Fifty years ago, at the risk of political retribution, CBS bravely took on powerful legislators rooting out evil where they thought they saw it. What a difference a half-century makes.
On March 9, 1954, television stood up and said, "No more." Edward R. Murrow used his See It Now
program to present an unflattering, unvarnished portrait of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his Communist witch hunt. He let the Wisconsin senator's own words define and ultimately destroy him. Most credit that moment as the beginning of the end of McCarthyism. The world could see that the emperor had no clothes, and was nuts in the bargain.
In 2004, there is not a single McCarthy in the current indecency witch hunt. Rather, it is a collective recklessness and political greed that has resulted in a climate of fear—and a willingness to censor first and ask questions later.
It is an insidious foe that demands a modern-day Murrow. "By refusing to be bullied, the broadcasters will assure their own future and help to guarantee America's," wrote one newspaper of Murrow and CBS at the time. Who will stand up to today's bullies?
Viacom Chairman Sumner Redstone made a sort of passing defense of content when he said the Jackson incident was no big deal. But his insipid words belie his company's apparent eagerness to fire anyone who offends Washington. Ed Murrow, he ain't.
In fact, the strongest talk against censorship came from Congress itself. In a frightening display, the House indecency bill passed 391-22. But among the 22 who said "no" were some First Amendment fans who finally found their voice. The key was their realization that allowing the government to control speech might not be confined solely to speech they didn't like.
A number of New York legislators argued that what the indecency push is all about is not the f-word but the Dubya-word. Howard Stern wasn't pulled by Clear Channel for indecency, they said, but because he had become critical of the administration. Frankly, we think broadcasters' fear of losing money or their licenses is the prime motivator. But if it takes a conspiracy theory to put the First Amendment back on the table, so be it.
So where are broadcasters? CBS's 48 Hours
recently featured a piece about a woman named Angela Shelton who filmed a documentary about other women named Angela Shelton. A fine piece, actually. But next time, how about an investigation of why lawmakers are trying to control speech? Or a hard-hitting exposé on how cowed the media have become? How about it, Dateline? 20/20? Or maybe 60 Minutes
could give over all those minutes to the issue. After all, doesn't Don Hewitt brag about being one of "Murrow's boys?"
We need to see a strong TV light shed on what one legislator last week called "a very dark day in American history." And we need to see it now.