Tuesday night, Suw and I saw Good Night, and Good Luck at the Uptown Theater in Washington, an old movie palace that opened in 1933. It is one of my favourite places to see a movie anywhere. A couple of years ago, I saw a restored 70-mm print of Lawrence of Arabia there on the huge curved screen. It reminded me of what movies were all about at one time: Grand spectacle.
But Good Night, and Good Luck was almost the opposite of that huge epic blockbuster, a film so understated, so anti-Hollywood that it seemed at times swallowed by that massive screen.
Murrow v McCarthy
The film followed the battle between Edward R. Murrow and the paranoid Communist hunter Senator Joe McCarthy. It started off with Murrow’s speech to the RTNDA in 1958 in which he said that TV was a powerful medium but risked becoming nothing more than a box of lights and wires and then flashed back five years.
There were actually two battles in the film. One between Murrow and McCarthy and the other between CBS head Bill Paley and Murrow. I was impressed with the development of Paley’s character in the film. He wasn’t portrayed as some mindless, corporate goon so focused on profit that he put Murrow in a straitjacket.
When Murrow reminded Paley that he had promised a firewall between corporate and editorial, Paley said that Murrow had to remember the other employees of CBS that he might jeopardise by going after McCarthy.
Maybe it’s just the info-junkie in me, but the film left me wanting to know more about the main characters, more about the history. Possibly that is what a good film or story or blog post does: Stimulate curiosity, leave unanswered questions. If you’ve seen the film, let me know what you think.
I found the journalist in me feeling a mix of awe and discomfort at Murrow’s closing commentaries on See It Now. Murrow was an amazing writer and journalist. His writing and delivery were inspiring.
But as Murrow was reminded in the film: “We report the news. We don’t make the news.” It’s often been something that I have struggled with as a journalist. Sure, I have my own views and opinions, but I also believe strongly that my job is to report and let my readers, viewers or listeners to make up their own minds. I’m still uncomfortable with commentary, editorialising.
Murrow didn’t mince his words. He saw something that made him feel very uncomfortable in Joseph McCarthy and his anti-Communist witch hunts. And he tapped into the terror that many felt that their lives could be ruined if they were accused of being Communists.
After the broadcast, Murrow’s team grabbed the newspaper’s to see their reviews. The New York Times called it “crusading journalism at its finest”. It was fearless.
Could journalists in the US do this now? I doubt it. It’s not just that the US is so divided. I sensed a trust that Murrow’s audience had in him to tell them the truth, even if it was the truth as Murrow saw it. Murrow challenged his audience doing pieces on not only McCarthy but also the shameful conditions that migrant workers suffered. He took on big tobacco, the situation in the Middle East, just to name a few.
Can the American media challenge its audience without being challenged itself? I don’t think so. Allowing oneself t be challenged takes a strong relationship, and right now we in the media don’t have that kind of relationship with our audiences.
Some people these days say that in this new world of journalism, our job is to stimulate and facilitate a debate. At the Beeb, we call it the global conservation. To play that role, I really want to be able to challenge and be challenged. But that is going to take developing a new relationship with my audience.
This is where blogs come in for me. To do this, I’m going to have to listen as well as talk. Blogs allow us in the media to do that. If only we would.