Other Matters: Bill Monroe’s Legacy

Bill Monroe died yesterday at the age of 90. You may remember him as the moderator of NBC’s Meet The Press. He was noted for the toughness and fairness of his questioning in the years when that Sunday morning program influenced millions of Americans’Bill Monroe.jpg thinking about government and politics.
I remember him as the man who built the news department of WDSU-TV in New Orleans into a pioneer in early television news and a moderating force when the south was riven by the hatreds and tensions that accompanied the civil rights movement. By the time I joined WDSU in the 1960s, Monroe had moved on to be the Washington, DC, bureau chief for NBC, but WDSU’s news operation continued in the tradition of integrity and professionalism that he established. When he came back to visit, I was privileged to get to know him.
In later years when I moved from reporting and anchoring to running news departments, Bill’s example and occasional advice helped guide me. In this clip from the Emmy archives, he talks about one aspect of his early days at WDSU.

For an account of Monroe’s career and contributions, see his obituary in The New Orleans Times-Picayune. This is the conclusion of his obituary in today’s Washington Post:

Throughout his career, he was critical of the Federal Communications Commission’s regulation of broadcast media – a first step, he said, toward abridging the constitutionally guaranteed rights of free speech and free press.
“The effect of government control on broadcast news is to make it bland, to inhibit it, to make it somewhat less courageous, less inclined to initiative than the print media,” Mr. Monroe said in a 1980 interview. “The whole regulatory system is a monster that has done the public much more harm than good.”

Let us hope that latter-day Bill Monroes—if we are fortunate enough to have some—continue to insist on preservation of that constitutional guarantee

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  1. Mike Ferring says

    It’s people like Bill Monroe who made me proud to be in TV news. And make me proud still.

  2. says

    One Bill Monroe the father of bluegrass, the other a father of grassroots news; one a man in stasis, looking back, still bound by his Southern upbringing–the other free to look forward and bring new perspective to the South. Two related but divergent legacies… This cussed country, no matter how undeserving still, was fortunate to have both men, and you to work with the more visionary of the two. Race and grace in the birthplace of Jazz? Sometimes your “Other Matters” really do matter.

  3. says

    Nice piece. A generation now long gone. I’ve often spoken and written about the fact that the people who taught me my profession were almost to a man veterans of World War Two. They had a set of values that vastly exceeded any of today’s standards for journalism, management, psychology, basic understandings. They’d all seen the world at its worst and fully comprehended the value and necessity of an unfettered and free press in oiling the machinery of society and democracy. They didn’t preach this, they practiced it. They truly believed in what we were doing and what we needed to do. They fully understood the concept of public service. They fully understood the difference between news and fluff and absolutely HATED fluff.
    We were supposed to know everything we could about all our elected officials, the structure of all of our governments from the neighborhood level through the federal system. We had to know the local cops, know who the key business and civic leaders were, what their roles were with in the community, who we needed to contact for the information that wasn’t on the press release. We had a genuine pride in what we did. In Monroe’s case, and his contemporaries, they literally changed the face of the South forever. They stood for something so far beyond the idiotic reports on troubled starlets and celebrity marriages. They’d have puked at the thought of a Donald Trump. How I lament the effects of modern newsrooms on our kids. We know everything about nothing; we’re experts on computer games, texting, porn stars, the progeny of Hollywood matings, electronic dating. Our networks talk to people with opinions but never seem to explore issues.
    Our kids aren’t asked to serve, aren’t asked to contribute, aren’t informed on the value of community and the absolute need for relevant, balanced and intelligent information. Instead they can isolate into their internet groupings and like-minded commentary. We’re not demanding anything of ourselves or our youngsters and we’re fading fast. How I wish we could return to those days when we’d all sit around the evening campfire and listen to Uncle Walter tell us how it was….
    (Mr. Paolicelli was news director at three television stations and ran the Washington, DC, bureau of the NBC-owned stations.—DR)

  4. James H. Esser says

    A thought provoking blog entry. I’d forgotten about Monroe’s influence on you. When I was at NBC in Washington, his office was about 50-feet away from where I worked. I sensed the respect he was shown by the rest of the news people who were mostly just jealous of one another. I didn’t know Tim Russert, but I felt like a member of my family went away when he died. I’d forgotten how much he and people from his generation owed to the pioneering work of Monroe. You’ve reminded me.

  5. Larry Peterson says

    Doug – Did Monroe misspeak when he said “peaceful acceptance of segregation”? If not, I am intrigued by what his editorials said.
    (He did not misspeak. Unlike most parts of the deep south, New Orleans had almost no violence during the civil rights years. That is, of course, in great part because of Orleanians’ storied laissez faire attitude, which absorbed or deflected a good deal of the hatred and anger that existed in south Louisiana. But it is not a stretch to credit Bill’s editorials on WDSU-TV with effectively encouraging restraint. This link http://www.wdsu.com/r/26494237/detail.html takes you to a WDSU video that contains an explanation by Monroe of the aim of the editorials—DR)