When troubadour Don McLean referred to rock 'n' roll great Buddy Holly's death on February 3, 1959, as “the day the music died,” he was crafting a metaphor about a period of remarkable innocence and idealism in American history.
McLean's lyric came to me last week while I watched, again, a movie set in the era of Buddy Holly: George Clooney's brilliant Good Night and Good Luck .
In a repeat viewing, it becomes clearer that the central conflict in Clooney's treatment of the 1950's anti-Communist panic was not between Joseph McCarthy, the fanatic red-baiting senator from Wisconsin, and CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow. The real clash, which reverberated further into the future and deeper into American culture, pitted Murrow's courageous producer, Fred W. Friendly, against CBS chief William S. Paley.
In the film, after Murrow's controversial See It Now broadcasts exposed McCarthy as a cowardly demagogue and doomed his Senate career, Paley summons Friendly into his office. There, he quietly sentences See It Now , perhaps the greatest investigative news show in TV history, to a slow but certain death. He sentences Murrow to finishing his career as the anodyne host of a celebrity interview show, Person to Person .
That meeting between Paley and Friendly occurred, although perhaps not exactly as depicted in Good Night and Good Luck . Its date might be recorded somewhere, but would be hard to pin down. Nonetheless, it deserves to be commemorated as “the day the news died,” because here was one irreversible moment when the world's most powerful and prestigious broadcast organization subordinated the news to the imperative of entertainment.
That day, Paley — a pioneer of CBS News — decided to appease the network's fretful sponsors with news less edgy, and with newsmen less enterprising than Murrow and Friendly. Adding insult to injury, he made Murrow a mere emcee, who wasted his last year on the air tossing softball questions to crooners, comedians, and movie stars.
Until Paley moved CBS News from Page One to the “style” section, the news — especially on TV — was not explicitly expected to make money, although it often did. Newspapers and magazines, throughout the 20th century, were profitable because they offered the most affordable advertising medium for most businesses. But all this profit tended to obscure a fact that today — as advertisers forsake virtually all news media — is manifestly evident. News isn't a “product,” nor is it reliably popular enough to generate the consistent sales that assure profit and reward America's insatiable shareholder class.
William Paley, in that fateful meeting, told Fred Friendly that in order for the news to survive at CBS (and, by extension into the future, in every US media organization), it had to do one thing it could not do and one thing it should not do.
The news cannot, to the satisfaction of America's constant-growth, quarterly-report, Wall Street business culture, create wealth. The news should not, at the expense of seeking the facts and informing its consumers as honestly as necessary, amuse people. The fact that it sometimes — even often — entertains is one of the reasons news continues to attract a vast audience.
News, at bottom, is a public service, required to explore aspects of a nation's life, politics, culture, and governance in ways that can be boring, disturbing, and even ghastly. News, if reported thoroughly, properly, and bravely, as Ed Murrow did, can expose realities with which no sensible advertiser wants to associate. News, done well, can be dangerous. It can get people killed.
News serves. Under the sort of tyranny that Joe McCarthy so theatrically feared, news serves the state. In a republic, news at its best serves the people and sustains democracy, without fear, favor, razzle-dazzle, or hope of wealth.
By allowing all those elements — timidity, favoritism, glitz, and worst of all, the almighty buck — to subsume broadcast journalism, Bill Paley and CBS forever altered the shape of the news, and imperilled the integrity of American democracy. We see the fruits of news-as-entertainment every day now. The latest example was a tawdry, money-soaked, and tragically information-free election campaign.
The death of the news, like “the day the music died,” is a metaphor. But Buddy Holly is really dead. And so is Edward R. Murrow, who said this: “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.”