"Nattering nabobs of negativism” was the phrase Spiro T. Agnew used to describe the press when he addressed the convention of California Republicans on Sept. 11, 1970. The vice president had his own reasons for despising what he called “the effete corps of impudent snobs.” Local reporters kept poking into the stories of his shady dealings as governor of Maryland, and when Richard Nixon tapped him for the national ticket, the Washington press corps took up the hunt. Mr. Agnew would finally resign on Oct. 10, 1973. His words marked a milestone on the road to a new strategy for presidential handling of the press corps. Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, to some extent Eisenhower and to an extraordinary degree Kennedy had tried to control the news industries by charm. It worked. Although editorial pages were often hostile territory, reporters treated their subjects respectfully and, in hindsight, perhaps too gently.
The move toward overt animosity began with Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War, and escalated dramatically during the Nixon years with Watergate and the Pentagon Papers. Since the government could no longer control the press, it simply tried to discredit reporters for their “liberal bias.” The strategy of vilification has been extremely effective. As the country receives its news about the war in Iraq or hurricane relief efforts after Katrina, it wonders how much is government-controlled propaganda and how much is part of a vast left-wing conspiracy to “get Bush.” Amid the barrage of computer-generated graphics, high-tech sets and impeccable hairstyles that make up television news today, can we believe anything? It makes us long for an earlier, more secure time, when Walter Cronkite was “the most trusted man in America” and when most of us still remembered Edward R. Murrow with reverence as the reporter who set the standard for quality broadcasting. As respect for the media sank, Murrow and Cronkite have risen to mythic status. Everybody needs a hero, even if we have to make them larger than they were.
Good Night, and Good Luck is both George Clooney’s tribute to Murrow and his attempt to force us to re-examine the relationship between the press and power in its many guises. As director and co-writer with Grant Heslov, Clooney has clearly outgrown his image as a romantic leading man with cartoonish good looks and self-deprecating grin. With this film he follows in the bootprints of Clint Eastwood, the one-time action hero who became one of the most thoughtful filmmakers of the decade.
Shot in black and white, this film evokes memories of the gray television images of the early 1950’s. The press room at CBS skulks behind curtains of cigarette smoke. It’s suffocating, claustrophobic in there. When the team wants to see the early reviews of their work, they dispatch their one woman producer to fetch the newspapers as though she were an errand boy, and she never questions her role. Clooney reproduces an era with the meticulous detail of a Fred Wiseman documentary, but he leaves little doubt that he is dealing with contemporary issues that all of us should be thinking about, long and hard.
The Murrow era at CBS coincided with the most fevered years of the cold war, and because of the dangers both real and imagined, a sad paranoia infected the national psyche. Brain-washing, propaganda, infiltration, blacklist and fellow traveler became terms of common usage, and demagogues by the score, in politics and in the press alike, built reputations on unmasking Reds. A vague, unsubstantiated suggestion that someone were somehow soft on Communism could wreck a career. The assault on civil liberties and due process gained acceptance on the grounds that the enemy was ruthless and must be dealt with by equally ruthless tactics. Anyone who hesitated, questioned or challenged the vigor of the anti-Communist crusade could in turn be branded disloyal. A friend, business associate or family member with questionable political beliefs could bring an automatic conviction of guilt by association. Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin was the most notorious of the militant Red hunters, but he was not alone. Far from it.
The point is crucial. Clooney does not exhume the remains of McCarthyism, the man, his cause, his savage methods or—as we’ve come to understand—the reasonable grounds for some of his intemperate allegations. He examines instead the mass hysteria that allowed the climate of intimidation to flourish. He uses Edward R. Murrow as the experienced reporter and analyst who steps back from the personalities and petty conflicts and tries to raise a voice of reason above the din of controversy. As Murrow, David Straithairn never gloats in victory. In a series of programs, Murrow quietly and deliberately exposes the brutal tactics of the charlatans and the complacency of those who condone it. In the epilogue to his famous “See It Now” broadcast of March 9, 1954, Murrow ends his examination of McCarthy’s tactics with a Shakespearean challenge not to the senator but to his television audience: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves.”
In his determination to restore some sense of due process to those rashly accused, Murrow had to confront a battle on two fronts. While McCarthy and his friends in the right-wing press conduct a full-scale attack from without, Murrow is locked in an ultimately more lethal internal struggle with CBS. The head of CBS News, Fred Friendly (played in a beautifully understated style by George Clooney), supports Murrow without qualification, but the president of CBS, William S. Paley (Frank Langella), struggles to sort out his loyalties to the news division, the sponsors, the audience and the corporation. Murrow never hesitates, but Paley wrestles with his conflicting responsibilities. This is Paley’s story as much as Murrow’s. He backs Murrow, but shortly after the McCarthy program, he decides to move “See It Now” from its weekly Tuesday night slot and make it a five-time-a-year program in the “intellectual ghetto” on Sunday afternoon. “See It Now” would be replaced with “The $64,000 Question,” a proven audience pleaser, advertising draw and ratings builder. Within a few years, “See It Now” would be gone altogether, and Sunday afternoon would become consecrated to professional football.
Murrow had another great moment, one not included in the film. On Thanksgiving Day 1960, “CBS Reports” aired “Harvest of Shame,” a documentary on the exploitation of migrant workers in American agriculture. Since many food processing companies advertised on CBS, the reaction was predictable. Within months Murrow left CBS to join the Kennedy administration as director of the United States Information Service. In May 1961, Newton Minnow, Kennedy’s pick to chair the Federal Communications Commission, described commercial television as “a vast wasteland.”
As a film, “Good Night, and Good Luck” rises so far above current popular movies that it might be a separate medium. Clooney has woven archival footage of Senator McCarthy and the television programs of the era into a dramatic reconstruction of events at CBS. It includes virtually no action and rarely leaves the offices of Black Rock, the corporate headquarters on Sixth Avenue. Quite simply, this is a beautiful, innovative, thoughtful, intense and disturbing film.
Yet ultimately, it is a tragedy. As history played out over the last 50 years, Murrow lost on all counts. The government once again questions the loyalty of anyone who dares question its policies. Instead of a war on Communism, we have a war on terror, and if the fear quotient is kept high enough, many can be persuaded that the abridgement of civil liberties is a small sacrifice to pay for victory. The television industry has no more taste for controversy now than it had in Murrow’s time. The ghetto has moved from Sunday afternoon to Sunday morning, but the peak viewing hours remain dedicated to moronic reality shows, vapid sitcoms and lurid police dramas. These generate the revenues, and broadcasting is a business. The alternatives, public television and radio, live under the constant threat of funding cuts for failure to follow the party line.
In the film Murrow and his team seized the potential of television and used it as an instrument to question the anti-Communist hysteria of the day. George Clooney has done the same. It does not happen very often. In 1958 Murrow warned a convention of the Radio Television News Directors Association: “Our history will be what we make it. If we go on as we are, then history will take its revenge, and retribution will not limp in catching up with us.” Clooney quotes the speech at length and, with no little irony, might add for today’s audience: “Good night, and good luck.”