The Socialist 22 February 2006 |
Join the Socialist
The socialist review:
Good Night and Good Luck
Good Night and Good Luck arrives in Britain on the back of a wave of
Set in the USA of the 1950s, it tells the story of an actual conflict
between television reporter and presenter Edward R. Murrow and Joseph
McCarthy, the arch-witch hunter who chaired the House of Un-American
It is also a film about journalistic standards and ethics, with an
implied commentary on journalism in the era of 'The War on Terror'.
Shot as a docudrama in black and white, and containing a large amount
of contemporary news footage, the film conjures up an authentic picture
of the television newsroom of the 1950s.
Brilliantly acted by David Strathairn as Murrow, and a fine
supporting cast, including director and co-writer George Clooney playing
the role of Murrow's producer, Fred Friendly, Good Night and Good Luck
is a riveting and entertaining film.
From the early 1950s Senator McCarthy had been in the forefront in
forcing out of public life, film and media and trade union activity
anyone who had left-wing sympathies, or even tenuous connections with
radicals and communists.
In 1953, McCarthy overreached himself, turned his attention to
exposing 'red espionage' in the US armed forces. On March 9 1954, the
CBS programme See it Now, fronted by Murrow, attacked McCarthy and his
This in turn led to two further programmes in which both parties
presented their case. It's widely held that McCarthy's political demise,
culminating in a Senate condemnation of McCarthy's methods at the end of
1954, stemmed from his exposure by Murrow on See it Now.
The film not only traces the history of these programmes, but also
the conflict within CBS itself. On the one hand, the film shows how the
company had attracted journalists such as Don Hollenbeck, who had come
from an explicitly left-wing background, and who was subject to on-going
attack from conservative politicians and newspapers.
On the other hand, the founder of CBS, Bill Paley, grows increasingly
wary of See it Now as sponsors start to distance themselves from the
programme. Eventually this leads to See it Now being moved from its
prime-time slot. Later it was to be ditched altogether by CBS in favour
of The $64,000 quiz.
The film also begins and ends with a speech given by Murrow in 1958
to the Radio and Television News Directors Association in which he
condemned television as having become "fat, comfortable and
He also criticised the way in which television had become used to
"detract, delude, amuse and insulate us". The 'Murrow
Doctrine' has become a benchmark referred to by many who, seeing the
rise of Fox News and 'embedded journalists', regret the passing of an
apparent golden age of journalism.
For all its virtues, some of the underlying messages of the film are
rather one-sided. Investigative journalism was not the determining
factor in leading to McCarthy's downfall.
In reality, McCarthy was becoming far too much of a loose cannon for
important sections of the American ruling class - the army chiefs in
particular did not want him interfering on their own patch.
Moreover, journalism doesn't exist outside of an overall political
and economic context. It would be splendid if honesty and integrity were
the watchwords for all journalists.
However, they are employed by corporations that are dedicated to
making profits and uphold a system, capitalism, that protects those
As companies such as Murdoch's News Corporation (which includes the
Fox companies) now extend their influence into cable television across
the US, it isn't sufficient to believe in a 'return to Murrow'. Even if
you could bring him back, would any of today's major news channels be
prepared to give him a job?
Despite these caveats, this is an intelligent, thought-provoking film
that gives an insight into the era of McCarthyism and the development of
news television in the 1950s.