Thursday, November 10, 2005

"Good Night, and Good Luck": Some Thoughts

George Clooney's modest, loving homage to crusading journalism, Good Night, and Good Luck, was never destined to win wide audiences or convert the unconverted. Still, the cinematic valentine to legendary newsman Edward R. Murrow is a nice reminder of a time when a journalism icon appreciated the responsibility of the Fourth Estate.

That might just be the single most salient theme of Good Night, and Good Luck, which centers on how Murrow (portrayed with crisp earnestness by John Sayles' utility player, David Strathairn) finally took televised aim at Commie-baiting Sen. Joe McCarthy.

While Murow's "See It Now" program on McCarthy was welcome and long-overdue, Clooney's film places the episode squarely in context with the TV news troubles that were just beginning to take form. David Halberstam's excellent examination of the news media giants, The Powers That Be, turns a jaundiced eye at Murrow's shot across the bow and what it meant for broadcast news.

From The Powers That Be:

"The new affluence was not by any means matched by public accountability. As for the McCarthy show itself, which CBS would later cite as one of its finest hours, no less an authority than Murrow himself felt it was a symbol not of the network's strength but rather of its unwillingness to accept responsibility. The show had been done by Murrow, not by CBS, he (Murrow) told his friend David Lilienthal somewhat bitterly. He thought CBS had backed away from it and he felt strongly that on an issue of this gravity the network should have accepted responsibility for the program.

"What he had feared, he told Lilienthal, was now taking place, a huge growth of power and influence without a comparable willingness to accept responsibility for it. Murrow's show on McCarthy had probably salvaged television's respectability, without it the medium would have been disgraced. Always sensitive to the charges that the networks failed in the area of public affairs, senior officials would later point to the McCarthy show. The implications were clear, that they did programs like this all the time ..."

Slate's Jack Shafer has an interesting take on the media-fanned fire of Good Night, and Good Luck. A fair amount of it is just old fashioned bashing, but he does make some good points.


At 6:47 AM, Blogger Scribe said...

I want to go see that movie.

It makes me long for the time when journalists had integrity and a spine and weren't driven by corporate (advertiser) interests. The Fourth Estate (the last of the checks and balances on federal government) has diminished to being a whore for ratings, where style usurps substance. Today's journalism bastions are a paltry shell of its predecessors. The Fourth Estate is needed now more than ever, and it has failed its constituency just like the other branches of federal government.

At 8:57 AM, Blogger Conrad Spencer said...

I'd caution against over-romaticising the past. Yellow journalism, sensationalism, and profits are as much a part of journalism's past as its present.

That's not to say there aren't journalistic heroes out there, more scrupulous than selfish, who understand their responsibility to the public. I think their existence, though, depends more on strengh of character than date of birth.

At 1:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Two observations...

1. Halberstam's points about a fourth estate with growing power, but no willingness to take responsibility for it, came full circle in the Memogate controversy. Instead of taking on a demagogue intent on destroying lives (as Murrow did) Dan Rather blindly went after a sitting president on false premises -- and then refused to back down after the flawed journalism had been definitively established. Even now, Mapes is out hawking her lame defense in a book and "Vanity Fair" article.

2. As a Washington Post reviewer pointed out, the film is a bit saccharine in its view of the Murrow showdown as the defining moment of McCarthyism -- when, in fact, the real truth of McCarthy's evil was that through guilt by association the Senator forever tarnished the efforts of hardworking intelligence services to root out the very real Red threat (and yes, Virginia, there was one).

At 1:20 AM, Blogger Ceres said...

I think Anonymous is impersonating Red Dirt.

At 11:34 AM, Anonymous Red Dirt said...

That Anonymous was Red Dirt and meant to comment as such, save for a odd and rare little hiccup on my Powerbook!

At 10:39 AM, Blogger LiteraryTech said...

A Powerbook? How leftist of you, Red Dirt. :-)

I do think there is this tendency to over-romanticize the Fourth Estate. Let's not forget the days of Hurst and his successful efforts to create a war.

I'm not suggesting there is an easy answer, but I do think it is unlikely that we will get far by calling for a "return" to days of "integrity" in journalism. Media companies, regardless of size, have always been concerned with their business realities. Today we call it ratings, back in the day, it was called circulation. The game has certainly changed, but the fundamentals aren't all that different.

There will always be sad sacks like Judy Miller and Bob Woodward, and evil bastards like Robert Novak.

Accountability is critical. The fact that the Republican machine has consistently failed to hold anyone accountable for anything over the last five years is indicative of the problem.

At 2:45 PM, Blogger >koop said...

That conflict will always exist in journalism, between corporate and civic responsibility. Are the two mutually exclusive? Is one more important?
Good Night, and Good Luck did a great job of capturing that struggle and presenting Clooney's perspective on the debate. I personally loved the movie as a portrait of 1950's journalism with all its blemishes and imperfections intact.


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