Edward R. Murrow, 60 Years Ago: Those Who ‘Keep Silent’ Share ‘Responsibility For The Result’

CREDIT: Flickr user bsoist


On March 9, 1954, Edward R. Murrow hosted “A Report on Senator Joseph McCarthy,” perhaps the most famous episode of his CBS show, See It Now. In this time of climate crisis and climate silence — Murrow is a reminder that at one time journalists spoke out on the greatest issues of the day:

This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent…. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities.

The New York Times has called Edward R. Murrow, “Perhaps the most esteemed American journalist since Ben Franklin.” But now his courage and moral outrage in the face of injustice and intimidation seem to be of a lost era.

Even back in 1990, the Times could write, ” Since his day, commercial television has shown little enthusiasm for controversy of the sort that he courted; all the news divisions take chances from time to time, but the intervals seem long, and none of his successors conveys the passionate conviction that came so naturally to him.”

How far journalism has further descended since then can be seen daily on Fox News and the cable news scream-fests. But the real plague infecting the media was perhaps best exposed in a 2009 cover story on Paul Krugman by Newsweek‘s Evan Thomas. Assuming we don’t devote the mere 0.11% of GDP per year needed to avert climate catastrophe, future generations who are puzzled about our fatal myopia need look no further for explanation than Thomas’s remarks.

Thomas begins with the amazing admission, “If you are of the establishment persuasion (and I am),” and continues with words that should be emblazoned across journalism schools around the country:

By definition, establishments believe in propping up the existing order. Members of the ruling class have a vested interest in keeping things pretty much the way they are. Safeguarding the status quo, protecting traditional institutions, can be healthy and useful, stabilizing and reassuring. But sometimes, beneath the pleasant murmur and tinkle of cocktails, the old guard cannot hear the sound of ice cracking. The in crowd of any age can be deceived by self-confidence….

Thomas was writing about the economic crisis, but his words apply far better to the global Ponzi scheme. Indeed, his words could not more ironically apply to the catastrophic global warming that he and his establishment buddies are all but blind to — the sound of ice cracking in the Arctic, Greenland, and Antarctica.

We’re fast approaching climatic tipping points — the loss of Arctic sea ice, the disintegration of the great ice sheets, the release of vast amounts of carbon from the permafrost, Dust-Bowlification of much of the world’s arable land — that are catastrophic and irreversible on a time frame of centuries.

Even once-reticent climatologists are speaking out because, as Dr. Lonnie Thompson has written, “Virtually all of us are now convinced that global warming poses a clear and present danger to civilization.” Some climatologists, like James Hansen and Jason Box, have joined direct action and been arrested for it.

How can any of us do less? Frederick Douglass said in 1857:

“If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

I don’t know if the climate crisis can be prevented in an era where much of the media is effectively an agent of the status quo rather than of the public interest. But I do know that Murrow’s words are as true today as they were 60 years ago: Those who keep silent on the great moral crisis of our time cannot escape responsibility for the grim result.