27 July 2009

Stay Up in Heaven, Ed. Trust Me On This One.

Imagine if Edward R. Murrow returned alive and well to planet Earth today. Once he turned on a TV and watched what passes for news he'd perforce be sick and wishing himself dead again.

I became convinced of this after recently re-watching George Clooney's fine film about Murrow and his stand against Joseph McCarthy Good Night, and Good Luck (2005).

Murrow was the CBS newsman who gained notoriety and much respect for his World War II radio broadcasts from London during the Blitz. His claim to everlasting fame came in the 1950's with his bold TV news shows. Murrow epitomized the straight forward reporting, unafraid of controversy, that is the hallmark of great journalism. Murrow understood the need for objectivity but also understood that there were not two sides to every story.

One can only imagine Murrow's reaction to buffoons like Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh and the national laughingstock that is Glenn Beck. These men are to journalism what axe murderers are to surgery. Every broadcast comes with an agenda. Actually, that would be fine if that agenda was to speak the truth and expose injustice. But theirs is strictly political. They are attacks dogs for an ideology, and most of what they bloviate about is in pursuit of the axes they wish to grind. They swing wild punches using dubious claims and invented "facts." Moreover they do not engage in discussions or the exchange of ideas but give airtime to guests who support their views or belittle, berate and shout down those who disagree. The disease they spread has reached over to the left. Keith Olbermann was a voice of sanity on cable TV whose commentaries a few years ago had been likened to Murrow's. But he has become an ideologue in love with his own voice and obsessed with fighting his counterparts on the right. Lost in this is any perspective on the day's events. Chris Matthews is no better.

Murrow would be appalled.

Yes, there are broadcast journalists who live up to the best ideals of the profession. They find and relate stories that are important to viewers and do so in sober and measured ways. But for the most part they are on PBS stations and get nowhere near the viewers that the blowhards do. Certainly none can be found on the major networks where news magazine shows are devoted to lurid murder cases usually involving well-do-do families or to high-end celebrity gossip.

Network news is hardly any better. Wasting time on athletes and entertainers and on giving both sides to all arguments. Yes, you're supposed to give both sides to reasonable disputes. But when polemics make up silly charges against an opponent it should be permissible to give some of these short shrift. When fringe groups or the deluded insist that religious dogma be given equal educational footing with scientific fact, they can be ignored along with the Flat Earth Society.

Good Night, and Good Luck does an excellent job of showing today's audiences what TV news used to be like. It was like it's supposed to be. Murrow was the face of many broadcasts but, you should excuse the cliche, it was a team effort. What the film makes clear is that Murrow was often the driving force and was certainly the visible manifestation of CBS efforts but he was one part of a dedicated crew of journalists.

David Strathairn got the role of a lifetime as Murrow and he made the most of it, capturing Murrow's inflections, mannerisms and posture. Clooney played director Fred Friendly, himself a hero. Robert Downey, Jr., Patricia Clarkson, Jeff Daniels and Frank Langella as CBS president William Paley also featured. McCarthy is played by himself which is to say that he and many of the other "characters" of that historical period are revealed through archival footage. Not just a nice touch but a means of making the story seem all the more like a historical document.

It has been mistakenly asserted that Murrow attacked the red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy. In reality Murrow shone a light on him. This was what good investigators do. They report what is being done. To attack suggests doing battle by whatever means possible, including name-calling, wild accusations and innuendo. Murrow and company simply sought the truth of what McCarthy and his investigations into communism was doing to individuals and the country. McCarthy responded to a Murrow broadcast not by refuting the facts presented, but by attacking the messenger. This is a common tactic in political discourse made into an art form by the likes of Karl Rove. You will note how often conservatives of recent vintage, unable to respond to the message, try to kill the messenger.

Good Night, and Good Luck is particularly good at showing the pressures that Murrow and company worked under. These came not only from McCarthy but from network advertisers and the suits in the front office (ain't that always the way? Seems whatever line of work you're in, certainly true in education, good work can be undone or at least threatened by the bigwigs who worship at the altar of the dollar sign). That's one of the reasons that teamwork was so essential to the CBS team. Clooney does a wonderful job of revealing this. Relationships are critical to the film, none more so than the one between Murrow and Friendly. This is very much a buddy picture.

Bookending the film are Murrow's speech at a 1958 banquet (four years after the story depicted took place) in which he warns his audience of the wasted opportunity that television can become if used primarily for mindless entertainment. Talk about prophetic! Murrow would not have been surprised to see what a great wasteland that television has become (are you ever shocked, as I am, to have literally a hundred more channels than you did as a child and not be able to find anything on worth a tinker's damn?). He doubtless could have envisioned all the insultingly stupid shows that pass themselves off (successfully, I'm sad to say) as entertainment. Low brow would be a step up for most of the crap we're exposed to. But I think even he would be very much disappointed at the current state of what calls itself news.

One might think that with 24-hour news channels there would be vehicles to bring important, well-told stories to a populace hungry for the truth. Sadly, these stations find themselves filling hour after hour with the type of shouting emotional thugs earlier mentioned. Other air time is taken up with endless repetitions of celebrity news and speculations about stories that are just developing. And for pity's sake, how many helicopter shots of cars pulling into or out of driveways do we really need to air? Many think the problem is that the news divisions have been co-opted by the entertainment sections of stations. I would, however, posit that the bigger issue is that news divisions are run by complete morons. In the case of Fox News the whole damn network is out of whack. There is no pretense of providing objectivity. It's not just a matter of one broadcaster, or one show, its a whole network that is closely associated in the public's minds with one party and one philosophy. MSNBC risks doing the same thing in the other direction. We are lucky indeed to have Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central to lampoon TV news and shine some light on the truth in the bargain.

Where have you gone Edward R. Murrow, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you...

Actually skip it, Ed, you'd hate it down here today.


Meredith said...

i think that you (and murrow, of course) are absolutely right. despite my own political leanings, lately i've found fault with both liberals and conservatives for lampooning the other side and making themselves the righteous. news should not be a quest for superiority in ones party but in the superiority of truth. honestly i didn't know much about murrow before watching good night, and good luck (because much as i fight it i'm still something of an idiot of this generation) and came away from it really respecting the courage it took to stand up and fight the right way, which in itself shows the sad state of our world.

hello, by the way. :) i always seem to jump right in to blogs that i start following.

Richard Hourula said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Excellent post, and spot on. Perhaps the most appalling aspect is the thought that younger generations, not exposed to excellence either in news reporting or in popular television entertainment on all those channels, might never learn the difference between excellence and garbage.

Richard Hourula said...

Meredith, welcome to my blog. Look forward to following yours as well. Jacqueline, thanks, like your blogs!

Roberto Ramon said...

I loved ``Good night and Good Luck`` the first time I saw it, read a little about Murrow afterwards, and he became a sort of hero for me (I`m about to get my journalism degree next year.)And I love the quote about sheep and wolves you have posted on your blog.

Call it coincidence but just yesterday I was reading an article in Slate Magazine (a left-leaning online mag) In which they argue that both the movie and Mr. Murrow weren`t all they`re cracked up to be.Just thought you would find it interesting. here`s the link:

Love your blog, I check it out everyday and become disappointed when you dont write anything new for days.

P.S.I was born and live in a small central american country called ``Honduras``, so you can say your blog has gone international.

Skitch said...

Loved "Good Night and Good Luck"...in fact it came up as a trivia question recently...

"What was the last black and white film to be nominated for an Academy Award?"

But here's another quote about TV news (from a film) that always sticks with me too...

"What do you think the Devil is going to look like if he's around? Nobody is going to be taken in if he has a long, red, pointy tail. No. I'm semi-serious here. He will look attractive and he will be nice and helpful and he will get a job where he influences a great God-fearing nation and he will never do an evil thing... he will just bit by little bit lower standards where they are important. Just coax along flash over substance... Just a tiny bit. And he will talk about all of us really being salesmen. And he'll get all the great women."

Richard Hourula said...

That's from Broadcast News. Good one