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At NAB Convention, Tim Robbins Speaks His Mind -- And His Speech
April 14, 2008  | By David Bianculli  | 1 comment

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 at Monday's 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. In the picture shown here, if you look to Robbins' left, that's my clipboard, and that's my shoe.

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.


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.




Diane said:

Whoa, Dave! What a great column! Thanks for being on the scene and bringing us the news so fast.

Comment posted on April 14, 2008 8:24 PM

anchorgirl said:

Fantastic piece. And great move on your part to give him the opening. Thanks!

Comment posted on April 15, 2008 1:04 AM

Monty49 said:

Marvelous! Kudos to you for facilitating his speech. Now if only the industry would listen.

Comment posted on April 15, 2008 8:50 AM

Evander said:

Terrific piece on/with a hot-button guy--up-to-the-second, and the Murrow tie-in makes for "hyper-teleliteracy." A coup altogether. Congratulations!

Comment posted on April 15, 2008 11:52 AM

Noelle said:

Sometimes I lose patience with actors and celebrities that get on their soap box about causes only so they can have the spotlight shine on them a little longer. I don't think this is the case with Tim Robbins or his partner Susan Sarandon. I think Mr. Robbins wants us to strive to be more, do more and expect more from ourselves. We need people to stand up once in a while and remind us of our potential to make the world better.

Comment posted on April 15, 2008 1:36 PM

lisa said:

Robbins threatened former Washington Post columnist Lloyd Grove for daring to quote Susan Sarandon's mother's negative critque of the way Robbins and Sarandon are raising their son! Yet this obnoxious f*** has the nerve to go around the country lecturing reporters about freedom of speech?!

But the poor baby is really cheezed that - gasp! - not everybody on the planet shares his world-view! It's called freedom of speech, Timmy! You push me, I have the right to push you back -- deal with it!

Shame on the nitwit who booked this loser for the NAB, and double-shame on you for holding up someone even more insignificant as the starlets he complains about as a modern-day Edward R. Morrow!

(In the spirit of free speech, I'm posting your comment verbatim. But for the record -- it's Murrow, not Morrow. Good night, and good luck. -- David B.)

Comment posted on April 15, 2008 7:38 PM

Jane Quatam said:

Thank you David and thank you Mr. Robbins. These words should be broadcast each morning and evening as the media begin it news cycle. The spirit and wisdom within these words should serve as a refreshment for the soul.

I think it's been an awful long time since the media looked in the mirror instead of in their wallet, the abyss beckons like a black hole pulling us all closer day by day. Soon we will pass a threshold where change will be even more needed and yet even more impossible to create. Societies break down, it happened to the Romans, it will happen to America, and it will happen sooner if we don't take steps to change our society, to reinvent our society. Mr Robbins knows this, we all know it, but Mr Robbins had the nerve, the skill and the talent to wrap the bad news in an interesting and humorous package.

This story must be about more than Tim Robbins and what he said, or else this speech fails, the media fails and this country fails with all that implies for not only ourselves but the rest of the world as well. Don't let this issue die, don't turn it into what Tim wore, or what he ate, or we've already fallen on our sword and we are just waiting to die.

Comment posted on April 15, 2008 11:22 PM

Benita said:

With all due respect to Mr. Robbins, it's hardly newsworthy when an actor tows the typical Hollywood liberal line.

It is not as if the news stories that Mr. Robbins has deemed important are completely shoved under the rug, thanks to the Internet, even we stupid, lowly non-celebs can find any and all types of news, both written and televised 24/7. Mr. Robbins, we can think for ourselves and we do not need celebrities telling us what we should watch and what news is important, we are perfectly capable of doing that ourselves.

Comment posted on April 16, 2008 7:37 AM

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Seven and a half years later, and our irresponsible media cart continues to careen downhill more quickly than our culture can circle the drain.
The detractors here who say they are 'pefectly capable' of culling and parsing 'what news is important' are truly and abjectly retarded. 
It has come to pass: a ratings driven and agitprop fuelled mechanism by where money is made and agendas are accomplished that would fill the Dulles brothers' bosoms with gratification and pride.
The truth will out. I'm hoping that the greater truth doesn't prove to be sickly rationalized greed, but I fear that it shall.
Dec 1, 2015   |  Reply
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