Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Good Night and Good Luck

Good Night and Good Luck:
The Revolution May Never Be Televised

“I am entirely persuaded that the American public is more reasonable,
restrained and more mature than most of our industry's program planners
Edward R. Murrow, 1958

To say that George Clooney’s new film “Good Night and Good Luck” is one
of the most important films of this year is to be guilty of significant
understatement. Not since Michael Mann’s 1999 thriller “The Insider”
has a Hollywood film director made a media-focused mainstream movie
this important or timely.

Clooney tells the story of CBS news broadcaster Edward R. Murrow
(masterfully played by David Strathairn) and his battle to expose the
anti-Communist excesses of Wisconsin junior Senator Joseph McCarthy
(played by himself, thanks to recovered 1950s kinescope footage). Led
by CBS producer Fred Friendly (a be-speckled Clooney) and supported by
a loyal news team, Murrow’s courageous “See It Now” TV program
confronted the domestic fallout of Cold War ideology (and, by
extension, the military/industrial/media complex propping it up) while
simultaneously staking out a more tolerant and inclusive version of
American patriotism that honored privacy, individual rights, and a
sense of fair play.

Does this debate sound strangely familiar?

While Murrow’s truth-telling won him praise from New York Times media
reporter Jack Gould and other influential cultural gate-keepers, his
nightly stories put “See It Now’s" parent company and Columbia
Broadcast System CEO William Paley (Frank Langella, in the film) under
tremendous pressure. Large corporations cancelled their underwriting
contracts with CBS (during the 1950s, before the days of wall-to-wall
ads, companies like Alcoa often single-handedly supported an entire
program), and US military officials showed up in Friendly’s office for
a not-so-friendly heart-to-heart chat.

In telling Murrow’s story, Clooney wisely plays to his medium’s
strengths. Shooting in black and white, he has produced a compact film
that is tightly edited, atmospheric, and, for TV news studio scenes,
downright claustrophobic. We learn nothing about Murrow’s personal
life, very little about any of the story’s major characters beyond the
news room, and precious few details about Cold War culture.

What we do learn, thanks to Clooney’s decision to book-end his film
with a speech Murrow made at a 1958 Radio-Television News Director
Association dinner, is that many Americans like Murrow believed very
much in the power of television to educate, enlighten, and inspire,
rather than to simply sell people stuff. Murrow’s 1958 observations –
now legendary in media circles - still stand as some of the most
prescient and honest statements about TV and U.S. society ever made by
an industry insider.

“We are currently wealthy, fat, comfortable and complacent. We have
currently a built-in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information.
Our mass media reflect this.” Murrow observed on that October 1958
evening in Chicago. “But unless we get up off our fat surpluses and
recognize that television in the main is being used to distract,
delude, amuse and insulate us, then television and those who finance
it, those who look at it and those who work at it, may see a totally
different picture too late.”

What would Murrow make of U.S. television today? The massive global
consolidation of a hyper-commercial corporate structure? The 28 hours a
week we Americans watch, on average? The Fox-ification of TV “news”?
The 24-7 ad-driven “consensus trance” created by the medium, our
society’s epistemological command center even today? The 1996 $70
billion Congressional giveaway of the publicly-owned digital spectrum –
for FREE - to the telecommunications industry? Or, on the positive
side, community cable TV broadcasters’ valiant efforts to exploit the
medium to capture the real lives of real communities – to use TV for
something other than simply selling us stuff?

And, if Murrow were alive today, would he tackle our most provocative
but unreported national news stories-to-be? Election Fraud? 911 Truth?
Corporate corruption on a grand scale? International drug trafficking
by our country’s own intelligence agencies?

“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,” Murrow concluded in 1958. “Otherwise it is
merely wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive
battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference.
This weapon of television could be useful.”

Prophetic words. And ones that, I fear, will never be completely
realized as long as the television medium, in the main, is owned and
operated by our society’s richest and most powerful players.

Historian, media educator and musician Dr. Rob Williams lives in
Vermont’s Mad River Valley. Read, listen, and watch at

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