[The Montana Professor 18.2 Spring 2008 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

Channels of Dissent: Ed Murrow, Mort Sahl, and Television's Lost Promise

John Hadjuk

But certainly for the present age, which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, fancy to reality, the appearance to the essence,... illusion only is sacred, truth profane. Nay, sacredness is held to be enhanced in proportion as truth decreases and illusion increases, so that the highest degree of illusion comes to be the highest degree of sacredness.--Ludwig Feuerbach/1/
--John Hadjuk
John Hadjuk

When the University of Montana-Western went to block scheduling under the moniker Experience One several years ago, it compelled many of us on the faculty to re-think our approach to teaching. This especially meant coming to terms with the concept of experiential learning as it related to our various disciplines. As a cultural historian, I came to employ the concept in two ways. First, my students would learn by essentially doing what professional historians do: that is, research and present the answers to questions they themselves have posed about the past in an effort to understand compelling historical and contemporary issues. Second, I wanted students to draw on their own personal backgrounds in developing their interpretations and to acknowledge that their perceptions were uniquely shaped by individual experience. As it turns out, however, the second goal has proved somewhat elusive. This is partly due to the students' youth--they have not yet accumulated the wealth of experiences that serve to broaden one's frame of reference or sharpen one's critical insights. Another obstacle is their apparent willingness to value the filtered and diluted reality of television over the more legitimately earned knowledge of real experience.


This article is not intended to be another screed about the dangerous effects of the mass media in shaping young minds, nor an indictment of the vapidity that so clearly dominates commercial broadcasting. Nor is it a call for the return to some mythical lost "good old days," which frankly never existed, at least not in reckoning the overall impact of television at any given point in its history. In fact, the great tragedy of TV's shortcomings today is that everyone seems to accept them as inherent, habitual, and permanent. This is true despite the fact that there have been moments when it appeared that the medium had the capacity to deliver something more, that those in control of the medium could aim for the highest rather than the lowest common denominator.

This article laments that lost promise that television once represented--a promise to intensify the democratic experience by keeping us all plugged-in to the processes and debates that most significantly affect our lives. That prospect was traded for the supposed demand to be constantly entertained, and the consequences for our political system, not to mention our educational system, have been dispiriting, if not tragic. To detail all of the various forces that contributed to this situation would take much more space than I have here. But I would like to describe one of those moments that could have been a turning point, which became evident to me as the result of research into political humor of the mid-twentieth century. At the end of the 1950s, television was briefly challenged to realize its fuller potential, a challenge laid down by Edward R. Murrow from one perspective and the comedian Mort Sahl from another. Between 1958 and 1960, these two figures called on television to expand its horizons, especially in relation to its coverage of the most important issues of the day, and to treat its audience with more respect than was evident in the tube's normal fare. In the end the challenge went unanswered, leading only to some superficial changes that did little to address the substance of the critiques offered by either of those two men.

Those superficial changes amounted to a blurring of the line between news and entertainment programming, initially through the acceptance of social and political issues on entertainment shows, largely thanks to Sahl. But that breakthrough apparently led television executives and sponsors to believe the process also worked in the other direction, and news programming became more entertainment-oriented. This was more profitable, but it also meant that whatever potential television held as a tool of democracy or education was largely abandoned. One need only look at CBS, the network that nurtured the early development of broadcast journalism under the aegis of the near-sainted Murrow. Katie Couric is ensconced as their nightly news anchor, and 60 Minutes backed off a story about Bush administration rationales for going to war in Iraq for fear of effecting an election (never mind that not sharing relevant information may have also affected the outcome)./2/ To put it another way, there's a substantial hidden cost to our having reached a point in our culture where Jon Stewart is more respected, certainly by my students, than his counterparts who do not perform on a network called Comedy Central.

Much of what is currently criticized about television news--its shallowness; its pandering to commercial ends as opposed to journalistic ethics; its promotion of style over substance--came about because the lines between entertainment and news were erased. This occurred as television became the primary medium of both popular entertainment and news in the 1950s, supplanting respectively movies and the press, whose distinct purposes were more evident to the mass audience. Network television embraced this conflation of the two functions in ways that radio earlier strove to avoid, especially after the notorious War of the Worlds incident of 1937./3/ The visceral "images" on which television depends are much more explicit and effective in producing a melting pot of sensations than the more intellectualized activities of reading a paper or listening to the radio. This is really evident in the current era of channel surfing, but even early on, the viewer could just sit and watch as a wide variety of spectacles unfolded before him over the course of a single evening: wrestling, juggling, live drama, opera, documentary, etc., etc. There certainly are ways that television can distinguish between the different types of programs, dropping advertisements from news programs for example, but the odds of that happening are long, since it serves the networks' primary economic interest to minimize the distinctions between the various types of programs, if only to lull the viewer into staying tuned.

By the end of the 1950s, concern about this situation seemed to reach a critical mass, and hence held out a promise for change. The repressive atmosphere created by the Red Scare was dissipating, the push for dedicated educational television stations and programming was gathering momentum, and the quiz show scandals raised questions about media responsibility and ethics among TV's previously complacent consumers. Such conditions suggested that the concurrent challenges represented by Sahl and expressed by Murrow might actually compel substantial change in the way the medium operated and served its audience. Unfortunately, this proved an illusion as those in control clearly had little intention to do more than tinker with their cash cow.

* * *

"I'm really sorry that I brought politics into the theater when I realize that the real virtue in life is to take the theater into politics."/4/ When Sahl spoke those words, it was well before the era of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. To the extent that we might equate politics here with the news institutions that we depend on to fuel political discourse, there's no doubt that "theater" has entered politics in a big way. When 21% of those aged 18 to 29 said they learned about the 2004 presidential campaign from The Daily Show or Saturday Night Live (and another 13% from Stewart's late night competition, Jay Leno and David Letterman) then it leaves little doubt that the line between hard journalism and entertainment (not to mention the line between politics and comedy) has largely disappeared for a significant part of the electorate./5/ Sahl, as much as anyone, laid the foundation for that change, although his intent was considerably more radical, and altruistic.

Sahl's career began on the stage at the hungry i night club in San Francisco, where he strolled out in a sweater and open collar with a rolled up newspaper under his arm--a prop that he wielded for more than effect. He told jokes about Joseph McCarthy ("Have you seen the Joe McCarthy jacket? It's like the Eisenhower jacket, only it's got an extra flap that fits over the mouth") and Richard Nixon ("He said he knew the Democrats were going to win two years ago. Well, I know him, and if he did, he probably would have joined the Democratic party two years ago")./6/ He drew distinctions between Conservative Republicans ("They don't believe anything should be done for the first time") and Modern Republicans ("They believe things should be done for the first time, but not now"); and could also target Democrats ("They don't have any plan at all--they haven't even contacted an advertising agency")./7/

The newspaper provided the foundation for Sahl's routine, on which he hung not only his jokes, but often more polished and pointed social and political critiques. His monologues were sharp in both their wit and their detail, though stylistically he often appeared to be rambling, spinning out on numerous tangential detours before winding back to his main point. This style was clearly inspired by the jazz music that Sahl adored, matching the improvisational riffing of a soloist, but always returning to the main theme. As Time magazine put it: "All the time he is building towards a final statement, which is too much part of the whole to be called a punch line, but puts that particular theme away forever."/8/

In the first paragraphs of his autobiography, Sahl acknowledged that he was motivated by something other than fame and fortune in pursuing a show business career. He associated himself with the likes of Fidel Castro, and hinted at his radical goals in asserting that the "established order builds the incubator for its overthrow."/9/ A bit portentous perhaps, but clearly Sahl considered himself to be on a mission to re-shape more than the style of comedy. In a media-saturated world, more and more defined by television, he conceived of a revolution in democratic political discourse whereby the citizens of this country, his and TV's audience, would be led to embrace an ideal of civic responsibility that was evident even in our entertainment forms. His definition of civic responsibility, however, did not mean blind patriotism or conformity to some Disneyfied conception of Americanism. It was built on first paying strict attention to what was going on in the world and what was being said and done in our name; and second, engaging in informed, spirited dissent when our core principles of democracy and freedom were threatened by those purportedly acting on our behalf. In using humor to attack the likes of Joseph McCarthy, Richard Nixon, and the general hypocrisy rampant across the political and cultural landscape of that era (and generally unchallenged by anything on television), Sahl hoped to awaken his audiences to the rewards of active citizenship.

On the surface, Sahl seemed to be operating in a tradition that went back at least to the heyday of James Gordon Bennett Sr., whose style and rapacious courtship of a mass readership came to define much of the American popular press prior to the Civil War. Bennett was arguably the first to see the potential of mixing entertainment with the news, essentially creating what came to be known as tabloid journalism. He realized that the portion of the public that heretofore ignored newspapers might be enticed to buy his paper if the news were spiced up. Gossip, scandal, and the exaggerated lurid details of criminal activity marked the tabloid style Bennett pioneered, and that style of journalism (which also often betrayed a strong populist political stance) has been a feature of the media in this country ever since. But in the generation immediately preceding the emergence of television and performers like Sahl, the general tendency of journalistic enterprises was to downplay or even deny that they operated in the same arena as performers. Two factors in particular fed a pronounced turn towards a unique journalistic professionalism in the 1930s, with new standards of ethics and objectivity being pushed to the fore. One factor was the rise of radio as competition to the print media, leading everyone from publishers on down to assert a more responsible role for the traditional gatekeepers of information./10/ Early radio broadcasters themselves felt compelled to draw a sharp distinction between news and entertainment as well, partly to forestall potential government interference in their operations, and strove to immunize their programs from any hint of partisanship or controversy. According to J. Fred MacDonald, radio networks limited "broadcasts of opinion to those personnel specifically rated as commentators" and made certain that their entertainment programming "scrupulously avoided politics."/11/

Another factor was the rise of white collar unionism, and particularly the establishment of the Newspaper Guild, which gave reporters an extra incentive to define the professional and ethical parameters of their work more explicitly. Neither of these developments meant that newspapers became less about entertainment, but they did compel a degree of separation between departments. The front page was not the sports section; the editorials and opinion pieces (at least those devoted to "serious" subjects) were segregated from the funny pages.

As a package, television represented a similar conglomeration of component parts, but the distinction between different types of programming was often more muddled in terms of presentation. Comedy shifted almost seamlessly into drama through prime-time hours, and the appearance of the local news at the end of the evening was just a prelude to another round of late night entertainment. But the balance was clearly towards the non-news programming which comprised the vast majority of air-time. From the perspective of network executives, the news divisions were a necessary element to satisfy the public service obligations spelled out in federal regulations, but hardly the highest priority, and generally consigned to the least attractive time-slots on the schedule./12/ The concept of news around-the-clock, pioneered on radio in the 1960s and brought to television via cable and CNN in the 1980s, was still a way off (and once they arrived, they too quickly embraced the tenets of entertainment as essential to maintaining their audience).

As TV developed in the late forties, newscasters sought to establish a unique identity, usually (but not always) distinct from the entertainment arm of the industry. The arrival of Edward R. Murrow to television raised the bar considerably in the direction of somber reporting and away from say, the antics of J. Fred Muggs on the Today show. Murrow's reputation, forged in the early days of World War II when he dramatically redefined broadcast journalism on radio, initially pushed his colleagues and competitors towards a fierce independence in defining the terms of television news. The standards exhibited on Murrow's primary series, See It Now, reflected gravity, objectivity and a stark commitment to the integrity of the story (as opposed to the position of the newscaster, network, or sponsor). This was evident in the second episode when Murrow revealed his deal with the sponsor to his audience: "The contract says we will turn out this television program and Alcoa will turn out aluminum."/13/ Such a distinction was virtually unheard of on the entertainment side of the medium (where, for instance, commercials were often embedded into the narratives of comedy programs), and in the long-term would not provide the total protection Murrow might have assumed.

Even at that stage of television's development, Murrow represented an exception. Most news operations were shy about doing anything more than merely reporting the events of the day in a manner that reflected a contrived notion of objectivity, one that was questionable in terms of its legitimacy but also of dubious value in an ostensibly democratic system. Some of this might be explained by the after-effects of McCarthyism./14/ But more substantially, this seems to have been the result of a condition unique to broadcast journalism, namely that television and radio did not have the same First Amendment protections as newspapers, leaving them more vulnerable (and liable) to charges of bias. This was derived from the presumption that the airwaves belonged to the public, and that the government had a responsibility to regulate the use of those airwaves on behalf of that public. Because of this, broadcasters had to adhere to licensing rules administered by the Federal Communications Commission, one of which was known as the Fairness Doctrine./15/

The general principle behind the Fairness Doctrine asserted that in matters of public interest, all viewpoints should be given equal opportunity to express their views. The practical impact of this policy, though, was avoidance of anything more than a strict factual account of events or issues with absolutely no editorial comment augmenting those facts, that is, nothing that would betray an independent perspective on what was being reported. It proved to be easier to avoid coverage of controversial issues than expend the effort necessary to insure that all contrasting views were represented, so that the impact of the rule was a 'chilling effect' that was actually the opposite of the rule's intent./16/ Besides, network airtime was deemed too valuable to be turned over to programming that might illuminate viewers about relative positions on matters of common concern, especially given the media's impression that viewers (and as a consequence, advertisers) displayed little interest in such material./17/ Media historian John Tebbel saw another reason. It was because of the "excessive timidity of the broadcasters. They are timid because, as businesses, they put the defense of their profit and loss statements ahead of everything else, including political and moral considerations."/18/ The end result was bland and inconsequential news programming, with very few exceptions. As CBS news chief Paul White once said, "Ideally, in the case of controversial issues, the audience should be left with no impression as to which side the analyst himself actually favors."/19/ Whether sound in principle or not, this was the general policy on network TV regardless of how it ill-served the viewers. As Murrow protested, "We can't sit there every Tuesday night and give the impression that for every argument on one side there is an equal one on the other side."/20/ Mort Sahl expressed the same idea a bit differently, when he noted that the "legacy of the Eisenhower years seems to be that you can be against one [position], but not for the other. You're in the middle." He felt this inhibited audiences from recognizing that his critiques were more than just potshots at easy targets, and staked out a fairly sophisticated position about the issues he addressed./21/

It's important to understand that television's commitment to such restrictive journalistic standards was not really about maintaining objectivity. There was an attitude among network executives that trust was built on avoiding controversy of any kind. Sharply restricting individual perspective worked to dilute any hint of contentiousness in even the most dramatic of stories, and in those instances where it was impossible to water down the friction, the stories as often as not went unreported. Individuals associated with a strong political or social perspective found themselves frozen out of televised discussion of the issues of the day. As Stephen Whitfield has written, "Since dissent seemed to slide so uncomfortably close to disloyalty, since controversy had become a code word for trouble (rather than an inevitable feature of democratic dialogue), official views were rarely and insufficiently challenged on television. When disagreements were presented, the framework of analysis was so narrowly circumscribed that television became a custodian of the cultural Cold War."/22/

Mort Sahl picked up on the effect of this paranoia in relation to his own efforts to bring serious material to a mass audience via his monologues, saying this about those in control of the airwaves: "They're afraid..., and unfocused fear is insane. I told one guy at an agency, 'You can't be afraid of everything.' 'But we are,' he said. It goes beneath that though. These guys are part of the American tradition of the parasite. They appoint themselves the arbiter between performer and the audience. Parasites are impotent; and so, characteristically, they declare that potency in television is impossible. And the artists go along with them."/23/

Even Murrow's famous take-down of Senator Joseph McCarthy occurred largely without the sanction of network executives, and only after Murrow long considered the efficacy of going after the junior Senator from Wisconsin./24/ A key issue was whether such an attack would conform to the professional standards he set for himself and his program. As his colleague David Schoenbrun wrote, Murrow "burned to tell the truth about McCarthy, to find ways of exposing his distortions, lies, smears, without expressing editorial opinions."/25/ Opinions were not the prerogative of the reporter. In 1949, the FCC ruled that television stations could air editorials, as long as equal time was given to opposing views. But through the 1950s, the networks largely waived that right, in part because they devoted so little time to newscasts that editorials were seen as taking valuable minutes away from the headlines. They were also fearful of antagonizing government authorities or, most particularly, sponsors who blanched at the idea of potentially alienating any segment of the viewing public for any reason. Television was a hugely profitable business in the 1950s, and few were willing to jeopardize that situation./26/ By 1958, this led CBS to drop See It Now because, as J. Fred MacDonald explained, "the topics...covered [by] Murrow and [producer Fred] Friendly often produced the effects of a controversial editorial."/27/

Murrow's response was incisive, well-aimed, and amounted to a call-to-action to his peers. At a dinner of the Radio-Television News Directors Association in 1958, he blasted the timorous nature of broadcast journalism. He castigated their desire to play it safe, taking their lead from government officials, and abrogating their responsibility to the public. "One of the basic troubles with radio and television news," he said, "is that both instruments have grown up as an incompatible combination of show business, advertising and news. Each of the three is a rather bizarre and demanding profession. When you get all three under one roof, the dust never settles."/28/ He concluded the speech by warning that television "is being used to distract, delude, amuse and insulate us, then television and those who finance it, those who look at it and those who work at it, may see a totally different picture too late."/29/

Unfortunately, there was little evidence that American audiences expected or sought anything better from television. "Never in the first 28 years of television did a public affairs program rank among the leading network shows," according to J. Fred MacDonald./30/ Television was essentially synonymous with entertainment, with escape, with conformity. Programs that promoted those goals (and by extension, a favorable impression of the sponsoring corporations) dominated the schedule, and they too hewed strictly to a middle-of-the-road philosophy, eschewing controversy in virtually any form. In the words of MacDonald, shows as seemingly diverse as Leave it To Beaver, The $64,000 Question, and Dragnet all "suggested that the American way of life was the best on the planet, that dreams could be fulfilled by average folk, that the institutions guarding American society would protect its struggling, law-abiding citizens, and that a happy ending was inevitable."/31/ Needless to say, this represented a tacit political stance, one that privileged the status quo while presenting a generally rosy picture of contemporary American society, and hence was hardly controversial. But where Murrow's call for change in news broadcasting ended up applauded but largely unheeded, controversy did briefly sneak in through the backdoor of entertainment programming, in the person of Mort Sahl.

Subversion was a hot topic in the 1950s. Fears of nuclear collision with the Soviet Union created an environment of unease and distrust, feelings that were stoked by the highly publicized witch hunts associated with McCarthyism in its many forms. Later in the decade, those fears coalesced around looming changes in racial and generational relations. Popular culture alternately defined the security of conformity and provided a potential venue for subtle attack on the nation's sense of moral certitude. Moviemakers began to challenge the remnants of the industry's puritanical production code; rock and roll obliterated the segregated state of popular music; and the so-called "sick" comedians saw little in the nation's social, political, or psychological make-up that was off limits to their sharply honed barbs. Critic Kenneth Allsop defined the sick comics this way: "Their area of discourse is simple to define: the unspeakable. They gag about insanity and malnutrition, amputation and drug addiction, H-bomb fall-out and nervous breakdown, perversion and disease, violence and horror.... They have discarded the traditional winning ways of the entertainer, and gouge the customers where they are most sensitively vulnerable, insult them to their wincing faces, and nightly implant the nagging unease that the barbecue pit is the abyss."/32/

Among the comedians who came to be grouped under this label were Don Adams, Lenny Bruce, Dick Gregory, and Woody Allen. For many, Mort Sahl was the epitome of the style, but that reduces his work to its shock value without acknowledging the core themes served by his attention to previously taboo subjects, especially in relation to politics. In moving from the somewhat underground culture of hip night life to the mainstream of network television, Sahl truly was acting to subvert the very notion of comfortable conformity so prevalent in the medium. TV critic Jo Coppola effectively summarized what Sahl and the others were up against, referring to a standard letter sent to viewers who registered complaints with the networks: "Please be assured...of our continued efforts to avoid giving offense to any segment of our viewing public." Coppola rightly points out that if followed, "this edict would mean death for true comedy. A comedian, for instance, could satirize war only if he didn't offend nuclear scientists, the Army, the Navy, the Marines, the State Department, certain businessmen and our veterans." Coppola concluded that "true comedy...must induce self-laughter, which is nothing but mature criticism. Since we live in an age when criticism is not welcome, is it any wonder then that true comedy, which reflects its age, is dying?"/33/ There is no doubt that Sahl understood these barriers and further believed that bringing them down would have positive benefits beyond the liberalization of TV comedy.

It was Sahl's success in the clubs that garnered the attention of television producers, who sought him out as they did any performer who had proved to have some kind of audience appeal. No doubt, those who had seen Sahl on stage wondered if they would see the unvarnished version on the tube. Certainly Sahl had no intention of watering down his act. During his first TV appearance, on the Eddie Fisher variety program, he was challenged by the host to say something funny. Sahl looked directly into the camera and said, "John Foster Dulles." Such brashness signaled that a change was afoot, and over the next couple of years, Sahl continued to stretch the boundaries on shows like Tonight, the Ed Sullivan and Steve Allen programs, and even the panel show What's My Line?

Early on Sahl's reviews focused on how he broke down barriers of taste or propriety, peppering his routines with previously taboo references and allusions. Just by appearing on TV, he seemed on the way to realizing his goal of shaking up preconceptions of how political issues might be addressed on television. The effect of his efforts was to transform the expectations of the audience, both in terms of his subject matter and style and with respect to how they viewed the medium itself. For someone like Sahl, there was little distinction to be made between his social commentary and the laughs his material generated. And, while it was his ability to generate laughs that gave him access to TV's audience, it was his message that generated the most comment (pro and con) and accounted for his rapid rise, culminated by his appearance on the cover of Time magazine (long before such prominence was regularly given to entertainers). In the accompanying article, his impact was summarized by historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who said that Sahl represented "a mounting restlessness and discontent, an impatience with clichés and platitudes, a resentment against the materialist notion that affluence is the answer to everything, a contempt for banality and corn--in short, a revolt against pomposity."/34/ The piece went on to characterize Sahl as "a volatile mixture of show business and politics, of exhibitionistic self-dedication and a seemingly sincere passion to change the world."/35/ Cartoonist Jules Feiffer saw Sahl as the progenitor of a post-McCarthy kind of humor that expressed "a kind of reawakening of the American conscience and also of guilt feelings for the Fifties, when everybody just didn't want to be bothered--let Papa Eisenhower take care of us."/36/ Virtually no element of these descriptions could have been applied to the news operations of the networks at that time; by then, even Murrow had been largely exiled from the airwaves.

In bringing controversial topics to the airwaves, Sahl faced considerable opposition. As he said in a New York Times article, "The network's job is to inhibit, the comic's job is to challenge."/37/ Sahl engaged his audience with material that didn't just challenge, but forced them to acknowledge that no political issue or figure was above attack, even as others attempted to dissuade him. "Everybody was saying that audiences were stupid and I was denying it. I never felt any comfort in defining my fellow man as an alien group. It never made me feel secure. What security is there in knowing that if you hemorrhage, your fellow man has a different blood type? Somehow, I came to the conclusion that intelligent comedy can muster an audience."/38/ So he made jokes about the likes of Eisenhower, McCarthy, Nixon, and Dulles, making specific references to the things they said and did and following through with the implications of such words and deeds on the nation and its citizens. No one tuned in to the Eddie Fisher Show or the Ed Sullivan Show expected to be confronted with that type of material. But when they did encounter Sahl on such programs, they no doubt grasped that this was something new on television, and it must have made many realize just what was missing from the news reports that came on the same channel later that night.

But although Sahl's monologues represented a pointed and thoughtful critique of the various aspects of American society that fell beneath his gaze, the venue through which he reached a truly mass audience was television, whose producers and viewers were not preconditioned to recognize such a critique, and hence could only perceive it as parody. As a consequence, instead of elevating comedy to a role akin to journalism, the unintended effect was to help bring journalism down to the level of entertainment--and not the sophisticated brand represented by Sahl, but rather the broad and shallow brand associated with innocuous sit-coms, over-produced variety shows, and the less pointed (if occasionally more outrageous) routines of Sahl's palest imitators. "NBC had me under contract," he once noted, "but nothing much happened. They suspected me of being an intellectual. But it's not true. I just know an intellectual. Guilt by association. And I have a library card--that's enough right there."/39/ Given Sahl's commitment to present his material unexpurgated, even walking out on programs during rehearsals when he was pressured to change a bit, it was perhaps inevitable that sponsors and producers would eventually forego the original for his more malleable counterparts.

This speaks to a unique feature of television in relation to other media, which are not by nature so schizophrenically committed to being all things to all people. The tube becomes a clearing house where eventually the distinctions between the various types (and perhaps even the varied quality) of programs become subsumed by the very fact they are on TV. That's a notion that such disparate critics as Marshall McLuhan ("the medium is the message") and Guy DeBord were already recognizing during the 1960s. In the 1970s, Jerry Mander's book Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television advanced the critique, noting in particular that television experience is no substitute for real experience. Given that those in control of American television clearly saw (and see) its ultimate purpose as selling things, is it any wonder that commercialism infected the public service and news sectors of the medium? This is central to the point made by Neil Postman a few years later in Amusing Ourselves to Death, wherein he describes how public discourse devolved into just another aspect of show business, bringing our politics down with it.

So in the end, Murrow's call for television to face up to its responsibilities, and Sahl's pioneering efforts to forge a new style of politically and socially astute entertainment on TV went largely for naught. In fact, Sahl's efforts seemed to backfire as entertainment began to infiltrate the news rather than the other way around. On his own terms, Sahl represented a positive trend: the ability to speak about serious subjects in substantive ways through humor, regardless of the setting. Unfortunately, the lesson learned by network execs from his success was that audiences would accept politics as a topic of entertainment, but they were not prepared to go so far as to allow such material to betray a substantive, critical stance in relation to those in power (whether politicians or sponsors, and certainly not the underlying consumerist-capitalist nature of our culture). Within twenty years, it would be difficult to discern much difference between the parodies of news operations on Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update" or the Mary Tyler Moore Show's "6 O'Clock News with Ted Baxter" and the real thing. Today, as mentioned above, we have reached the point where many viewers consider The Daily Show on Comedy Central as a viable substitute for anything on CNN or Fox News, and the tragedy is they are probably right insofar as there is little to distinguish them with respect to the substance of their reports. This confirms an impression that has become abundantly clear over the years: those performers who truly attempted to engage serious issues in more than a parodistic way, including Sahl and later on the Smothers Brothers, eventually found themselves unwelcome on network TV. Their unwillingness to conform to the notion that the punch-line was more important than the message left them on the outside looking in. This is evident in the recent success of Jon Stewart, who clearly has the intelligence and curiosity of Sahl, but does not see it as his job to challenge the assumptions of his audience, but rather reinforces the common perception that the whole system is corrupt, so we might as well have a good laugh about it./40/

There have been other moments in television's history when it appeared that the medium might turn a corner and realize at least some portion of its potential as an agent of democratic engagement, notably with the arrival of programs like All In the Family and M*A*S*H, or with the creation of CNN. But the longer each remained on the air, the more watered-down they became, and much as with Murrow and Sahl, they too fell short of truly revolutionizing the medium. The reality is that television as an institution has largely abrogated any meaningful social responsibility in wielding its immense power, virtually always choosing its economic interests over all other considerations. The irony is that it probably could have had it both ways, if those in charge had only had the same level of respect for the intelligence of the audience displayed by the likes of Murrow and Sahl. In the absence of that respect, it is really no surprise that TV, even while continuing to attract our attention, does little to advance the well-being of society.

I started this article by noting how this situation has affected the perceptions of my students, and it seems appropriate to return to that concern in closing. Unless we as educators are willing to provide them with the means to challenge the authority of "The Box," there's no reason to think that they will engage the big issues confronting us with anything more than a shrug, before reaching for the remote to see what else is on.


  1. Quoted by Guy DeBord, Society of the Spectacle (Detroit: Black & Red, 1983), 1.[Back]
  2. Kate Zernike, "'60 Minutes' Delays Report Questioning Reasons for the Iraq War," New York Times, 25 September 2004, http://www.nytimes.com/2004/09/25/politics/campaign/25cbs.html (accessed December 15, 2007). I do not question Couric's qualifications to be anchor, but rather the terms by which the network seems to have selected her, chiefly her "likability."[Back]
  3. A major reason for the intense reaction sparked by Orson Welles' broadcast of the H.G. Wells story was that he purposely crafted the program to replicate the style of an innocuous musical program, with news bulletins breaking in to push the narrative forward. Audiences accustomed to having their entertainment interrupted by bulletins from hot spots in Europe and Asia were inclined to give the fictional reports--delivered in an almost identical style--more credibility than they might otherwise. See Erik Barnouw, The Golden Web: A History of Broadcasting in the United States, 1933-1953 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968), 85-89.[Back]
  4. "An Impolite Interview with Mort Sahl," The Best of the Realist, edited by Paul Krassner (Philadelphia: Running Press, 1984), 105.[Back]
  5. Dannagal Goldthwaite Young, "No Laughing Matter: Do the late-night comics make a difference," The Gadflyer, 4 May 2004, http://gadflyer.com/articles/print.php?ArticleID=94 (accessed November 1, 2005).[Back]
  6. "Vintage Sahl," New York Times, 4 October 1987, H5; Mort Sahl, A Way of Life, Verve long-playing record MGV-15006, 1958.[Back]
  7. Quoted by Cleveland Amory, "First of the Month," Saturday Review, 2 August 1958: 4.[Back]
  8. "Comedians: The Third Campaign," Time, 15 August 1960: 43.[Back]
  9. Mort Sahl, Heartland (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976), 5.[Back]
  10. Broadcasters themselves largely eschewed a role in news, partly to defuse criticism from newspapers and partly because news lagged behind other programming in generating commercial income. See Alice Goldfarb Marquis, "Written on the Wind: The Impact of Radio during the 1930s," Journal of Contemporary History, 19 (July 1984): 385-415.[Back]
  11. J. Fred MacDonald, Television and the Red Menace: The Video Road to Vietnam (New York: Praeger, 1985), 5.[Back]
  12. Sally Bedell Smith, In All His Glory: The Life of William S. Paley (New York: Touchstone, 1990), 361.[Back]
  13. Quoted by Palmer Williams in The Box: An Oral History of Television, 1920-1961 by Jeff Kisselhoff (New York: Viking, 1995), 375.[Back]
  14. Stephen E. Kercher, Revel With a Cause: Liberal Satire in Postwar America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 346.[Back]
  15. A good summary of the Fairness Doctrine, which was established in the 1940s and allowed to lapse about forty years later, can be found at The Museum of Broadcast Communications website, http://www.museum.tv/archives/etv/F/htmlF/fairnessdoct/fairnessdoct.htm (accessed October 28, 2006).[Back]
  16. Museum of Broadcast Communications website (see note 15).[Back]
  17. For a discussion of how the Fairness Doctrine affected programming decisions, see Eric Barnouw, The Sponsor: Notes on a Modern Potentate (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 129-133.[Back]
  18. John Tebbel, The Media in America (New York: Mentor, 1974), 401.[Back]
  19. Quoted by Fred W. Friendly, Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control... (New York: Random House, 1967), 10.[Back]
  20. Quoted by Friendly, 10.[Back]
  21. "The Playboy Panel: Hip Comics and the New Humor," Playboy, March 1961: 38.[Back]
  22. Stephen J. Whitfield, The Culture of the Cold War (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), 154-155.[Back]
  23. Quoted by Nat Hentoff, "The Iconoclast in the Night Club," The Reporter, 9 January 1958: 35.[Back]
  24. Sally Bedell Smith, 362-366; according to his biographer A.M. Sperber, Murrow waited until McCarthy was most vulnerable and least likely to exercise retribution against Murrow or CBS. A.M. Sperber, Murrow: His Life and Times (New York: Freundlich Books, 1986), 429-430.[Back]
  25. David Schoenbrun, On and Off the Air: An Informal History of CBS News (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1989), 71.[Back]
  26. J. Fred MacDonald, Television and the Red Menace, 87.[Back]
  27. MacDonald, 88-89.[Back]
  28. Quoted by Sperber, xvi.[Back]
  29. Sperber, xvii.[Back]
  30. MacDonald, 98.[Back]
  31. MacDonald, 97.[Back]
  32. Kenneth Allsop, "Those American Sickniks," The Twentieth Century, July 1961: 97-98.[Back]
  33. Jo Coppola, "Comedy on Television," Commonweal, 12 December 1958: 288.[Back]
  34. Schesinger quoted in "Show Business: The Third Campaign," Time, 15 August 1960: 42.[Back]
  35. "Show Business: The Third Campaign," 42.[Back]
  36. "Playboy Panel," 36.[Back]
  37. Mort Sahl, "Satire is Shorthand," New York Times Magazine, 7 Dec. 1958: 26.[Back]
  38. Sahl, Heartland, 12.[Back]
  39. Quoted by Eric Mottram, "The American Comedian as Social Critic, 1950-1970," in Cracking the Ike Age: Aspects of Fifties America, edited by Dale Carter (Aarhus, Denmark: University of Aarhus Press, 1992), 251.[Back]
  40. This was evident in his testy exchange with Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala on CNN's Crossfire a few years ago, where he challenged the real news operations to do a better job. Transcript of that exchange can be found at About.com, http://politicalhumor.about.com/library/bljonstewartcrossfire.htm (accessed January 12, 2008).[Back]

[The Montana Professor 18.2 Spring 2008 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

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