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