We could use some good luck
Good Night, and Good Luck, the cinematic account of broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow’s clash with red-baiting Sen. Joseph McCarthy more than half a century ago, is playing in theaters across the United States.
This cigarette and Scotch-soaked tribute to gutsy journalism willing to take on state power crosses our screens at a seminal moment in our history. The gruesome marker of 2,000 US soldiers dead in Iraq has been passed, and the nation waits (as I write) to learn whether White House officials broke the law in carrying out a smear campaign to discredit critics of the war that has so senselessly destroyed those lives.
That Kentucky boy and much-maligned ‘Hollywood liberal’ George Clooney could get a movie like Good Night made signals something of a cultural thaw. It’s apparently okay now to criticize government officials and their policies. Unfortunately, the movie seems to be showing everywhere except for Greensboro, which is strange considering that its hero, Murrow, grew up right here in Guilford County.
The movie opened in Los Angeles and New York on Oct. 7, Atlanta the next week and Charlotte the week after that. The official website gives Nov. 4 as the date the movie becomes available in ‘“additional markets.’” Managers at the Grande in Greensboro and the Palladium in High Point told me that if Good Night came to Greensboro it would likely show at Carousel Cinema on Battleground, the theater with the corner on the independent film market here.
No such luck, however.
‘“On November fourth our Burlington office will get it,’” I was told by Barbara Winfield, bookkeeper for the Carousel. ‘“It will show at the West End Cinema. I don’t see it anywhere on our calendar in Greensboro through the end of December.’”
So I made the 90-mile trek down to Charlotte. I’m a native Kentuckian, and Clooney’s father is a veteran newscaster from Cincinnati just across the river; his mother, Nina, is the former Miss Lexington. And with his hero Murrow being a native son of Guilford County I saw it as nothing short of my patriotic duty to see this movie.
The truth is that I don’t really know much about Murrow beyond his reputation as the father of broadcast television news who set the template of gravitas followed by latter-day anchors Cronkite, Jennings, Rather and Brokaw. Murrow’s biographer, former NPR ‘“Morning Edition’” host Bob Edwards ‘— who set the standard for my own generation’— writes that the father of television news grew up in a family whose lineage was split between Quaker abolitionists on one side and slavers and Confederate war veterans on the other. With that background, you can see how independent judgment, fair play and a fanatical defense of the right to dissent would be practically inscribed in the genes.
Murrow would probably be promptly chastened for his editorialized presentation of the news if he were a student in any of the journalism schools that operate today. In the broadcasts Murrow dissembles the inconsistencies of McCarthy’s rampage against supposed communists, showing how the chair of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations was destroying careers by slandering civil servants without presenting evidence of wrongdoing. Murrow contextualized the information in his report on McCarthy in a way that would be unacceptable according to today’s standards of journalistic ethics.
The reporting is bracketed by Murrow’s personal remarks, which come off as Roman oratory or high-minded argument by someone willing to stake his personal reputation against a demagogue.
‘“Because a report on Senator McCarthy is by definition controversial we want to say exactly what we mean,’” he announces at the beginning of the report.
He concludes by accusing McCarthy of ‘“confusing the public mind,’” and launches into an appeal to the highest principles of American democracy: ‘“We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. 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.’”
Clooney has said that the script for Good Night, and Good Luck was written directly from the transcripts of those broadcasts.
Murrow’s campaign set in motion McCarthy’s fall from grace. Fifty years later, another episode of vindictive bullying and attacks designed to destroy political enemies is being scrutinized with the Fitzgerald probe into the outing of CIA agent Valerie Wilson. Unfortunately, the damage of 2,000 dead servicemen and women in Iraq is already done.
Where were our Murrows in March 2003 when the Bush administration was putting the final touches on plans for the invasion of Iraq? Where were the Democratic senators who had the backbone to stand up to President Bush? Where were the prophetic religious leaders? Where were the bold journalists?
I was a student at Columbia Journalism School during that time, and I learned the ropes from at least two closet leftist professors, one of whom was a former NPR reporter who kept a ‘Not In Our Name’ poster on his apartment refrigerator. I wrote about war fever occasionally, but it wasn’t work I expected praise for.
There was no encouragement from faculty, including the leftists, for taking on the big war lies of the administration even though hundreds of thousands of people of people who saw through Bush’s distortions and manipulations massed in the streets of Manhattan not far from our campus to protest before the invasion.
No, the not-so-subtle message from faculty was, keep your head down and don’t let your career get sidelined by accusations of liberal bias.
To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at firstname.lastname@example.org.