. He’s only going to guide us over a cliff.

Yes, Edward R. Murrow would be mortified. Though probably not surprised.

His last public speech, as a journalist, came 49 years ago this week. It was only a few months after he and his producer, Fred Friendly, stitched together one last classic exposé–”Harvest of Shame”–about the miserable working conditions that migrant farm workers had to endure to pick the food for American tables. On January 12th, 1961, he appeared before a luncheon of broadcast news executives in New York and basically lit into them.

There can be no real democracy, he told them, “unless the people understand the basic political, social and economic issues upon which their welfare depends.”

“If a deceived or confused public is betrayed into creating or allowing to be created an America in which it loses faith, democracy will not survive.”

–CFJ (The author’s opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Justice.)