Both sides of the political divide complain about media follow through. Two raw issues continue to seep irritation from the 2004 Presidential campaign. The swift-boat character assassins accused John Kerry of exaggerating his Vietnam War record, of cowardice rather than bravery, and even of murder. Later, CBS anchor Dan Rather presented evidence that George Bush went A.W.O.L. from his duties in the Air National Guard. Most television networks aired testimony by Kerry supporters that painted him as a hero. And Republican outrage led the media to examine Rather's tainted evidence closely enough that it was finally withdrawn. But in neither case did the media genuinely follow through. We live in an era when being neutral means allowing the expression of opposing opinions. If Louis Farrakhan says white people bombed New Orleans levees to kill poor African Americans, TV stations will air an interview with someone blaming faulty construction. But decreasingly often will the media put its reputation on the line to adjudicate disagreements, to dare to say directly what's true and what's false. It's the position of George Clooney's Good Night, And Good Luck that the major television networks have been shirking their responsibilities in this regard from very early in their history.
Written by director Clooney with Grant Heslov, Good Night, And Good Luck is ostensibly the story of how TV's first superstar newsman, Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn in an Oscar-worthy performance) stood up to U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy, one of the most dangerous figures in American history. Clooney presents McCarthy's persona as he appeared in his own day, through the actual footage of his 1950s television appearances. Clooney also takes it mostly for granted that viewers know that McCarthy staged his brief, vicious bid for power by promoting the wild conspiracy theory that "card-carrying" communists had infiltrated the federal government and most every other institution of American authority. He cowed those who opposed him by accusing them of communist sympathies.
Murrow was outraged by McCarthy's sensibility and tactics and dared to attack him when most in the news media were too intimidated to do so. Assisted by his friend and producer Fred Friendly (Clooney), Murrow used his weekly news program See it Now to dispute McCarthy's wild accusations, to expose him as a bully and to prove him a liar. Murrow knew that McCarthy would fight back ruthlessly, and that's just what the Wisconsin senator did, calling Murrow a communist and claiming he worked for the Soviet Union. But Murrow's courage led to McCarthy's downfall. Not long after, McCarthy was censured by his colleagues in the senate and ushered into the failed-demagogues' corner of American history.
Clooney is certainly interested in the issue of public paranoia and the use of "patriotism" as a strategy to stifle dissent. He includes details about the clandestine relationship between a CBS reporter (Robert Downey Jr.) and a production assistant (New Orleans' own Patricia Clarkson) that makes us think they are up to something seditious when actually it's something else entirely.
Nonetheless, though the picture is set in the repressive era of McCarthyism, its subject matter is really the commercialization of television news. The McCarthy broadcasts cost Murrow corporate sponsorship for his television program and ultimately resulted in See it Now's being relocated from prime time to Sunday afternoons. Murrow was a hero to his fellow journalists, but in his own words, "to pay the bills," he was required by CBS chairman William Paley (Frank Langella) to host the fluffy Person to Person celebrity interview series that played as a 1950s version of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. (Clooney includes footage from Murrow's unintentionally hilarious interview with Liberace.) With grimace and tic, Strathairn lets us know how much Person to Person required Murrow to choke down his own indignation.
Good Night, And Good Luck begins and ends with a speech Murrow gave when he was honored with an award in 1958. Clooney makes it clear from the frozen faces of those in the audience that Murrow is supposed to be gracious and short. He's supposed to express his gratitude to the award judges and the event organizers, take his plaque and sit down. Characteristically, he uses the occasion for a lecture that expresses the movie's theme: Because it is so intimate, television is the most powerful tool for communication ever invented, and it should be used wisely rather than indiscriminately, not just to entertain and amuse, but also to educate.
Murrow could not have envisioned the hundred-channel universe in which we now live, the cacophony of voices competing for our attention. He worried that TV wouldn't do news at all, and now we have multiple channels that do nothing but news. However, his concern that the obligation to truth is too often trumped by the obligation to balance remains as relevant today as ever. More voices than ever speak to us, but few as bravely as did Edward R. Murrow.