Good Night, Gallant Knight

Speaking at an awards ceremony in 1958, CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow commented on the state of television by imagining historians one hundred years hence poring over primetime programming from his day: “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…and only fleeting and spasmodic reference to the fact that this nation is in mortal danger. This process of insulation, of escape from reality, will continue to be massively financed, and its apologist will continue to make winsome speeches about giving the public what it wants.”

The cultural critic Neil Postman not only echoed and furthered Murrow’s concerns in his landmark 1985 jeremiad Amusing Ourselves to Death, but also commented on them precisely if indirectly. “The only thing to be amused about is the bafflement of reporters at the public’s indifference,” Postman wrote. “There is an irony in the fact that the very group that has taken the world apart should, on trying to piece it together again, be surprised that no one notices much, or cares.” All of which is the disheartening subtext of George Clooney’s sharp second feature, “Good Night, and Good Luck.”

On the surface we have a sleek and inspiring tale of one brave reporter and his news show standing up to the political tidal wave that was Joseph McCarthy’s communist purge. Clooney’s father toiled as an itinerant Midwestern anchorman for decades, and there is little doubt that the director has great affection for his subject. Shot lovingly in black and white, the film evokes a more innocent era—the smooth jazz and bittersweet gospel, the dark suits and wide ties, the ubiquitous cigarettes—the better to foster an aura of Soviet paranoia, abetted by the ghoulish visage of Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, human shorthand for overwrought witch hunts.

We first see him in 1953 newsreel footage, red-faced and punching his hands through the air in front of him as a curl of inky hair waves from his pasty forehead. The specter of Communism is on the march, McCarthy warns, or something to that affect, and one notes how the intervening years have lent the junior senator from Wisconsin both a quixotic hopelessness and, perversely, a power he never wielded in life. He is a repellent figure, an opportunist and jowly bulldog, yet also a man who defined a time and an aura of paranoia that struck at the very roots of our civilization. A Trojan horse of sorts, McCarthy rolled into the anxious post-WWII political moment as a likable, straight-shooting country boy and war hero, then mined political gold with a speech to the Republican Women’s Club of Wheeling, West Virginia, on February 9, 1950, in which he famously claimed to have in his possession a list of some 57 known communists working in the U.S. State Department. The American public pricked up its ears, McCarthy remade himself as the grand accusator, and politicians and the media soon embraced the fear he engendered.

Then Murrow stepped into the breach. Heroic in his own right as a result of brave reporting from the firebombing of London, Murrow, with an appealing face and dulcet tones, was by 1953 a bonified TV star. With cigarette in hand and hair pomaded just so, Murrow made the country feel intelligent and cultured with “See It Now” and kowtowed to more basic instincts discussing trivialities with celebrities on the more popular “Person to Person.” He and producer pal Fred Friendly attacked McCarthyism in a late 1953 “See It Now” story about Airman Milo Radulovich, a reserve weatherman dishonorably discharged after the Air Force painted his immigrant father as a Communist. In the film, two U.S. Armed Forces officials visited Friendly just before the Radulovich episode aired. “These are dangerous waters you are attempting to navigate,” Colonel Jenkins warned the producer.

Indeed, the story, which initiated a backlash against McCarthy, angled the “See It Now” boat towards not only the shark-infested waters of the U.S. political machine but the craggy shoals of serious television as well. After a March 1954 episode solely dedicated to deconstructing the bearish and dubious actions and words of McCarthy—a half-hour chunk of television journalism many consider the finest ever—Murrow and Friendly were called into the office of CBS’ president William Paley. Because of poor ratings and frightened sponsors, Paley moved “See It Now” to the netherworld of Sunday afternoon, where it could offend as it liked because no one would notice. The fluff of “Person to Person” had always won better ratings, and now it took pride of place. In 1955, “See It Now,” a landmark news show and four-time Emmy winner, lost its regular weekly spot.

Appearing on “See It Now” to defend himself in April 1954, McCarthy slung dubious accusations and lurid insults at Murrow: “he is a symbol, a leader of the jackal pack, a communist supporter since 1934,” ad infinitum. The appearance did him little good. By the end of the film McCarthy is indicted and his reign of terror ended—at one point we see attorney Joseph Welch posing the immortal questions to McCarthy regarding his decency and shame, at long last—and Murrow and Friendly are rightly lauded.

Yet the obvious lesson is that television brooks no dissent, not of its own M.O., at least; what goes on the tube must be Aldous Huxley’s soma, mindless and soothing, or face banishment. To see the indignity of Murrow distractedly quizzing Liberace about the singer’s marital plans is to witness the destructive power of television, effortlessly muzzling the reporting drive of such a determined and headstrong man. Murrow appeared bowed if unbroken at the Radio-Television News Directors Assocation ceremony, which bookends Clooney’s film, when he damned the entire television industry, himself included. “We shall pay for using this most powerful instrument of communication to insulate the citizenry from the hard and demanding realities which must be faced.”

One of the first conservatives to speak out against McCarthy in the 1950’s was the historian and Pulitzer Prize winning poet Peter Vierick, who spoke recently of man’s responsibility in the world. “I can think of nothing more gallant, even though again and again we fail, than attempting to get at the facts; attempting to tell things as they really are.” Clooney’s film presents Murrow as a truth seeker and an impressively gallant figure. He uses television to unmask and defeat McCarthy, a great American fraud; he is journalist as knight. But television brings him low in the end, and when finally the story prods us to look around for gallantry today, we are left wanting.

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