thumbnail of News in twentieth century America; Is the public apathetic?
Hide -
If this transcript has significant errors that should be corrected, let us know, so we can add it to FIX IT+
The following program was produced and recorded by the University of Michigan broadcasting service under a grant in aid from the Educational Television and Radio Center in cooperation with the National Association of educational broadcasters news in 20th century America. A series of radio documents on the gathering writing and dissemination of news compiled from interviews with men and women who make news their business. I believe that listeners throughout the United States would do well in every community to organize so that they can bring a little legitimate pressure to bear on their local radio and television stations to do the worthwhile things and to abstain from something that some of those that I think have a definitely negative effect. The voice is that of HP called in-born one of the people you will hear in this program the apathetic public. Today's edition of news in 20th century America. And now here is your host Glenn Philips. Thomas Jefferson said government should do for the people only that which they cannot do for
themselves. This same rule may apply to the dissemination of the myriad events happening every hour of every day all over the world events that could instantly affect your very existence. The news media have is their responsibility. The gathering and dissemination of the vital facts of the events and issues of the day. They have the added responsibility of helping the public to interpret these events. But as we have heard on a previous program in this series they cannot go beyond what the public will accept and digest. Where then does the ultimate responsibility lie. Is the blame for an apathetic attitude to be placed totally upon the journalist. Why must some of it be shared by us. The recipient of the news. We certainly may assume then that every event holds little or no news value for everyone all of the time. More precisely at the same time. There are however many events
that do affect all of us all of the time. A special United Nations meeting a summit meeting of heads of nation the current status of disarmament or the effects of radiation. These are the events we are referring to today. The issues of vital importance to the world of tomorrow how apathetic are we as a nation. Do we really care if the news media service well and fully if we do. Is there anything we can do as a people to ensure better service. To attempt to arrive at even a semblance of a conclusion we have sought the opinions of those whom we might justifiably call the philosophical critics of the press and people. This group includes Charles a Sikh men you know but Saudis born in Quincy High. We talked to members of the working press to see what opinions they held concerning the problems of getting the sometimes hard to understand news to the public. This group includes Howard K. Smith Merriman Smith William Stephens Robert Barton and
Carl Rowan. First Howard K. Smith. Columbia Broadcasting Systems news analyst made this observation on the apathy of the American public. Well I think the American public changes with the issues. I think we can tell that in the mail we receive when some all absorbing crisis happens like the crisis in Lebanon then all of a sudden our mail becomes tremendous. The people become interested as the issues become interesting. There are some hugely important issues like disarmament on which the people not only of this country of all countries have become bored stiff. And it's very hard to couch an analysis of the disarmament question in a way that will interest the public. I think the American people are probably a few degrees less interested in other people because we had less experience with foreign affairs because we had more prosperity we haven't felt these questions as close to us as other nations have. But in general we rise to the occasion. We rise to the occasion. This is one rather optimistic view of a
journalist. All newsmen had an opinion regarding the apathy of the public and the ability of the press to get the story across all the way from unqualified optimism to unqualified pessimism. With all the degrees in-between one such person that is neither optimistic nor pessimistic was Merriman Smith Washington reporter for United Press International and dean of White House wire service reporter. He said I think more and more Americans. Are more and more demanding about the information that's available. It is depressing sometimes that you find so many Americans who don't read the newspapers carefully and there are so many people unfortunately whose taste and news remain pretty superficial. But more and more like I get around the country I find and sometimes I used to be shocked when somebody would come up and ask me a question about
the inner workings of the National Security Council now I'm not they. They read about it hear about it. And the American public is the best informed electorate on the face of the earth and they will become increasingly so. I don't find apathy about it. When the public in wanting to know more I do find however the public sometimes find it's a struggle to deal with on attractive or non entertaining subject. And there I think it's our own fault. I think it's our fault when we cannot present say the deliberations of the Colombo Plan to the organisation. Thank you taking Nations for the economic development of South and Southeast Asia by
only important thing something he could well mean the difference between peace and war. Depending on the succession plan a plan it's operating right in an area where the Russians are trying to penetrate. I think it's our fault the reporters and the editorial that we don't present. Such an organization in a more easily understood fashion. You just cannot do it with a communique or with official announcement. Neither must you right down to the public but there is a way of writing with clarity and still writing with meaning. Writing attractively without writing superficially Howard K. Smith and Merriman Smith have is their prime concern the breaking news of national and international import. This view was expressed by a man from a paper located in the Midwest. William P. Stephens executive editor of the
Minneapolis Star Tribune. All this is a matter of relativity and I. I don't think there's any way to to possibly answer it it's a little bit like asking me whether or not there are sinful women in the world and by doing so you'd immediately indict motherhood. Sure there are people who are apathetic and sure there are people who are concerned and basically the American people are the best informed people in the world at this point you can then retire and say My We must be doing a wonderful job. But we aren't. And we aren't as well-informed as we ought to be and there are too many apathetic people. But this doesn't mean that people are basically apathetic if the news affects them. And this is part of the trick. I remember one time. When Singapore fell and I was a city editor and it seemed to me that this was a great story because it would immediately affect the supplies of natural rubber on which all Americans were writing at that time. So I set up three reporters and we pointed a very careful survey of the
number of tires that were in stock in our town and what the automotive tire needs were. Now this made the fall of Singapore something that affected every reader. The only shortcoming of it was that I was so interested in affecting the reader forgot to look at my own car and I needed a couple of tires. From these three statements we can conclude a rather firm definition of new. It is not news until it affects our being. Beyond that it is still an interesting event of no personal concern. We can equally assume that apathy does exist on the part of the public and sometimes the press. Why. What is the reason this reason was advanced by the award winning reporter Carl Rowen. I would say that it several things First of all that the American public is not only apathetic but we've become so tremendously entertainment conscious and
I might even go so far as to say selfish to a degree that we become basically concerned about only those things that feel good to us are give us immediate pleasure there for most. Viewers it seems would much prefer to watch a well-shaped chick sing and torch the song on television and to have. Someone present a really worthwhile programme about the terrible international problems we face nowadays. But it goes beyond that and but it's all part of the same selfishness where Also it seems to me more concerned about keeping the dollars we have and getting more dollars than we are about helping to shape the kind of society in which our children will have to grow. And for that reason. I find that. The Dell of Asian networks and a great many sponsors are utterly cowardly
in terms of the kind of material they're willing to present to their audiences. I was just talking to an individual last week in New York who just signed up to do a radio show and I sat in his home listening to the first. Of the series of radio shows and he was just tearing his hair out and fuming and disgust that they had cut out all the provocative segments of what was a taped program and so long as advertising agencies and sponsors have this opinion to that extent the American public is going to be uninformed misinformed and vulnerable to the propaganda of rabble rousers and those with a special interest. Mr Rowan mentions propaganda as being a danger. Are there any signs that perhaps the public is becoming more enlightened to these dangers with the advancement of
communication. Professor Charles a sequined of New York University a scholar student and critic of not only the news media but the public reaction said this. Yes I think I would agree that the public is as my pantry as I'm concerned and as uninformed about the dangers of propaganda as they were 10 or 15 years ago. Conceivably there are small signs of an awareness growing the fact that Packard's book Hidden Persuaders get the non-fictional best seller list is a conceivable indication of awareness. But I would rather doubt it. I think the evidence of the effectiveness of advertising as such. Good and bad. True and False is the constant index of a public that is suggestible ignorant and unreflective and unintelligent. Basically in terms of the appeals to which it responds and that I hate is an indicator to say that I think that my conclusion would be that 15
years though short perhaps and history proves nothing of effective development of awareness on the public spot that is dealing with a new juggernaut that has to be dealt with with intelligence or else it will crush them. Can the public do anything in the way of voicing an opinion regarding what they are given by the news media. Robert Barchi an executive editor of the Lima Ohio citizen remarked. No I don't think the public is. Maybe I shouldn't word it this way I don't think the public is competent. Or able to know. What it wants or what it should have about all public all public opinion means. In in my language is a vote of confidence or lack of confidence. In something that exists. To get public opinion you have to.
You have to present an idea or a fact. And wait for public reaction. I don't think that I don't think that the public can tell radio or television or newspapers or the news magazines. What they should do. Better. Or. What they should do differently. They can always say. I don't like this or for I'm not going to read. This. This I like. We read this we write we write letters to the editor about us. As there ever been a president by which to judge the capabilities of the public to bring pressure on the media for better service. Born dean of all news analyst said when asked there are various organizations that have done a good job in the past that are women's radio committees in various communities that make it a point to watch programs to call attention to what is good and criticize what is bad. And I think they've had an
excellent influence. I believe the listeners throughout the United States would do well in every community to organize so that they can bring a little legitimate pressure to bear on their local radio and television stations to do the worthwhile things and to abstain from something that some of those that I think have a definitely negative effect. We then asked Mr. Calton born if he felt it could be done and still be democratic. Oh oke. Of course it's the most democratic thing in the world to organize public opinion to bring pressure to bear on those who have the power to educate to inform to entertain. I don't think that censorship. I think that's a legitimate exercise of public interest in a great medium like radio or television. The critic Gilbert Selby's had these feelings regarding the lethargy and apathy of the public
in the press. I think this that the first bias. We know we know from observation. That people do follow news on the air. This began with Radio continues now. That they believe it. They believe it to be impartial. I don't the whole I would say they get so much of it. Satisfied with it. This does not mean that apathy doesn't exist apathy is one of the best ways to ensure satisfaction to get people so dolled up they're great for whatever you give them. I would say that. The number of people. Who feel. That they're not getting enough new and new is sufficiently intelligently presented is absolutely infinitesimal. I think that a large number of people feel that individual brought castors particularly analysts and commentators may be prejudiced
but they also feel that probably the prejudices cancel out. I don't think this is necessarily true. They can slot within a limited area but you do not have. Any steady flow. Of commentary and analysis that represents. What you might call the radical liberal which you certainly do not have any closer to our present day. Communist wing. I don't know that this could practically be done. There hasn't been. Still maybe a minute communist press but it's it's almost invisible. Hand. Even if. I say. I suppose that if a communist party runs a candidate they can demand equal time. That they would know perfectly well that in all probability they were listened to only by a minute number of their enemies. I do not think that people are sufficiently
demanding but I think that's true about their newspapers as well. I think that if every in every way people should want more and fight for more than they actually get. Well can the public guarantee that all sides of an issue will be represented clearly and fairly. Again Professor statement I think the public is almost helpless in these matters. The public after all in a sense is a fiction. It's 170 million Americans 170 million Americans by definition cannot act together. The public Heaven knows has been. Like God in recognizing or even knowing its constitutional rights as it was with respect to broadcasting. I think very few listeners have any sense of participant concern or any awareness that they are at present the silent partner. In the system of broadcasting that we've got. And I think it's unrealistic to look to the public to provoke by organized action such
policy measures as you are describing now. I believe that the initial responsibility rests with the broadcasters themselves to provide the leadership and the responsibility without which the freedom of the press has no meaning for me at all. Freedom is no license freedom is merely the gateway to the performance of a duty. And the duty of the president of the broadcaster is to give straight news and balanced controversy in full measure to the public. It is leadership that I count on as the first requisite and the most tragically absent element in the press situation as I see it today. Coupled with that in broadcasting the gross and I think scandalous default of a Federal Communications Commission the Federal Communications Commission to live up to its policing responsibility is they have in effect given free reign since the days of the blue block which was constant but way spot several years ago they've given free rein to broadcasters to do what they will. There is no sport in your program said this is there are no criteria of what constitutes the public interest by which
renewal of licenses is determined. These are the two sources of default in my judgment. Basically the leadership of the broadcasting industry and the leadership of the one controlling interest we have that should support the public interest namely the FCC. But I find it a very serious default. Mr Selby spoke out on this same question. Here you touch our fanaticism of mine. Had. I think that I could take four or five hours to expound it but in brief. I don't know this anything that you can do this sort of overnight way. I think that you can. Make a long range plan. Which will have a profound effect. And incidentally you can add to this respect separate news from other
forms of entertainment. Everything else goes out of the air. The effect will be on all facets of broadcasting and the basic thing. Is this. Broadcasting operates under the law it gets a license from the government. It's unlike any other form of entertainment or communication. Newspapers are not licensed and if the new motion picture is not licensed broadcasting as communicator of news and ideas and history as a distributor of entertainment works under a license in that license it cares. The famous phrase the public interest. You want to set up a station that is doubly they're broadcasting also differs from the newspaper you can start a newspaper. You have the money you have all the money in the world you cannot start a broadcasting station unless you get permission from the FCC. So Debbie that's a very large limitation of freedom but you get this
license to operate which in effect means that the government representing the people of the United States gives you a fragment of the air for you to use. And you can continue to do this if you do it in the public interests. I what other than these three words mean the government will not define these words. That creates a vacuum which is filled by the broadcasters and quite properly. The broadcasters Phillippe not by philosophical abstractions but by their day to day operations. They put on this they put on that and they said this in the public interest. Now naturally they do this in the ways that they can best in the ways that affords them the greatest pleasure and prestige. And I believe a great many broadcasters not averse to having to make some money. My principle is this that you can have.
A fairly democratic system of broadcasting unless the public itself share it. The definition of the public interest. Quincy Holl news analyst for the American Broadcasting Company expanded on Professor sequins and Mr. Selby's thoughts about the Federal Communication Commission role. The fact that the. FCC the Federal Communications Commission has this particular authority over the licensing of radio and television stations. That fact kind of makes the public pressure on radio and television. A little more important than public pressure on a newspaper or a magazine publisher who is mainly interested in advertising circulation and so on. So I think that in respect to radio and television because of this peculiar character of the limited wavelengths and the rest of it that there is a function that public
groups can play and should play not merely in new ways but in education in cultural things in music in the rest of it to get the sort of programs they would like. They I think can quite justifiably say this is not just a question of how much money any individual program is going to make for the broadcaster in question. That's a matter a newspaper or a magazine can say well we're out to make money and we don't have to run this kind of thing because we are in the business of making money and if you want to read about good music buy another book or buy another magazine. But in this field in the in the limited wavelengths which are the property of the American people and not of any network station there it does seem that the American people as a whole and the various groups of it are entitled to a certain share of the time which will be given to cultural matters to matters of news as well as to matters of entertainment and therefore in the end these directions I do think that it is suitable and necessary
for the public to organize and bring this pressure. Because this is a public service that these people are rendering and they are they are battening you might even say on a on an element that belongs to the public the air of which there is only a limited amount of channels of which are a limited amount and they have no no inherent right to fill those channels with what happens to earn them the most amount of money a newspaper has because they can be another newspaper little coming in competition with it. And it's up to them though they make up their own decisions and they have much or little of serious news or whatever and that's their own affair. And that's fair enough. But when it comes to the radio television and a limited time limited channels then I think that you have got to have a should have the public making its wishes known and pressuring if you like for a certain type of program at least a certain proportion of the time. Will the public ever do this.
Again Mr. Hart Oh eventually I suppose it will to an extent. I think that. It's a it depends I think a lot on the times. Now. There's I said earlier I think we're living in a time of not great cultural activity of creativeness on the other hand we're living in a time when education is making rapid strides more and more people are getting educated and getting a good education a college education and beyond. And that to my mind is bound to lead to a greater demand for a superior type of radio and television program and I'm perfectly certain you're going to get it. I don't say it's going to be this year's going to be better the next year or next year than the year after that's too short range thing but in 10 years from now I'm perfectly sure it will look at the movies look at the quality of the movies today as compared to 20 years ago it's just no comparison. And I don't see any given season but there's a quality that is simply way beyond what was the quality of of 20 years ago I'm just assured it will be equal progress in the in the in the in the television and radio field.
We have heard Professor sequin say that he thinks the public is helpless in matters of complaint while Mr Calton born referred to small groups as abetted by the public to make their desires fell upon the various media. Mr. Holloway Mr. Selby's felt the FCC would do more to protect the public interest Professor sequin concludes today's programme with this ominous remark. Complaints to be FCC of course can come from anybody you want I can write a letter substantiating with facts what we complain of. Few of us do alas If more did perhaps more attention might be paid to it. There are a few organizations one of which I happen to be on that are a directorate of the National Association for Better radio and television. A tiny organisation working at a Los Angeles very bravely trying to monitor services over stations and communicate with the FCC where they consider default to be serious. But it is small and there are a few parallels to it.
And over 25 years of broadcasting 35 years I guess these groups of conjoint listeners have not grown the average man I think. Let's face it is plenty satisfied with what he gets. He's not critical because he's never been prepared or trained to be critical of the real potential resources of this medium which have brought us to communications golden age but leave us miles short of a golden age of culture. Thank you gentleman. You have been listening to the apathetic public one in a series of programmes on news in 20th century America in the series we explore all facets of the gathering writing and dissemination of news in this country today. Consultant for the program was Professor Kenneth Stewart and interviewers for the series are Glenn Philips and Ed Burrows. News in 20th century America is produced by the University of
Michigan broadcasting service under a grant in aid from the Educational Television and Radio Center in cooperation with the National Association of educational broadcasters. Larry Jones speaking. This is the Radio Network.
News in twentieth century America
Is the public apathetic?
Producing Organization
University of Michigan
National Association of Educational Broadcasters
Contributing Organization
University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
If you have more information about this item than what is given here, or if you have concerns about this record, we want to know! Contact us, indicating the AAPB ID (cpb-aacip/500-pr7mtp7c).
Episode Description
This program discusses the level of interest in news that exists among the American public.
Series Description
A series of documentaries on the gathering, writing and dissemination of news in this country today, compiled from interviews with journalists. Guests in this series include H.V. Kaltenborn, Roy Larsen, John Daly, Douglass Cater, Drew Pearson, Quincy Howe, Mike Wallace, Norman Cousins, David Brinkley, James Hagerty, Howard K. Smith, Marquis Childs, Merriman Smith, Gilbert Seldes, Fulton Lewis, Jr., Sig Mickelson, H.R. Baukhage, Roscoe Drummond, and many others.
Broadcast Date
Media type
Embed Code
Copy and paste this HTML to include AAPB content on your blog or webpage.
Host: Gardiner, C. Harvey (Clinton Harvey)
Interviewee: Seldes, Gilbert, 1893-1970
Interviewee: Rowan, Carl T. (Carl Thomas), 1925-2000
Interviewee: Smith, Howard K. (Howard Kingsbury), 1914-2002
Interviewee: Kaltenborn, H. v. (Hans), 1878-1965
Interviewee: Smith, A. Merriman, 1913-1970
Interviewee: Steven, Willliam P.
Interviewee: Barton, Robert
Producing Organization: University of Michigan
Producing Organization: National Association of Educational Broadcasters
AAPB Contributor Holdings
University of Maryland
Identifier: 59-48-27 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
Duration: 00:29:25
If you have a copy of this asset and would like us to add it to our catalog, please contact us.
Chicago: “News in twentieth century America; Is the public apathetic?,” 1959-01-01, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed June 10, 2023,
MLA: “News in twentieth century America; Is the public apathetic?.” 1959-01-01. University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. June 10, 2023. <>.
APA: News in twentieth century America; Is the public apathetic?. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from