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Edward R. Murrow’s ‘Big Dreams’ for TV Go Unfulfilled

“It’s a Wonderful Life” was on television again, and the Jimmy Stewart classic may have been more relevant now than ever given the state of the economy.

But consider this, too: The film was directed by Frank Capra in 1946—right after he had spent four years working for the U.S. Army to produce films in support of the war effort.

His seven-film series, “Why We Fight,” instructed American soldiers and the American people as to why the country was at war.

Washington again sought that kind of help from Hollywood a few years ago—this time, for image management abroad.

Top Hollywood executives met with White House officials—including Karl Rove—to discuss how American media companies could help foster a better image of the United States across the globe after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Over the course of the Bush administration, our popular culture boomed as an export. International box-office receipts for U.S. films exploded. American TV shows colonized foreign prime-time markets.

However, opinion abroad of the United States tanked.

Consumption of our banquet of cultural desserts didn’t remove the bad taste for American policy.

Could anything?

Those Washington-Hollywood meetings were fundamentally flawed because they issued from the belief that the U.S. government can transform its lot simply by changing others’ opinions of our country.

Our political and communication experts apparently thought pushing a new and improved American “brand” to the Middle East was superior to educating ourselves about the rest of the world.

Television, for example, could have figured significantly in both approaches, but it did so only in the former.

To quote from Edward Murrow’s famous 1958 speech to the Radio-Television News Directors Association, in which he dreamed big dreams for the medium of television:

“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. This weapon of television could be useful.”

Television could be, in the words of some, a weapon of mass instruction, which at least theoretically would help us improve the lot of humanity.

A central question for us must be: Are we advancing the common good with our media production and consumption? That surely was on Murrow’s mind and in the bedrock of his professional practice.

Yet, when faced with the devastation of Sept. 11, 2001, leaders in Washington and Hollywood apparently flushed with an impulse toward better national branding instead of better American education via mass media.

It’s tempting to conclude that, in the 50 years since Murrow’s speech, the radically altered media landscape has produced a more informed citizenry. After all, vast programming choices mean the viewer can always call up some news, if not on television then certainly on the Internet.

But American TV viewers have “a built-in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information,” Murrow said. And more programming choices haven’t fought that allergy; they’ve offered relief from it.

Say this out loud: “I’m better because I watched television today.” The sentence chokes, just like the idea that a new and improved America begins with better overseas propaganda.

Whether you quote Jesus (“Get the log out of your own eye first”) or Gandhi (“Be the change you wish to see”), wisdom old and new tells us real change begins with ourselves, not others.

As Washington and Hollywood continue to talk about how American media can serve the national interest, they each must self-examine and reject the impulse to believe that image management will save the day.

Cliff Vaughn is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com. This column appeared previously in The Tennessean.