Saturday, October 22, 2005

''Edward R. Murrow: the burden of democracy''

"Democracy is not spontaneous. It requires a deliberate structure. If any part of that structure weakens, democracy shudders.

A new movie deftly deals with the importance of a free and independent press to American democracy. "Good Night, and Good Luck" depicts Edward R. Murrow's reporting that helped check communist-seeking Sen. Joseph McCarthy. George Clooney — who directed, co-wrote and plays CBS producer Fred Friendly — will not get rich from this black-and-white movie. Luckily for us, that was not Clooney's intention.

What audiences should understand while viewing this movie is that democracy is in greater peril today than it was when McCarthy was bringing people before Congress on trumped-up charges of communism. The threat now is not a fear-induced witch hunt, but one of democracy's cornerstones: the press.

Nearly 30 years of media consolidation is beginning to derail 229 years of democracy in America. Consolidation has left news organizations in the hands of public companies beholden to Wall Street, and the public with shallow journalism that does not challenge powerful institutions.

Imagine Murrow — whose name is on the school of communication at Washington State University, where he graduated — trying to probe the White House about the Patriot Act, Guantánamo and Iraq with a string of sound bites in a 30-second segment.

This nation needs a press that will not cower to an angry citizenry or acquiesce to elected officials. Murrow did not, and was not alone. In 1949, Ed Guthman of The Seattle Times wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning series that exonerated a University of Washington professor of being a communist.

Where will that journalism come from today? The large conglomerates that own network news or the chain newspapers? Or will the few independent newspapers and broadcast stations left shoulder the burden of democracy?

A speech Murrow gave 47 years ago at the Radio Television News Directors Association convention sounds prophetic today and now applies to newspapers as well as TV news.

"We are currently wealthy, fat, comfortable and complacent. ... But unless we get up off our fat surpluses and recognize that television in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse and insulate us, then television and those who finance it, those who look at it and those who work at it, may see a totally different picture too late."-from today's editorial in the Seattle Times.

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