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In My Own Words

The dumbing down of America

Nick Pane

American broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow

(2/2013) I have recently read several articles about how a degree in communications is one of the more popular routes to go in college these days. A communications degree is something that has become very appealing to employers, and why wouldn't it be? It's a flexible study to take on while in school, and if students can harness their communication skills effectively, the possibilities are certainly plentiful.

With technology ever on the rise and the ability to communicate instantly by way of the internet, strong communicators are as important as ever. The field of journalism - a huge beneficiary of technology, and one of the more obvious ways to go with a communications degree - has expanded, and the number of aspiring journalists, yours truly included, continues to grow.

If I am ever lucky enough to see my career as a journalist truly take off, I can say in confidence that I will not be picky about the path that I take. Whether I am traveling the world seeking out human interest stories, covering future presidential elections in Washington, or providing player interviews from the sidelines of the Super Bowl, I think I'll be able to eventually look back on my career and say that I made it.

Of course, the important thing to remember about a career in television is that regardless of the stories you are covering, your number one commitment is to the Fourth Estate and providing accurate, researched, and above all, fair and balanced information to the best of your ability. This is a commitment expected of all journalists, yet honored by very few in an age when being first seems to trump being right.

Good reporting makes for good television, so anyone hoping to make it in journalism should understand that. I would strongly recommend the 2005 movie "Good Night and Good Luck" as an excellent example of both good journalism and enlightening television.

"Good Night and Good Luck" is set in the 1950s and follows the story of Edward R. Murrow, a host of the CBS program "See It Now". The program had a reputation of covering controversial topics, perhaps none bigger than the Red Scare and Senator Joseph McCarthy. Murrow, with the assistance of a dedicated group of CBS staff members, challenged McCarthy on his now-famous claims about there being communist spies in the government. Because of his efforts, Murrow struck a huge blow to McCarthy's cause and reputation by providing news stories with accurate information that gave viewers the truth.

As for the movie, the setting begins with Murrow (played by David Strathairn) speaking to an audience of TV reporters and executives about the future of television. Murrow suggests that America has become a fat and comfortable country, and the content of television is beginning to reflect those traits. He refers to television as "decadence, escapism, and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live", and predicted that if things did not change soon, television would merely dilute our brains instead of supplying them with useful information. Keep in mind, Murrow said all of this during the 1950's - he was dead on in his prediction about the future of television.

The average American household now has well over 100 different channels available to them, almost all of them focused on entertainment, such as sports, sitcoms, the occasional movie, and the dreaded reality television, which took over in the last decade.

It is almost impossible to calculate the number of reality television shows that are currently on air. There are more than 170 new reality television shows set to air during 2013 alone, and that number could easily grow if writers and producers find enough content that they are looking for. Many of these shows revolve around some type of contest, families dealing with personal issues, drugs, sex, or some combination of the three, or aimlessly following the lives of people that add literally nothing to our society - shows like Jersey Shore, Keeping up with the Kardashians, and Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo come to mind. The worst of it all is that people actually tune in to watch. As of September 2012, ratings suggest that Keeping up with the Kardashians averaged more than 3 million viewers an episode. In comparison, Modern Marvels, an ongoing History Channel program that explains and focuses on technology's impact on society today, hit its peak in 2004 when an episode about the importance of rubber drew 1.8 million viewers.

Now even normally reliable channels like the aforementioned History Channel, the Discovery Channel, and National Geographic have joined the party, putting out reality shows of their own, such as Hardcore Pawn, Amish Mafia, Alaska State Troopers, and Swamp People. This all goes without talking about the number of crime-related reality shows on air today, which can't be doing anything to help influence some viewers. The sheer number of reality shows is unbelievable.

I understand the need for entertainment, and people deserve to have shows that cater to their interests. However, there is a fine line between entertainment and what is honestly just plain trash.

Television can and should be used as a tool to teach and inspire, something our present offering of TV dribble is not even remotely close to accomplishing.

On Oct 15, 1958, Murrow sounded a clarion call to rescue television from the debasing programs that were chocking its channel in his closing remarks at the Radio-Television News Directors Association and Foundation convention, remarks that ring even truer today and are well worth repeating:

"I began by saying that our history will be what we make it. If we go on as we are, then history will take its revenge, and retribution will not limp in catching up with us.

"Just once in a while let us exalt the importance of ideas and information. Let us dream to the extent of saying that on a given Sunday night the time normally occupied by Ed Sullivan is given over to a clinical survey of the state of American education, and a week or two later the time normally used by Steve Allen is devoted to a thoroughgoing study of American policy in the Middle East. Would the corporate image of their respective sponsors be damaged? Would the stockholders rise up in their wrath and complain? Would anything happen other than that a few million people would have received a little illumination on subjects that may well determine the future of this country, and therefore the future of the corporations?

"To those who say people wouldn't look; they wouldn't be interested; they're too complacent, indifferent and insulated, I can only reply: There is, in one reporter's opinion, considerable evidence against that contention. But even if they are right, what have they got to lose? Because if they are right, and this instrument is good for nothing but to entertain, amuse and insulate, then the tube is flickering now and we will soon see that the whole struggle is lost.

"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.

"Stonewall Jackson, who knew something about the use of weapons, is reported to have said, 'When war comes, you must draw the sword and throw away the scabbard.' The trouble with television is that it is rusting in the scabbard during a battle for survival.

"Good night and good luck."

Read other articles by Nick Pane