One of the hallmarks of true professionals is a willingness to help police the ranks of the profession to which they belong. But such policing is rarely appreciated, either by other members of the profession or by the public that that the profession serves. Witness the reaction to recent "whistle-blowing" in the Roman Catholic church or among those responsible for administering military prisons or detention camps.
In fact, such criticism-particularly when done in public-is often vigorously attacked as more heinous than the original crime that was decried in the criticism. At the least, it is considered to be disloyal, or "fouling one's own nest."
Journalism, to the extent that it is a profession, is not immune to these challenges to self-regulation. Some journalists accept the aphorism that freedom of the press is meaningful only to those who own it, others are willing to consider themselves only as loyal employees, yet others are willing to talk about ethical transgressions in private but not in public.
But, fortunately, some of the outstanding leaders of the journalistic profession are willing to speak out. Properly, in the interests of self-policing, they speak to their colleagues. The problems that they bring up are real ones, and should be considered by all practitioners and all professionals.
In the field of broadcast journalism, the October 15, 1958 address by Edward R. Murrow stands out. Shortly after it was delivered-and the furor had died down-it was reprinted in a number of (often obscure) publications. Its penultimate paragraph has been repeatedly quoted. But, in an era where the weapons of journalism need to be honed for use against other forces seeking to censor or otherwise control the profession, it would do us all good to read Murrow's speech once again. It was directed at us, the need to incorporate it in our thinking remains, and it never is harmful to be reminded of our Achilles heels.
Edward R. Murrow was, arguably, the most important journalist of the World War II era and beyond. Yes, Ernie Pyle was important, as were many others-but Ed Murrow stood out. Read one of the many biographies about Murrow-the most recent is Edward R. Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism by Bob Edwards (New York: Wiley, 2004)-and follow his tortured career from international educator, to war correspondent able to paint great and terrible pictures in words, to newscaster and creator of documentaries and news-related programs (See It Now, Person to Person), to a short-lived time as a CBS executive, and finally to a post as director of the United States Information Agency.
Although Murrow had many high points in his career-and several low ones-it may be argued that the high point that has had the greatest impact was this 1958 speech to the Radio-Television News Directors Association.
Although near the end of his broadcasting career, Murrow continued to broadcast important works for three more years before going to USIA.
It is presented here without editing.
Another broadcast journalist with a towering reputation whose strongly worded criticisms were delivered directly to his professional colleagues was Bill Moyers, currently the ethical heart of his weekly PBS program, Now. Moyers will be retiring within a few months, and took the opportunity of the Society of Professional Journalists convention on September 11, 2004, to express some of his concerns.
Bill Moyers has always been interested in ideas-and in helping others to deal with them. He studied theology, served in the Johnson White House, and has taken some normally-ephemeral broadcast material and published it in more permanent form-e.g., the books A World of Ideas and The Power of Myth. (This SPJ address has been lightly edited to remove the introductory remarks and avoid needlessly time-bound references).
As one reads the Moyers speech, it becomes clear that Murrow's injunctions have not been adopted to the extent he would have wished. Moyers may have the same experiences. But it is also clear that Bill Moyers is, to some extent, the spiritual descendent of Ed Murrow-and that he is making many similar points. Both men, I believe, would be happy if some of those reading these speeches for the first time, as well as those who attended the conventions at which they were delivered, were to pick up the torch and further illuminate the profession of journalism.
The above article was published in Media Ethics , Fall 2004 (16:1), pp.4-5,18.