George Clooney and Grant Heslov on Ed Murrow

In honor of the Oscar awards Sunday night, CJR Daily is reposting an interview with George Clooney and Grant Heslov, co-writers of Good Night and Good Luck.

George Clooney (Melinda Sue
Gordon/Warner Independent Pictures)

George Clooney and Grant Heslov are the co-writers of “Good Night and Good Luck,” a new film about Edward R. Murrow’s legendary “See it Now” broadcasts in the 1950’s, in which Murrow took on Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the crusading congressman who saw a communist under every bed, effectively exposing McCarthy as a buffoon and a fool. Clooney directed the film, Heslov produced it, and both acted in it, Clooney as producer Fred Friendly and Heslov as “See it Now” director Don Hewitt. CJR Daily’s Bryan Keefer, along with reporters Hillary Profita and Brian Montopoli of CBS’s Public Eye blog, caught up with the two backstage Friday night after a panel sponsored by Columbia University’s graduate school of journalism, in which they discussed the film and Murrow’s legacy. (Public Eye has also posted video of the interview.) This story was originally published on October 15, 2005.

Public Eye: Was this film intended to change journalism?

George Clooney: No. It was intended to reflect a great moment in journalism, and to remind people of how well it can be done.

Grent Heslov: Yes.

Public Eye: And so, compared to the way things are done now, what would you say could be done to improve journalism today, maybe to reflect that moment? What steps, specifically, do you think?

Heslov: I think there’s actually a lot of great journalism going on. I think it’s different now, because no one has an audience like Ed Murrow had back then — 40 million people — nobody has it. So it’s harder.

Clooney: This [film] isn’t an indictment of how things are done. The truth is, it would be nice when specific people in the media don’t take a pass on tough questions. And that happens every once in a while. Usually it’s wrapped around into fear of being called unpatriotic, and I think it’s always important to have those discussions. There’s no right or wrong, just the fact that, let’s have the debate, because the debate’s the important part.

Heslov: And also, the idea that being first isn’t necessarily always the best. And I think because there are so many outlets now, that that becomes primary, and facts sometimes get lost.

Public Eye: One of the major themes seems to be the influence of bottom-line business interests on hard news, the value of news that’s relevant to public policy. You’re friendly with [CBS president] Les Moonves, you’re remaking “Network.” Do ever discuss those kinds of topics with him, the influence of entertainment, perhaps, on hard news?

Clooney: Well, today Les and I had a long talk about it. He said, “I’m getting killed out there!” because he made some “naked news” jokes, or something, and I said, I think people are concerned with what it is you want to do. And he has an interesting take on it, which is, it [CBS News] will go away if I don’t make it somehow more palatable. And that’s a dangerous place to go. Les is a dear friend, and I hope that making it more palatable doesn’t mean making it more entertaining and less informative. I don’t think so. He’s a smart guy, and he’s a pretty honorable guy, so I don’t think he will. But those are always questions, and it’s good that he sort of gets his feet held to the fire.

Public Eye: And this is something that you’ve expressed to him?

Clooney: Sure, we talk about it a lot. He’s actually an old friend. He’s not a dummy — he’s a smart guy.

Heslov: He’s in a tough spot.

Clooney: He is in a tough spot. Because the news audience is diminishing, so what are you going to do?

There is also the FCC idea that you also owe information to the American people if you’re going to use the public airwaves.

Bryan Keefer: Is there anything in journalism today that prompted you to make this film? Is there anything contemporary that led you to want to make it?

Clooney: Well, there were issues that we’re concerned with. Since it took a couple of years to put this together — a couple of years ago, as we all know, it’s no great secret that there was a fairly large percentage of the news population that was taking a pass on asking tough questions.

Heslov: A bye.

Clooney: They took a bye on that. … So, was there a reason for doing this? Sure. It had an influence on us. But there were other reasons, too. Listening to [Murrow’s] speeches, it was just nice to hear those words again out loud.

Keefer: You mentioned that there’s no program today that commands 40 million people. But films sometimes do. Do you feel like film is surpassing television as the most influential mass medium?

Heslov: Influence, yes, but not in audience.

Clooney: The lowest-rated television show, more people see than a major film. Still.

Remember, that I’m the one who gets paid a percentage by how many people end up watching the film. And “Oceans Eleven” was a big hit, a lot of people saw it, but a whole lot more people watch “Survivor.” A lot more. So there’s a much bigger audience.

Keefer: Given that fragmentation, that the platform doesn’t exist, what does it take now for something like an Edward R. Murrow type to penetrate the national consciousness? Do there have to be a lot more voices — how do you think that’s possible?

Clooney: I think, in general, this is all cyclical, don’t you? You can go back and see where yellow journalism came from, and it was 150 years ago — these are issues that are constantly renewed, and come up, and we go, “Well, we didn’t ask tough questions for that period of time,” and then people get pissed off, and they go, “Hey, we want real information, we want the truth.” And you get that for a while. And then something happens, and people panic, and we do dumb things again. It’s cyclical.

I think we’re evolving. We used to burn witches at the stake, and then we had the Senate investigating people, and now we just have pundits being sort of unkind.

Public Eye: I read that you had screened “Network” to some young people.

Clooney: They didn’t think it was a comedy.

Public Eye: Why do you think that is?

Clooney: Because all the things that Paddy Chayevsky wrote about came true. … The idea of the anchorman being a bigger news story than the news story. The idea of a reality show following terrorist groups around is not far-fetched. Sybil the Soothsayer is not [far-fetched] — the idea that you would dress up news to look like entertainment. Or dress up entertainment to look like news.

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Bryan Keefer was CJR Daily’s deputy managing editor.