As televisions bleat the confusing news of our times, I can’t help but visit my memories of Mike Simonson. Mike was my mentor at KUWS on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Superior and a veteran radio news reporter. He taught me how to ask questions. On a good day I remember.
Mike required student reporters like me to read “The Murrow Boys” by Stanley Cloud and Lynne Olson. In schools of journalism thought, Mike was a Edward R. Murrow fundamentalist. The only true way to be fair was to question and challenge power, no matter who held the offices.
Citizens rarely get to ask direct questions of leaders with the expectation of a response. We did. That was not a job but a sacred trust. We could not be indifferent to our duties, whether they involved scrutinizing the modulated bloviation of a U.S. Senator or the reedy assertions of a small town clerk. And God help us if we got it wrong or bought the “spin.”
Mike’s heart gave out in 2014. He was 57. It was not lost on us that he died at the same age as his hero, Mr. Murrow.
Murrow made his name in radio news, most notably as the most prominent American reporter on the scene during World War II. His broadcasts for CBS mesmerized with detail and drama, bringing into the homes of Americans the realities of a war that would change the world.
He would later make news as the first reporter to question the accusations and innuendos of Sen. Joseph McCarthy during the anti-communist “Red Scare” of the 1950s. Ultimately, Murrow’s stories brought to light the abuse of power against innocent Americans during that time.
Was Murrow pilloried at the time by McCarthy and his supporters? Sure. That comes with the territory. No one gets to challenge power without risk of consequences or criticism. That’s precisely why its so hard to do, and why it’s so important. When the President of the United States recently called the news media an “enemy to the American people,” I am quite confident that both Murrow and Simonson would have cocked a smile and showed up for work early the next day.
Murrow lived through the time when the audience for news programs moved from radio to television. So did he. He also lived to see programming trends move away from news altogether. Ultimately he lost his program to a quiz show, arguably the first “reality” television that served to distort reality.
Murrow delivered a famous speech at the Radio and Television News Directors Association conference on Oct. 15, 1958. Though it soured his relationship with his employers at CBS, the address presciently warned against the commercialization of information, the creeping influence of entertainment on the psyche of the nation.
“This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and even it can inspire,” spoke Murrow. “But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise, it’s nothing but wires and lights in a box.”
In 1958, television was new. When I was in college, the internet was new. Today, everything is new, and by that I mean nothing is new.
In his address, Murrow continued, “There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful.”
So too, could the internet: These new wires and lights fill a plastic box no bigger than a deck of cards that you carry everywhere you go. Murrow’s point is that there is no long term comfort or abiding peace in the avoidance of truth. Yet every day, Americans spend an inordinate amount of time online and on television pretending that ignorance is truth.
What is the truth? Well, try asking.
Yes or no? What do you mean by that? What are you basing this on? How will this be accomplished? What do you say to those negatively affected by this? How much will it cost?
Then confirm the answers independently. Compare words to action. Seek the opinion of experts, who do exist and are important. From there, well-informed people will make up their own minds.
Ask and do not stop asking. Learn and learn more. Whether the enemy is tyranny or so-called “fake news,” the weapon of choice is an open mind and a quiver full of questions. The only solid object in the shifting sands of our national discourse is the truth. We must only persist in digging for it. And we must hold firm to the truth upon its discovery.
The partisan winds or powerful personalities of our times matter far less in the end. For there have always been times like these, and people like that.
Mike Simonson and Edward R. Murrow both left too soon. But they’re still right. And we’re still here. The work continues.
Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Feb. 26, 2017 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.