Good Night, and Good Luck

Jeff Alworth

During the 1950s, journalism was going through growing pains as television was quickly supplanting radio as the medium of choice for American families.  As cheaply-produced sitcoms and game shows raked in the money, broadcasters were looking at their news divisions and demanding that they they either got cheaper to produce or attracte more eyeballs.  Fast forward to the new millennium, when journalism finds itself wracked by further growing pains as television news migrates from broadcast to cable.  The questions of money, objectivity, and relevance are now rocking journalism again.

StraithairnGeorge Clooney’s new film Good Night, and Good Luck, which opened yesterday, may depict Edward R. Murrow’s battle to expose Joe McCarthy, but it’s about American journalism in the age of Karl Rove.  The movie, though, is less about the political similarities--cold war vs. war on terror, evil-doers vs. Soviets, McCarthy vs. Bush--than about the role the media played in addressing the twin political contexts. 

McCarthy is not meant to be a stand-in for Bush, but rather the force of tyranny that will always creep into powerful institutions, and which is now creeping into the US government.  It was satisfying to hear the resonance between the two ages of GOP corruption--and to hear the recognition flare throughout the crowd in the form of cynical guffaws--but the movie has a deeper and more disturbing point.

MurrowDuring the early cold war, as with our current early terror era, no one was willing to criticize the government as it danced on civil liberties and crushed lives.  McCarthy's witch hunt rolled forward, and the timid dissentors in the government were in no position to stop it.  The question in the CBS newsroom, and the question Clooney is concerned with, wasn't whether McCarthy was doing anything wrong, but rather how to report it.  Clooney shows Murrow, his producer, Fred Friendly, and CBS news grapple with the question.  Is it appropriate to take a position on McCarthy?  Does merely pointing out the damage he has caused constitute an ethical breech?  While Murrow and Friendly knew where they stood, it was the minority position.

Of course, the outcome is never in doubt, of course. We know that Murrow will take down McCarthy.  We know that CBS will become so influential that the decisions Murrow and Friendly make will actually come to define journalistic ethics.  Clooney depends on our meta-textual understanding of the story he's telling so that when we see Murrow, we think of the run-up to the Iraq war.  We watch Murrow and we imagine what might have happened if he hadn't begun running stories critical of "the junior Senator from Wisconsin" (he couldn't seem to bring himself to name McCarthy).  And then we think of Iraq and the answer is provided for us.

Where is journalism headed?  As a warning coda to the story, Clooney shows Murrow's own end--getting run out because his program couldn't compete with game shows.  There was never actually a time when news was independent from revenues, or when journalists didn't bump up against ad client--and these pressures are on display in the film  But, confronted with governments reaching for power in times of war, journalists also had to ask questions about what the nature of fact was, and how to present it.  In Good Night, and Good Luck we watch one of the great moments in journalism, as one news team navigated these difficult questions.  But it's hard to take full pleasure in what they accomplished because we keep thinking of later journalists, making different decisions.

  • LT (unverified)

    In a recent interview, Clooney said they double sourced every scene in the movie because one small mistake and the whole thing would be discredited. He also mentioned someone saying to Dan Rather "remember, the story was right, it was the source that was wrong".

    Not bad advice to always be sure of the facts. Someone (Walter Cronkite?) once told a story about a sloppy reporter writing that the fire was on 123 Fir Street when in actuality, it was on 321 Fir Street. He said if mistakes like that are let slide, to begin with no one may care except the people on Fir Street. But if sloppiness is not corrected "someday someone will misquote the mayor and then everyone will notice".

  • (Show?)

    I should say, incidentally, that the film is excellent and I think liberals will find it enormously satisfying.

  • oregone (unverified)

    I'm not really big on movies, but when i saw Mr. Alworth's post, i went out and saw it this afternoon. I chose the 3pm showing at the Fox Tower (the only place in town available, according to Oregonlive dot com).
    My fiancee and i stopped at Maya's for a burrito at around 2ish, chain-smoked two cigarettes each, then got in line at the Fox. There was an unusually long line this afternoon, so i wondered out loud what people were waiting for. It was a cross between "Thumbsucker" and "Good Night and Good Luck." The people behind us were actually from Beaverton and they told me how the production company of "Thumbsucker" originally credited their town as Beaverwood. I thought that was funny.
    After getting through the ticket-buying queue I presented my ticket to the guy at the bottom of the escalator and he told me that the line started to the left of the concession stand. I've never had to wait in line to get into an actual movie before, so at first i didn't understand what he meant. I rechecked my ticket to make sure that i hadn't accidentally bought a pass to star wars or terminator 4 or whatever. My ticket was right, though. It said, "Good Night."

    The theater this afternoon, at 3pm on a Sunday, was packed. I disagree with the comment that basically said liberals will enjoy this movie, because i honestly think that PEOPLE will enjoy this movie. If i were the director of a movie on this subject, i would have been wrongly heavy-handed in comparing McCarthyism with the Patriot Act, and all the similariies within. Thankfully, I'm just some guy that isn't really into movies that happened to like this one.
    I didn't cry or anything, though. Came close twice. The second time i came close to crying was that one part when, i think, the President made his speech about dissent and loyalty toward the end of the movie. The first one was when we just got into the theater before the movie even started and my fiancee from Lansing, Michigan saw the long, impatient line for the movie and i said something like, "Only in Portland would THIS movie be popular." And she said something like, "Yeah, and on a SUNDAY!"

  • Sid Leader (unverified)

    I too remember when journalists had cojones.

    Not any more!

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