The marketing team behind Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), a biopic of Edward R. Murrow set largely amid the public duel between the broadcast pioneer and the mildly outspoken anti-communist Senator Joseph McCarthy, decided to go with a poignant, anachronistically sincere Murrow quotation for its movie posters: “We will not walk in fear of one another.” Not bad, but if I had written the tagline, it would have gone something like, “If you think what passes for TV news these days sucks, you’ll love this movie.”
Good Night did fine without me, earning six Oscar nominations and a healthy take at the box office. But now that Clooney’s sophomore directorial outing has aged half a decade, I’ll take a late-breaking opportunity to promote it: TV news in 2011 is largely comprised of the flash and pandering hated by one of its most revered patrons, and that’s why Good Night, and Good Luck matters. In fact, it’s obvious throughout the film that the state of modern television news was a major motivator behind telling Murrow’s story in the first place.
The film is shot in black and white amid cigarette smoke and flannel suits, but it’s a unique kind of period piece: one that eschews nostalgia for the Great Man and his bygone era. Instead, Clooney takes the more ambitious route, working on one level to celebrate Murrow’s career while working on another to evoke the threats that would eventually consume the then-nascent medium of TV journalism, leaving us with the infotainment morass we’re stuck in today.
The film begins with Murrow, played with quiet gravitas by David Strathairn, warning colleagues at an industry convention that they were well on the path to irrelevance. The scene is in fact a reenactment of a famous speech that Murrow gave at the Radio and Television News Directors Association convention in 1958, and the book that was put out as a companion to “Good Night” summarized the speech well, calling it Murrow’s description of “the untenable position of the journalist broadcasting on instruments whose development had been shaped by—and would continue to grow as—an impossible combination of news, show business, and advertising.”
The convention hall is packed with colleagues and industry executives, but Murrow doesn’t censor his views.
“Our history will be what we make of it. And if there are any historians about fifty or a hundred years from now, and there should be preserved the Kinescopes for one week of all three networks, they will there find recorded in black and white, or color, evidence of decadence, escapism, and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live. We are currently wealthy, fat, comfortable, and complacent television in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse and insulate us ”
From Murrow’s speech we jump back to the CBS newsroom in 1953, and the film’s main storyline begins. But it’s impossible to understand the full import of Murrow’s fight against McCarthy—not to mention the earnestness of his plea to his colleagues—without some knowledge of where television was as a medium in the 1950s.
As Murrow notes in his speech, there were only three television networks in 1958. His words predicted the fleshpots of cable news, but that era was still a long way off. According to research cited by media scholar Thomas Doherty, between 1949 and 1959, the number of American households that owned a television increased from one in every ten to nine in every ten. In other words, TV was a brand new genre, but one that became rapidly dominant.
More crucially, it was a genre that came of age during (and in many ways enabled) McCarthyism. Before television, a senator could not make direct pleas to the entire nation without being filtered through some newspaper’s prose. McCarthy was the first master practitioner of that Machiavellian science: gaming the broadcast cameras. Murrow had to have understood that it was the medium he himself was trying to foster that enabled a Joe McCarthy. In this sense, he carried the already large burden of taking on a powerful public figure, but added to that was the pressure he felt to get a medium that had huge potential for public influence heading in a less sinister direction.