With the annual National Association of Broadcasters show coming up next week in Las Vegas, we were reminded of a surprisingly engaging speech given at last year's confab by actor Tim Robbins. His politics aside, Robbins delivered a serious plea for media to embrace dialogue over cheap thrills.
Robbins said, “We are at an abyss as a country and as an industry. And you, the broadcasters of this great nation, have a tremendous power and potential to effect change. You have the power to turn this country away from cynicism. You have the power to turn this nation away from the hatred and the divisive dialogue that have rendered such a corrosive effect on our body politic….Or you can hide behind that old adage: 'I'm just a businessman, I provide what the audience wants.' Well, I'm here to tell you that we don't need to look at the car crash. We don't need to live off of the pain and humiliation of the unfortunate….We are better than that.”
So while Robbins is not exactly the name you'd expect to dictate policy for the broadcasting world, our posting of an audio clip and transcript of his remarks drew so much attention that smoke came out of our Web servers.
Since Robbins' speech, we have seen many new lows. News divisions further eradicating objectivity in place of opinion to drive ratings. Entertainment divisions continuing to program for the lowest common denominator with cost-effective but often morally devoid programming.
But along with the trash, there has been plenty of great work. Much of the election coverage was up to the standards of the electrifying race that captivated the country. And shows like the immortal 60 Minutes have continued to defy the unfortunate trend away from solid journalism.
While Robbins was a strange conduit for such a message to be delivered, a year later it is constructive to remember his words, especially with the industry and the economy far worse off than when he delivered his speech. And with newspapers in major trouble, the television industry assumes even greater responsibility, if you believe it has any in the first place.
In dire times, it is alluring to go for the easy and cheap way out, to sacrifice the high ground in the short term, hoping we will get back up to our standards when things get better. Once you have used that crutch, it is hard to go back. Many will find that out the hard way, if they even bother to try.
It's best to keep from falling that far. As Robbins rightly points out, “We are better than that.”