JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Murrow, Friendly, and Joe Wersheba discuss McCarthy and the team’s ongoing efforts to unmask McCarthy and his hearings as a witch-hunt.

Murrow and his team of reporters screen footage of Joseph Mccarthy.

Jeff Daniels as Sig Mickelson, head of CBS news.

Frank Langella as William Paley the president of CBS during the period of Murrow’s battle with Joseph McCarthy.

Murrow, Friendly, and Sig Mickelson heatedly discussing the changing face of CBS news.

Commercial for Kent cigarettes, which Clooney uses to critique the overall effects of U.S. broadcast television.

Shot of Murrow's sponsor ALCOA, which was also a major contributor to the military industrial complex.

Murrow and Don Hollenbeck discussing McCarthy and the effects of his witch-hunt on the United States.

Murrow alone at his desk typing his famous reply to McCarthy's charges about him and CBS news.

Murrow on camera rebutting each of McCarthy's charges. This program was one element of both McCarthy's and Murrow's downfall. [WHO DID YOU MEAN BY PRONOUN "HIS"?]

See It Now reporters and CBS newsroom celebrate the end of McCarthy.

Bill Paley decides to limit Murrow's influence as a result of negative responses from the sponsors.

Murrow and Friendly sit in Paley's office as he tells them that their days of service are coming to an end because Americans want entertainment not a "civics lesson."

Together the two friends walk out of Paley's office, signaling the beginning of the end of real news reporting.

The specter of CBS, one of the original networks and the conformity of the 1950s is represented in this shot as Murrow and Friendly walk by a monitor where Eisenhower is giving a speech.

 

Themes within the film about freedom of the press and the need to educate the U.S. people are Clooney’s political message. Furthermore, the whole film functions as a counterpoint to his earlier Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. Both films are based on Clooney’s own self-exploration of television, a medium that both he and his father worked in. His father was a newscaster and it is Clooney’s memories of his father that shape the Good Night and Good Luck and Clooney's own career. He validates this point when he says in an interview with Rob Feld,

“I grew up in it [television] and spent my whole life in it. My father’s in it and it’s a big part of my life. So I think you direct and write about things you know, first.”[22][open endnotes in new window]

What Clooney seems to understand better than many Americans are the potential and limits of broadcast television to both entertain and inform. Clooney recognizes Edward R. Murrow as someone who was influential in U.S. television. Grant Heslov, Clooney’s friend and collaborator on the script, in his answers to Feld, understands this when he says,

“George grew up in the world of local news. Murrow was somebody who was held in high regard in his home.”[23]

The film honors the myth of Murrow and his dedication to the U.S. spirit and way of life. Thus Murrow, like Barris can be understood in the film in multiple ways: Murrow the historical figure, Murrow the man, Murrow the journalist, and Murrow the prognosticator of the downfall of U.S. television. And it is this last strand of the Murrow persona that Clooney utilizes in the opening of the film with Murrow’s speech,

"Your organization may be accused of having given hospitality to heretical and dangerous thoughts. But the elaborate structure of Networks, Advertising Agencies and Sponsors will not be shaken or altered. It is my desire, if not my duty, to try to talk to you journeymen with some candor about what is happening to radio and television. If what I have to say is responsible, then I alone am responsible for the saying of it. And if there are any historians about fifty or a hundred years from now, and there should be preserved the Kinescopes for one week of all three networks, 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. We are currently wealthy, fat, comfortable and complacent…Unless we get up off our fat surpluses and recognize that television in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse and insulate us, then television and those who finance it, those who look at it, may see a totally different picture too late."[24]

Interestingly, the speech delivered in the film is cobbled together from an article Murrow wrote for TV Guide and not the actual speech. The actual speech was later published in TV Guide in December of 1958 and within that published piece we can locate the kernel of Murrow’s embittered philosophy about the realities of television versus its possibilities. He writes there,

“If this state of affairs continues, we may alter an advertising slogan to read: Pay Now, Pay Later. For surely 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 if we are to survive.”[25]

It is apparent that while Murrow challenged some of the tactics of the Cold War, he also was an individual who bought into the perception that the Soviets were out to destroy the United States. Even though Murrow is celebrated as the man who brought McCarthy to justice for selling the irrational belief that the United States was being invaded by the Soviets, in fact history shows that Murrow himself was fearful of Soviet influence. He believed that it was television and radio, which could preserve the United States because of its power to reach so many people in a short period of time. His comments may seem dated, yet I would argue they still offer us insight into how the United States has in fact not really progressed in its way of thinking about the role of the media and the country's relation with the citizenry.

There is a common-sense view of television that sees it only as a means of escape and insulation from the real world (even so-called reality television is an attempt to forget one’s own day-to-day existence). Furthermore, in an era when global wars are enacted in the name of the people and in the name of freedom, news — the one area of television that could perhaps present "the hard and demanding realities which must be faced if we are to survive" — has been co-opted by the very entities that news should be critical of in its coverage. Clooney’s film longs for a modern day champion like Murrow who would challenge the current power structure in U.S. politics and broadcast television. The film years for someone who would use their influence as a member of the press to ensure that the U.S. Constitution is protected and the citizenry educated to see that the restriction of a few rights, or slight alterations are in effect wholesale changes to the ideals of the United States.

These challenges were recognized by Murrow in 1953 and 54. As the film depicts, Murrow’s attack on McCarthyism and the Red Scare was not without controversy or danger. This is best illustrated in the scene when Murrow, Friendly and Sig Mickelson discuss how Murrow is changing the policy of CBS news. The three men are watching footage of Milo Radulovich photographed by Murrow’s news team. Murrow is positioned in the left side of the frame, Mickelson is in the center, and Friendly is in the background. The staging of the scene in this fashion is used as visual shorthand to establish the political positions of the characters before the exchange of dialogue between the three men. I am using only Murrow and Mickelson’s lines to emphasize this point.

Mickelson: Well, that’s new. I don’t think you can call this a neutral piece.

Murrow: Sig, I think the other side’s been represented rather well for the last couples of years…

Mickelson: So, you just want to forego the standards that you’ve stuck to for fifteen years…both sides…no commentary…I’m just making sure we identify what you’re both doing.

Murrow: We all editorialize, it’s just to what degree…I’ve searched my conscience and I can’t for the life of me find any justification for this. I simply cannot accept that there are, on every story, two equal and logical sides to an argument. If you call it editorializing, then call it that…

Mickelson: It is editorializing. Period. You understand the position you’re putting us in? I have to go back to Mr. Paley and to Alcoa, who sponsors your show and also happens to have military contracts, and tell them they might be caught in a tough bind because of a beef you had with Joe McCarthy.

Murrow: We’re not going at McCarthy.

Mickelson: You’re starting the goddamn fire.

In this exchange Clooney encapsulates Murrow's changing stance as a member of the news profession and also points towards how news that is beholden to a sponsor is detrimental to the reporter as well as the average citizen. The discussion about editorializing is also something that Murrow addressed in writing:

"To undertake an editorial policy, overt and clearly labeled, and obviously unsponsored requires a station or network to be responsible…Editorials would not be profitable; if they had a cutting edge they might even offend. It is much easier, much less troublesome to use the money-making machine of television and radio merely as a conduit through which to channel anything that is not libelous, obscene or defamatory."[26]

Murrow’s 1958 comments are prescient in recognizing that the power of U.S. journalism to serve and inform was being watered down by its need to be accountable to ratings, advertisers, and the belief that news must be entertaining.

In this vein it is useful to consider how contemporary scholars of television such as John Fiske understand the idea of news. Fisk argues that the news is first

“a high-status television genre. Its claimed objectivity and independence from political or government agencies is argued to be essential for the workings of a democracy. Television companies applying for renewal of their licenses turn to their news and current affairs programs as evidence of their social responsibility … And second it is a commodity.”[27]

This belief that news is a commodity is exactly what Pierre Bourdieu laments when he explains,

“The fact that a television news anchor can become the editor of a newspaper or newsmagazine from one day to the next makes you wonder just what the specific competence required of a journalist might be.”[28]

In other words for Bourdieu, in journalism and especially in the area of television news, there is no real sense of training or professionalism. Rather, the journalist serves the interests of the powers that be instead of challenging their hold on political capital and the social structure. This inability or unwillingness by contemporary journalists to assault the structures of capitalism is what Clooney wishes to criticize, just as he had criticized the programming content of broadcast television (game shows). Therefore news is not only a commodity in the case of Good Night and Good Luck: it is a historical referent and a generic element of television. More than this, the historical moment that is the focus of the film illustrates how the myth of Murrow and McCarthy were constructed.

By shooting the film in black and white Clooney sells the mythos of the battle between Murrow and McCarthy to contemporary audiences and evokes the 1950s. He notes in his interview with Feld,

"From the very beginning I knew I was going to do it in black and white, because I have never seen Edward R. Murrow or Joe McCarthy in color. I don’t know them in color.”[29]

Americans of the 1950s were accustomed to viewing their cultural and historical perspectives through black and white photography and how for modern audiences the 1950s is read as a decade of black and white aesthetics, despite the fact that on cinema screens movies were being shot in glorious Technicolor. This is a point that several of the critics of the film note in their reviews:

“The black-and-white cinematography captures the particular hard-edged electricity of those days.”[30]

This sense of electricity can be felt especially in the scenes between Murrow and Friendly, in particular that of the scene when the news team first work together to air the broadcast on Radulovich’s ordeal. In the scene Clooney shows the preparations required to air a live television broadcast in the 1950s intercut with the image of Murrow (David Straithairn) smoking a cigarette. There is then a cut and the camera is placed so that the viewer assumes the point-of-view of Friendly as he sits at Murrow’s feet. The shot is set up so that Murrow is in the center of the frame and towers above his friend. This staging indicates for the viewer that, while many people have been involved in making the story, Murrow is the celebrity and as such he is the most important figure in the film and in history.

Clooney chose to center the film on five episodes of the See It Now broadcasts. He believed that the five broadcasts which aired in opposition to McCarthy were as important to U.S. history and journalism as the moment when Walter Cronkite in a special broadcast on Vietnam declared that the war was not winnable.[31] This belief that Murrow was the savior of the United States is certainly not universal; it has been contested by historian Steven Stark, who notes that “he had a negligible impact on the overall course of the medium and its news coverage.”[32] Yet the film celebrates Murrow’s accomplishments, and for many that is what the film is about, the slaying of McCarthy and his Red Scare. If this were the main focus of the film, however, then I believe the film would have ended with the moment when one of the guys in the newsroom announces that “the Senate’s investigating McCarthy.”

But this is not where the film ends, and I believe the further developments in the script are vital to recognize and understand. Murrow and Friendly seem to be safe; they have done a great service to the country; and in what may be construed to be a level of naïveté they believe they have changed the face of U.S. broadcast television. Unfortunately as Clooney illustrates through the encounter between Murrow, Friendly and Bill Paley, the president of CBS, the future that they believe in is not an option. To clarify this point I use the dialogue from the scene in Paley’s office.

Paley: The problem isn’t simply that you’ve lost your sponsor. With Alcoa, See It Now still loses money.

Friendly: The fee is fifty thousand. And last week’s show we did for less than the fee.

Paley: Fred, you’re speaking beyond your competence.

Murrow: We’ll find another sponsor…we can certainly find someone who wants to…

Paley: $64,000 Question brings in over eighty thousand in sponsors and costs a third of what you do. Ed. I’ve got Tuesday night programming that’s number one. People want to enjoy themselves. They don’t want a civics lesson.

Murrow: What do you want, Bill?

In this brief exchange Clooney is able to show how the mighty Murrow, U.S. icon, would also be constrained by the realities of broadcast television. TV would never be about news or education, as he advocated for, because television is tied to the idea of choice through advertising. Perhaps Murrow understood this better than anyone when he wrote that the problems with television lie in the fact that it was the combination of show business, advertising and news.[33] Thus television was born out of the framework of radio that ensured it would be dependent on advertising and corporate functioning rather than a sense of social responsibility. Murrow articulated such a hard realization in his article for TV Guide in 1958 when he argued that in fact TV

“reflects a desire on the part of the corporations who pay the advertising bills to have the public imagine, or believe, that they are not merely bodies with no souls, panting in pursuit of elusive dollars.”[34]

Murrow saw the effects of corporate control over the flow of information; and George Clooney continues to see the same problems in the United States today.

The film ends with a return to Murrow’s speech of 1958. Once again Clooney and Heslov as the scriptwriters parse the speech and use the passages that are cautionary and relevant to contemporary experience. Murrow says in the film:

“If they are right, and this instrument [television] is good for nothing but to entertain, amuse and insulate, then the tube is flickering now and we will soon see that the whole struggle is lost. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box.”

These feelings and fears about the role of television in U.S. history and our daily lives are still felt today. Recently writer-producer Aaron Sorkin took the opportunity to use his show Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip to criticize the current status of broadcast television. His character Wes, who is modeled after Lorne Michael, one of the producers of Saturday Night Live, says:

"This isn’t gonna be a very good show tonight and I think you should change the channel. You should change the channel right now, or better yet turn off the TV. No, I know it seems like this is supposed to be funny, but tomorrow you’re gonna find out it wasn’t…This show used to be cutting edge political and social satire, but its gotten lobotomized by a candy-ass broadcast network hell-bent on doing nothing that might challenge their audience…We’re all being lobotomized by the country’s most influential industry which has thrown in the towel on any endeavor that does not include the courting of 12-year-old boys. And not even the smart 12-year-olds, the stupid ones, the idiots of which there are plenty thanks in no small part to this network. So change the channel, turn off the TV. Do it right now."

Such calls to arms against the commercialization and commodification of the U.S. experience have gone unheeded. As a result television is still nothing more than a receiver that delivers programs which amuse, insulate, and entertain. This is the real problem that Clooney understands: that when the masses are diverted away from the truth, those in power can freely operate and hold onto power. Like the bread and circuses of ancient Rome, so too in these dark times television serves the ideology that advocates pre-emptive war, warrantless wiretapping, and detention without representation. It seems necessary for the continuation of the American way of life that the media serve as more than court jesters or darker days might in fact come to pass.

No Murrow today challenges the status-quo or asks the difficult questions because U.S. broadcast journalism has been reduced to nothing more than the purveyor of misinformation rather than a force which informs, educates, and challenges. Together these two films, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Good, Night and Good Luck, illustrate Clooney’s apprehensions about the effects of corporate capitalism on U.S. identities, political systems, journalism and entertainment. In addition what these films question is the effect of capitalism on U.S. history and the body politic.

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