Topic: Media

Television News: Making Us Stupid and Cheating the Dead

I found out Betty Comden had died when it was announced on a cable news channel. Comden and her long-time collaborator Adolph Green formed one of the most versatile and successful musical comedy writing teams in Broadway history. They usually wrote a musical’s “book” (story and dialogue) and the lyrics, leaving the music to such greats as Cy Coleman, Jule Styne, and Leonard Bernstein. It wouldn’t be difficult for a TV obituary to select highlights of Ms. Comden’s career, for there were many of them. Comden and Green, for example, wrote the lyrics to classic songs like “Just in Time” and “The Party’s Over” from “The Bells Are Ringing;” “Neverland” and “I Won’t Grow Up” from “Peter Pan,” and “New York, New York” (“It’s a wonderful town; the Bronx is up and the Battery’s down!”) from “On the Town.” But no: the channel I was watching, ABC News and many others showed a clip of Gene Kelly from the movie musical “Singin’ in the Rain” and said something similar to what George Stephanopoulos said ( as the Kelly clip was on screen) in his tribute to Comden on his Sunday show:

“Lyricist Comden wrote classics like ‘Singin’in the Rain.'”

Well, yes, “lyricist Comden” wrote “Singin’ in the Rain”…the screenplay to the film “Singin’ in the Rain.” “Lyricist Comden” did not, however, write the lyrics to the song “Singin’ in the Rain,” although about 100% of viewers who didn’t know otherwise now think that, thanks to the unforgivable sloppiness and incompetence of Stephanopoulos and his fellow TV news media incompetents.

Why unforgivable? It is unforgivable on several levels:

  • Singin’in the Rain” is just one of many famous songs from the 1920s and ’30’s written by lyricist Arthur Freed (1894-1973) with composer Nacio Herb Brown. Both are in the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, and of their songs,Singin’in the Rain” is undoubtedly the best known. Thanks to TV news carelessness, a whole generation or two has been gulled into thinking his best work was the creation of another artist.
  • Singin’in the Rain”—the film–-was produced in part as MGM’s tribute to Freed, who also wrote the lyrics to all the other songs in the movie such as “You Are My Lucky Star” and “Good Mornin’!” After his songwriting days were over, Freed became the architect of the Golden Age of MGM musicals, producing almost every great MGM musical of the ’40s and early 1950s. For today’s TV hacks to use that same film, the crowning achievement of the system Freed helped nurture, to help erase public recognition of Freed’s accomplishments…a legacy, incidentally, every bit as impressive as that of Comden and Green…was grotesquely unfair.
  • Betty Comden’s career was full of achievements that deserve recognition, and yet scores of television news divisions managed to recognize her only for something she did not do: write the lyrics to “Singin’ in the Rain.”

Thus do our television messengers warp history, dishonor the dead and the greats of the past, and make us collectively stupid and unaware. The most powerful and pervasive of all communications methods is in their power, and far too often they approach their responsibility with neither care, skill, or respect. Let the debates about whether television news is biased rage on; that it is inept and unethically incompetent is beyond argument.

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