Truth is the Best Propaganda: Murrow, USIA, and the Kennedy Years by Nancy Snow
When CBS first hired Edward R. Murrow in 1935 as Director of Talks, it was for public diplomacy purposes, not journalism. Murrow had no journalism experience. He had majored in speech communication at Washington State College. His national stature had grown from his ability to move audiences through words– speeches he gave as President of the National Student Federation of America, and his most recent position as Vice President of the Institute of International Education in New York where he worked with President Stephen Duggan to rescue persecuted scholars from a fascist Europe. He was by now a member of the most prestigious foreign affairs organization, the Council on Foreign Relations. He was a young man in his late twenties, who, through sheer grit and talent, had become part of the Eastern Establishment. In the eyes of CBS, Murrow’s ability to sway domestic audiences might help this fledgling network educate its constituents about communications in the public interest, and in the process, win hearts and minds in Washington.
The 1934 Communications Act, which created the Federal Communications Commission, allowed networks to be set up as private entities only “if public convenience, interest or necessity will be served thereby,” language first advanced in the Radio Act of 1927 when the federal government established control of the airwaves. CBS reacted in fear that if it did not bow to this government oversight with more public interest programming, it might not be able to continue to operate for profit as an entertainment medium. Murrow was hired in reaction to federal legislation that increased government regulation and oversight of programming. His meteoric rise at CBS could not be duplicated today. The 1996 Telecommunications Act ended much of the federal regulation “bite” that came out of the early days of broadcast communications.
Federal regulation today is bark without bite, as private, for-profit networks operate in a deregulated environment. There is no avenue in which public affairs programming like the Murrow vehicles See It Now or CBS Reports documentaries can thrive because broadcasters need only allow some spectrum for public affairs programming, but are not required by law to produce any quality public affairs programming themselves. Nicholas Lemann comments about the Murrow Doctrine in The New Yorker: “CBS, in Murrow’s heyday, felt that its prosperity, even its survival, depended on demonstrating to Washington its deep commitment to public affairs. The price of not doing so could be regulation, breakup, the loss of a part of the spectrum, or license revocation.” No such steep price remains today.
By the time Murrow transitioned out of the commercial broadcast medium, he brought with him to USIA twenty-five years of largely working for the public interest. His CBS salary of over $200,000 a year (what would translate into several million dollars today) wasn’t typical of someone operating in the public interest, but the level of interest in his high quality programs warranted his steep compensation. Murrow proved the point for a quarter of the American 20th Century: public affairs programs that address controversial social issues can be profitable and serve the public interest. Public affairs need not be boring or noncontroversial, while commercial imperatives ventured toward the dramatic and sensational. The two drives toward education and enlightenment on the one hand and entertainment and distraction on the other need not be in competition with each other with the latter winning out most of the time.