Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Watching a Medium Mature

I remember first learning about Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly back in high school. In fact, a few weeks later, when I saw Friendly on one of his PBS roundtables I decided that Columbia Journalism School is where I wanted to be, and it's where I ended up.

I met Friendly late in life after a stroke had taken some of his quick thinking, but at over 6 feet tall he was still an imposing figure. But always... excuse the pun... friendly.

In college I took a few classes that helped put the McCarthy shows into perspective and I watched all of them. But that was all a long time ago, before I worked in TV and had the experience of writing copy on a daily basis.

While watching Good Night and Good Luck a few weeks ago, I was struck at how amazing Murrow's writing was. He called up images and used complex sentence structures that you just couldn't use today.

This is from the end of the McCarthy broadcast, in which the See It Now crew used McCarthy's own words to let him hang himself:

No one familiar with the history of this country can deny that congressional committees are useful. It is necessary to investigate before legislating, but the line between investigating and persecuting is a very fine one and the junior Senator from Wisconsin has stepped over it repeatedly. His primary achievement has been in confusing the public mind, as between internal and the external threats of Communism. We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men -- not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular.
Could you get away with writing that today? I doubt it. In the age of the 20 second story and snappy writing, beauty like this gets lost. Of course, part of the reason the writing from the "Golden Age of Television" could be so complex is simple: only the wealthy owned TVs. The wealthy tend to be better educated. It's the same reason that HBO is praised with putting on "smarter" shows today, it doesn't need to cater to the "lowest common demoninator." In the modern journalism world in which advertisers pay for the number of people in front of the TV, writing must appeal to the greatest number of people possible.

A few weeks ago the Boston Globe ran a piece called "The Vanishing Anchorman" about the fact that the traditional male anchor is disappearing from Boston TV screens. I'd argue that it's not that big of a deal, we're just losing the "middle aged white guy" in an era that such a demongraphic isn't indicitive of who is watching television.

But what of the great writing? I taught at local college back in the mid 90s, one prized for turning out journalism students, and found that most couldn't write worth their soul They were far more interested in looking good on camera than how the copy sounded. I'd get questions about hair, makeup and clothing, but little about how to best prestent the story. The worst part? The school is great at getting its students jobs. Style over substance.

We are now in the 500 channel universe and you'd think that you clould create a niche for people who want solid writing. Maybe there is, but is it watchable? Are we simply trained to want simple, digestable copy and reject great works?


During my time at the Blog Business Summit I heard a lot of people talk about how blogging reaches influencers and decision makers. Others will tell you that blogs and podcasts reach a very small segment of the overall audience. All this is true, but only for today. This medium will mature and change as more people come online and take part in the conversation. It will be both a blessing and a curse.

You will be able to find pockets of thought and writing, but weeding through the crap will become more difficult. When that happens the wealthy, educated crowd will move onto the next thing.

Don't believe me? Find yourself a 60-year-old, white anchorman and ask him.

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