'Merely wires and lights in a box'

J. Herbert Altschull

November 01, 1993|By J. Herbert Altschull

DAN Rather drew lots of cheers last month when he chastised himself and TV news directors from around the country for presenting fluff instead of news. We are cowards, he said. "We all should be ashamed."

He was right -- and the news directors listening to his speech knew it. They gave him a ringing round of applause. They gave even more cheers when Walter Cronkite rose later at the same meeting to say the same thing.

The setting was Miami Beach; the occasion was the annual convention of the Radio and Television News Directors Association, and Mr. Rather was commemorating the famous speech the revered Edward R. Murrow had made to the same organization 35 years ago.

This time, the news directors were in a contemplative mood. I was in the audience as they cheered Mr. Rather, as they groaned through sessions illustrating and lamenting the growth of "tabloid TV" and as they stared in awe at demonstrations of the latest in high-tech gear that is threatening to put them out of work.

Mr. Rather didn't ask the news directors to discard their masks of self-preservation or their opportunities for advancement. "I'm not," he said, "asking you for the kind of courage that risks your job, much less your whole career."

Murrow had that kind of courage, Mr. Rather said. He summoned TV journalists to arms in that 1958 speech. They had the opportunity, he told them, to "teach . . . illuminate . . . even inspire," but they could do that "only to the extent that humans are determined to use TV to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box."

Murrow wasn't against profit for networks or individual stations, but he observed pointedly: "I can find nothing in the Bill of Rights or the Communications Act which says they must increase their profits each year, lest the Republic collapse."

Mr. Rather said he doubted that the men and women in Miami Beach were ready to go as far as Murrow in fighting what Murrow had called a "decisive battle against ignorance, intolerance and indifference." So Mr. Rather asked three things of the directors:

First, to "make noise," question or protest anything proposed that was "incompatible with your journalistic concerns."

Second, in any showdown, to choose quality and substance over "sleaze and glitz."

Third, to try harder to get and keep minority news people on the air and in decision-making jobs.

There was a lot more by way of advice, and the best thing about it was that the news directors bought into it. They were tired of being ordered about by executives with eyes on Nielsen ratings and the bottom line and not on journalistic quality. They were often enough embarrassed by the stories they themselves were choosing to air.

I spoke to dozens of news directors and didn't find one who thought he or she ought not to switch the emphasis on local TV shows from crime, violence, sex and gossip about celebrities. That was the heartening part. The less cheery part was that scarcely anyone at the meeting really thought the quality of TV news was going to improve.

So it isn't likely TV news directors are going to make the kind of noise Mr. Rather was talking about. Maybe he won't make that kind of noise, either. Television columnists in newspapers have upbraided him for talking change while continuing to take home a fabulous salary for reporting the usual soft stories.

And yet, he was on the mark in his Miami speech. What is lacking is what Mr. Rather said is lacking: courage, the willingness to take risks. Jobs are precious, and, understandably enough, few TV news people are willing to take the chances that would put their jobs in jeopardy.

Or, as Dan Rather observed: "Just to cover our a----, we give the best slots to gossip and prurience."

He urged news directors to "fight the fear that leads to showbizzification." Some gallant souls, like Ed Murrow, have done so -- and as a result lost their jobs.

The tragedy is that there seems to be no way to change directions. The price isn't right in the television news game. It's too high.

J. Herbert Altschull teaches in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University.

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