(A partial spoiler)
Very simply, Good Night, and Good Luck is the story of a couple of years in the life of American television/radio journalist Edward R. Murrow (1908-1965) that the Encarta encyclopedia describes as “one of the first journalists to provide news broadcasting with a sense of integrity and societal responsibility.”
The action takes place almost completely within the CBS building in New York beginning in October, 1953 and ending about a year later. Murrow (played exceeding well by David Strathairn), with producer Fred Friendly (George Clooney), and their team (played convincingly by many worthy actors, see www.imdb.org for the cast list) decide to investigate the story of an Air Force reserve officer in Michigan who was dismissed from the military as a security risk. There was some vague link between his father and some communist person or entity. The man was never allowed to face his accusers; in fact the charge was sealed in an envelope and never revealed because of national security. Friendly thought there was an immediate link to Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisconsin) whose unsubstantiated accusations about people being communists or associated with them in any way, had destroyed many lives, mostly by innuendo – never proof. However, Murrow did not want to link McCarthy directly to this situation, but the link was inevitable as was McCarthy’s reaction.
Before the broadcast, Murrow’s team was asked if they had any links, even remote ones that McCarthy could use on them. One man recused himself because his ex-wife had gone to a meeting or belonged to an socialist organization – something he only found out after they divorced.
Murrow offered McCarthy equal time, which he took three weeks later. He used the broadcast to attack Murrow, again, with unsubstantiated claims against his loyalty as an American. He never responded to any of the information that Murrow had broadcast during the original program.
William Paley, head of CBS, (Frank Langhella) wanted to grant editorial freedom to Murrow’s broadcast, and he did. But in the end, Paley phased Murrow out of CBS. Paley, too, was under pressure because the government was (is) the one who grants the broadcast license in the first place. Plus, he said CBS affiliates wanted entertainment, not Murrow’s kind of reporting. Murrow also caused the sponsor, Alcoa, to abandon the show.
The film shows the effect of McCarthy's scare tactics, as well as the writings of journalists who would not go up against him, when one of Murrow's producers commits suicide.
Less clear is the role that Robert Downey, Jr. and Patricia Clarkson play in the film. It could be that in the frenetic activity of the news studio, it was one thread I couldn't follow in one screening. (Were they "fellow travelers" who had infiltrated CBS or just breaking the rule that employees could not be married to one another? Or maybe both?)
Murrow caused the beginning of the fall of the Red Scare prophet, Sen. Joseph McCarthy who was investigated by the Army for making unsubstantiated accusations. McCarthy was reprimanded by the Senate, but he kept his seat.
The events in the film are book-ended by speech Murrow gave in 1958 that took a broad swipe at television, its obsession, and the public’s, with entertainment over news - and the perilous situation this creates.
Good Night, and Good Luck deals with the ethics of journalism: was Murrow creating news by his investigative piece, or was his job to just report it? How much, if any, editorializing was ethical?
One of the unique aspects of this film is that it uses original broadcast tape of McCarthy rather than presenting him as a character. Filming the whole thing in black and white made this possible. I thought it very effective.
The issue that was begun 50 years ago, however, remains: is editing, that is, selecting sound bytes and clips that serve the journalist’s purpose, ethical? The filmmakers seem to do the same. Another question is: if they haven’t given us all the exact facts, have they at least given us the truth? From a distance of fifty years we can make a judgment; when it happens daily, it is difficult to tell. Murrow made a point about the need for critical engagement with the news, that is, questioning it - and him, too.
The film is directed by George Clooney who with Steven Soderbergh (an executive producer) are creating their own smart - and frenetic - political commentary genre (think K-Street) and leaving it up to the audience to connect the big black dots. As Murrow believed, there is room enough for diverse political discourse in our country all the time. Dissent is not disloyalty, he said more than once. He also commented on the climate of fear, and its exploitation. (Just listen to your local 11:00pm news and how the anchors lead in stories; fear is a hook to keep us listening, often for no reason; advertising often uses fear as well, fear of not having the best car to fear of one’s deodorant failing. Michael Moore also addressed these kind of media generated fears in Bowling for Columbine.)
For anyone teaching media literacy, communications, and journalism, Good Night, and Good Luck illustrates how well the government, commercial media, the news, and economics all work together. One might ask how free speech really is. I think this is a film worthy of our attention because it breaks open history and asks us what happened, what really happened, and will it happen again?
What have we learned about journalism fifty years on?
Truth, it would seem, is the only antidote to fear.
From one of Murrow’s speeches (quoted at least in part in the film):
"We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine; and remember that we are not descended from fearful men. Not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes that were for the moment unpopular.
“This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy's methods to keep silent, or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities. As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age. We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home. The actions of the junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn't create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it — and rather successfully. Cassius was right. "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves." Good night, and good luck." See It Now broadcast, March 9, 1954.