There comes a time when you’re working on a new play, when the ideas just start appearing and your main job is not to think things up so much as it is to sit on the bank of the stream and catch the big fish as they go swimming by you.
This has been a few days like that. It started Sunday afternoon when Barbara and I were watching George Clooney’s excellent Good Night and Good Luck. I hadn’t seen the film in some time and watching it again, well equipped following a month of fresh research on the subject, I was greatly impressed by the film’s subtle construction, it’s effortless sense of detail, and the brilliant use of Murrow’s speech in October of 1958 when he went before a meeting of radio and television news directors in Chicago and said in conclusion that “If there are any historians … a hundred years from now and there should be preserved the kinescopes for one week of all three networks, they will find recorded, in black and white or color, evidence of decadence, escapism and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live. … If we go on as we are then history will take its revenge and retribution will [catch] up with us.”
The quote and the film’s overall warning seem just as timely today as they were when it was released in 2005. The NY Times in its review then called it “a passionate, thoughtful essay on power, truth-telling and responsibility. But has the film endured in the general public consciousness? As we watched, Barbara’s nurse came in to say hello. Like everyone else we have met at Sloan Kettering she is bright, thoughtful and aware. “What are you watching?” We told her. “I never heard of it.”
Which brings me to my second trapped quote of the day. It’s from an ad in the sports section of today’s St. louis Post Dispatch. “Our republic and its press will rise or fall together. Joseph Pulitzer.” This is followed by the plea “Stay informed. Be aware.”
In his book The Powers That Be, David Halberstam had this to say about William S Paley, the man who founded CBS and was first Ed Murrow’s greatest champion before turning on him:
“He had a better idea than anyone else in the country of what would play and what would not play to the largest possible audience. He was totally without sentiment: he knew what was good and would sell, what was bad and would sell, and what was good and would not sell, and he never confused one with another.
If he chose to limit the amount of true excellence that he broadcast on his network, it was not from failing to recognize it, it was rather a shrewd calculation of the levels and the limits of what the traffic would bear at a given time. It was skill at rationing the number of tasteful things that could be done, enough to sustain the network’s carefully orchestrated reputation for excellence while not so much as to affect the bottom line. He was thus able, at moments when the network needed prestige rather than money, to put on a quality program and prove once again that CBS was different, better, nobler than the other networks.”
As time went on and CBS got bigger and made more money. It needed to keep getting bigger and bigger to maximize its audience, keep its growing number of affiliates pleased and Wall Street satisfied with its profits on their investment in the company. Murrow had outgrown his usefulness, his programs were too controversial, too much of a headache for the network and, The $64,000 Dollar Question, the quiz show which replaced See It Now,much cheaper to produce. Murrow found himself being brushed aside and by 1961 he was gone from CBS.
In a final attempt to demonstrate his was still the “Tiffany” TV news network.” Paley persuaded the young Bill Moyers to leave PBS and come to work for him.
Now one more from Halberstam: “
Moyers was uneasy about making the switch to so large a network, but he was seduced not just by the money but by the chance to address so large an audience from so powerful a platform. He soon himself working with highly professional people, but it was also clear that no one very high up cared much about what they did. Moyers found himself far more frustrated at CBS than he had been at PBS. Bill Paley, hearing of Moyers’ discontent, asked him what would make him happy. “A regular prime-time show,” said Moyers, On a regular schedule and a set hour.”
“The man who answered was the real Bill Paley, a man shorn of his speeches and his public relations division. “I’m sorry, Bill,” the Chairman said. “I can’t do it anymore. The minute is worth too much now.”
CBS Reports the news program that replaced Murrow’s See It Now went off the air as a regularly scheduled show in 1971. With its demise CBS prime time public affairs programming came to an end, tv for the “largest possible audience” that Paley programmed for became a whole lot dumber and the network was well on the road to losing its sense of corporate responsibility to anything other than the bottom line with a maximum return to shareholders.
I just read this to Barbara and she suggested I add the following line: As I’m working out my thoughts about the ideas for theMurrow/CBS play I’m sharing then with you in real time. Thanks for coming along.
I just got off the phone with BMW. She’s just finished up walking a mile in the corridors of the 12th floor.
And that’s what’s on my mind today.