“This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference.” – Edward R. Murrow, discussing the future of television
I love learning, and there’s not much that doesn’t interest me.
I suppose that’s sort of a requirement for anyone planning to be a journalist for any length of time.
But as a journalist, I’ll also admit a particular interest in learning anything and everything I can about communications.
When I saw this weekend that “Good Night, and Good Luck,” a movie about legendary journalist Edward R. Murrow, was on Hulu, I couldn’t resist watching.
When I heard the above quote, I immediately saw parallels to the Internet and even newspapers.
The debate between entertainment and information is a longstanding one mass media. It has raged in newspapers since the early days of sensationalistic “yellow journalism,” it raged in radio, it raged in television and now it rages in the Internet.
Let’s face it. Entertainment sells.
And like it or not, the United States is a capitalistic society – television stations, radio stations, newspapers and now websites are in business to make money (or at the very least, not lose money).
But mass media such as television, radio, newspapers and the Internet also play a critical role in a democratic republic.
The country’s founders intended its leaders to be accountable to the citizens, but citizens must know what those leaders are doing to hold them accountable.
Mass media, by nature, are the most well-positioned to provide that information to the largest number of people in the shortest amount of time.
The Founding Fathers realized this and put in safety mechanisms so future governments couldn’t arbitrarily strip that ability.
One of the first signs of a government intent on oppressing its citizenship is the blocking of the flow of information.
U.S. mass media do have a responsibility to provide information about what elected leaders are doing in office.
It may not sell. A lot of people might not care, and that’s their right.
Just as it’s their right to decide whether they care.
And they can’t decide that if the information is not presented to them.
The idea that media should only present information of the utmost importance to society as a whole is a noble idea.
But here’s where the waters get murky: you can’t run the presses if you can’t pay the electric bill.
If entertainment sells – which few dispute to be the case – mass media need to offer entertainment to pay the bills. But they also need to offer information – even when it doesn’t pay the bills – to serve society.
It doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition, and in my opinion, the real danger lies in forgetting this fact.