NAB 2008: Murrow, Minow...and Robbins

Actor-writer-director Tim Robbins, who has been known to speak his mind when standing in front of an audience, was asked the give the keynote opening speech Monday at the 2008 National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas.

Then he was asked not to give it — or, more accurately, advised that the speech he had written might be a little too preachy, scolding and negative to go over well before the 1,000-plus broadcasters in attendance.

In the end, Robbins gave it anyway, delivering important remarks, before an important audience, which bore echoes of newsman Edward R. Murrow’s 1958 "wires and lights in a box" speech and FCC Commissioner Newton Minow’s 1961 "vast wasteland" address — thoughtful, prescient speeches beseeching news directors and broadcasters, respectively, to raise the standards of their pervasive and influential medium of television. (Minow’s address, like Robbins’, was at an NAB convention.)

Robbins hadn’t planned to read the speech. Instead, after a short sampling of clips from his movies, Robbins was to join the moderator on stage and sit for an impromptu Q&A session. I was that moderator.

What happened instead is that Robbins opened by mentioning the speech he’d written, but was asked not to read. He said its text would be available, eventually, elsewhere, in some other medium. Then, as a segue to the Q&A presentation, I pointed out that I had read the speech in the green room backstage, likened it in terms of content and setting to the Murrow and Minow speeches, and pointed out that a few years ago at the Oscars, Robbins had gotten a lot of heat for speaking out against the Iraq war.

At that point, many of the attendees applauded in support, and I looked over and saw a gleam in Robbins’ eyes. Then somebody in the crowd yelled out "Speech!" (The guy who approached me afterward and said he was the culprit was Jim Sardar, assistant news director for WLNS in Lansing, MI — but there may be as many claimants to this particular crowd shout as to the call of "Judas!" when Dylan went electric.)

Robbins reached into his pocket and pulled out the speech he had written, and asked if he should. The crowd applauded. I pointed out, jokingly but accurately, this would markedly reduce my role as moderator — and that was that. Robbins left his chair, went to the podium, and was off. (To hear audio of the Robbins’ speech, click here.)

On the 50th anniversary of Murrow’s speech before the Radio-TV News Directors Association, with the same RTNDA group also convening in Vegas, Robbins carried on in that same tradition.

In 1958, Murrow said, "This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise, it is just lights and wires in a box."

In 1961, Minow’s "vast wasteland" was his description of any TV channel’s offerings across an entire 24-hour broadcast day. Watch without interruption, he told the NAB then, and "you will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And, endlessly, commercials — many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom."

In 2008, Robbins said this: "I’m here to tell you that we don’t need to look at the car crash. We don’t need to live off the pain and humiliation of the unfortunate. We don’t need to celebrate our pornographic obsession with celebrity culture. We are better than that."

And this, with lots of sarcasm: "We love distraction… I don’t know about you, but show me a starlet without panties getting out of a car, and suddenly the world seems like a better place. Show me ‘Knight Rider’ drunk on the floor eating a hamburger, and I won’t ask why my kid has no health insurance. Let’s stop burdening people with facts."

And this, as his opener, with even more sarcasm, "apologizing" to Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly and other right-wing broadcast pundits:

"A few years ago they told America that because I had different opinions on the wisdom of going to war, that I was a traitor, a Saddam lover, a terrorist supporter, undermining the troops.

"I was appealing at the time for the inspectors to have more time to find those Weapons of Mass Destruction. I was a naive dupe of left-wing appeasement. And how right they were. If I had known then what I know now, if I had seen the festive and appreciative faces on the streets of Baghdad today, if I had known then what a robust economy we would be in — the unity of our people, the wildfire of democracy that has spread across the Mideast — I would never have said those traitorous, unfounded and irresponsible things.

"I stand chastened in the face of the wisdom of the talk radio geniuses, and I apologize for standing in the way of freedom."

It was a speech Variety described approvingly and at length, calling it "laced with wry irony and winking sarcasm." Other reports from those covering the convention, at this writing, characterized it as "electrifying," "a humorous, profanity-laced attack," and "an historic moment." A few people walked out. At the end, the majority of the crowd gave Robbins a standing ovation.

Much of Robbins’ speech urged an increased diversity of voices, allowing minority viewpoints and artistic expressions to have their day, and their say. By booking Robbins as their keynote speaker, the NAB ended up doing precisely that. Perhaps accidentally, but the outspoken actor hardly was an unknown quantity, and the results should speak for themselves.

Just as Robbins did.

David Bianculli has been a television critic for a very long time. Currently, he’s TV critic and guest host for NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross, teaches television history at New Jersey’s Rowan University, and offers nightly viewing recommendations and observations on his website,