Good Night, and Good Luck and bad history.

Media criticism.
Oct. 5 2005 7:28 PM

Edward R. Movie

Good Night, and Good Luck and bad history.

Note: This is the second part of a two-part article. To return to Part 1, click here.

Saint Edward. Click image to expand.
Saint Edward

What bugged Murrow was that he had used a bludgeon, not a scalpel. The McCarthy See It Now episode, available on The Edward R. Murrow Collection DVD, portrays the senator as the scumbag that he was. But it is a peculiar work of journalism—there's very little reporting in it, as the transcript shows. It gathers the available film on McCarthy and lets the man speak for himself. Well, not really speak for himself. Andrew Ferguson describes the program's mise-en-scène as "a compendium of every burp, grunt, stutter, nose probe, brutish aside, and maniacal giggle the senator had ever allowed to be captured on film."

Give a skilled editor 15,000 feet of film of Barney the purple dinosaur and he could perform a similar demolition. Murrow makes no attempt to determine if there is any substance to McCarthy's charges. The program's manipulative and partisan techniques were enough to creep out two of McCarthy's dedicated foes in the press, liberals John Cogley and Gilbert Seldes, who shared their misgivings in Commonweal and Saturday Review, respectively. Murrow, who once said he favored "ringing a bell every time a newscaster is about to inject his own view," ended the program with a direct slam of McCarthy that could have set church bells pealing.

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If paranoid bullies deserve a fair presentation of their views in a television program, Ed denied Joe his. Instead, Murrow and CBS gave McCarthy rebuttal time on See It Now (April 6, 1954), which the senator wasted. He barely referred to the previous broadcast and ratified Murrow's portrayal of him as a loon. Murrow's producing partner, Fred W. Friendly, played by Clooney in the movie, wrote this about McCarthy's performance in his 1967 memoir, Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control:

It was twenty-five minutes of unrelieved McCarthy, denouncing Murrow as "the leader of the jackal pack." The long shots consisted of contrived posturings of the anti-Communist instructor at a desk with maps and photos. In close-up, it was as though some gifted "menace" actor was playing one of his juiciest roles. Caked in make-up that attempted to compensate for his deteriorating physical condition, the senator gave the appearance of a mask drawn by Herblock. His receding hairline was disguised by a botched mixture of false hair and eyebrow pencil. At the beginning his voice was muted and flat, but eventually this gave way to the fanatical trumpeting that was his basic style.

Any movie based on a true story must collapse events, yet a very jarring compression comes near the end of Good Night, and Good Luck: Paley informs Murrow and Friendly after the McCarthy broadcasts that he wants to reduce See It Now from its weekly slot to sporadic placement in the CBS schedule, reduce its frequency, but expand it to an hour. The implication is that they must be punished for their triumph and he must distance himself from them.

Actually, the show remained in its half-hour, weekly prime time for another season and didn't move until 1955-56, staying on the air until 1958. Television had arrived as an advertising medium: According to Sperber's book, by this time CBS TV had become the single largest advertising medium in the world. See It Now had never made a penny. To leave a ratings loser in a coveted time slot when so much money could be made with a quiz show or other fare would have been insane.

Quadruple hypenate: Actor, producer, director, writer George Clooney. Click image to expand.
Quadruple hypenate: Actor, producer, director, writer George Clooney.

There's another scene in Good Night, and Good Luck worth reviewing. Two Air Force officers visit Friendly at CBS to pressure him about See It Now's soon-to-be broadcast investigation of Lt. Milo Radulovich (Oct. 20, 1953). Radulovich, a reserve officer, was being drummed out of the service as a security risk because family members were suspected security risks. The officers look and act like cousins of Dr. Strangelove's Gen. Jack D. Ripper as they confront Friendly.

In life, both Friendly and Murrow attended the session. Far from being an enemy of the Pentagon, Murrow counted many friends there. As a radio reporter during World War II, he had flown along on 24 combat missions, receiving a "Distinguished Service to Air Power" award from the flyboys. In the postwar period, Murrow maintained his close relationship with the military and did voice-over work for Department of Defense films. Friendly describes the encounter between See It Now's aces and the Air Force officers as no more ominous than a routine visit from an institution a journalist is about to knee-cap.

"The dialogue with the officers was restrained and there was a minimum of discussion of Milo Radulovich himself," Friendly writes. The Air Force general doesn't want the show to run, but the closest he comes to threatening anyone is saying, "You have always gotten complete co-operation from us, and we know you won't do anything to alter that."

Visits such as this only embolden journalists. After the officers departed, Murrow told Friendly he couldn't postpone the Radulovich program if he wanted to. "I had never seen him display quite such an appetite for a broadcast," Friendly writes. The show ran, Radulovich was subsequently reinstated, and Murrow remained so enamored of the military for the rest of his life—and it of him—that he joined the Naval Reserves in 1959.

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