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.

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.

Good Night, and Good Luck's heaviest Hollywood airbrushing comes in its treatment of the See It Now program about Annie Lee Moss ("Senator McCarthy Against Annie Lee Moss," March 16, 1954). In committee hearings McCarthy accused Moss, a matronly Pentagon Signal Corps employee, of being a member of the Communist party based on the word of an FBI informant. Her job in a Pentagon code room, in McCarthy's mind, makes her a communist spy. See It Now's newsreel footage of the hearing makes her seem the simple-minded victim of mistaken identity by a inquisitional monster as she denies party membership. McCarthy correctly senses that things are going badly for his side and departs from the hearing, leaving his counsel Roy Cohn holding the bag. As other senators on the panel proceed to hector Cohn and coddle Moss, the hearing turns into a disaster for McCarthy.

How innocent was Moss? In Salon, Clooney says the issue for Murrow is Moss' right to face her accuser, which she was denied. For the record, however, McCarthy appears to have been more right than wrong about her membership.

In 1958, the federal Subversive Activities Control Board reported that "the Communist Party's own records, the authenticity of which the Party has at no time disputed … show that one Annie Lee Moss, 72 R Street SW, Washington DC, was a party member in the mid-1940s." Joseph E. Persico's 1988 biography, Edward R. Murrow: An American Original, reports this finding as does historian Arthur Herman's 1999 revisionist account, Joseph McCarthy: Reexamining the Life and Legacy of America's Most Hated Senator.

Now, just because Moss was in the party doesn't make her a traitor, as McCarthy would have it, although it would make her a perjurer. If Clooney has researched the story as deeply as I believe he has, he knows of the evidence against Moss and has chosen to ignore it to make his story as black and white as its film stock. Likewise, in the Radulovich program, Murrow made no effort to explore whether the reservist might be a security threat if his family members are. But is it journalism when the only question asked by a reporter is whether a beleaguered citizen is receiving due process? In a recent review of the Murrow DVD set, Miami Herald TV critic Glenn Garvin posed the question this way: "Would we be comfortable these days with an Air Force officer with a security clearance whose father belonged to al Qaeda?"

Rereading the Murrow-McCarthy literature, I began to imagine a dark comedy about the Red Scare based on the broadcaster's life, something in the vein of Clooney's compelling 2002 flop, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, or Dr. Strangelove. Just last month, Clooney despaired to the Wall Street Journal about the difficulty of marketing the movie: Only half of the audiences at June test-screenings knew about the witch hunts and, he said, "literally no one knew" who Murrow was. Consider the fabulous unused historical material.

Instead of a black-and-white docudrama, what if Clooney had exploited the humor in McCarthy's manic-depressive cycles, his crazed periods of insomnia, and his battles with the bottle? Play Roy Cohn's closeted homosexuality for laughs, too, and enlist McCarthy's good friends from the Kennedy clan—patriarch Joseph P. and Bobby.

In a montage sequence, he could have established Murrow's early success at myth-building. In his teen years, Murrow made his first and wisest show-biz move by abandoning his given cracker name, Egbert Roscoe Murrow, for the more sonorous Edward R. Murrow. Upon applying for a CBS job at the age of 27, he added five years to his age, inflated his speech major at Washington State University into a major in political science and international relations, and falsely claimed to have attended classes at the University of Washington and earned an M.A. from Stanford University. The lies continued once he established himself as a broadcaster in England. Scribner's Magazine was led to believe in a profile that Murrow had worked two years as a compassman in British Columbia and Alaska—both untrue, writes biographer Persico. Shades of Chuck Barris!

I imagine a madcap scene—rooted in fact—that explains how Murrow and CBS were able to hand out a point-by-point rebuttal of McCarthy's rebuttal right after airing it while honestly saying he hadn't seen it before noon that day. Somebody close to the post-production of McCarthy's film sold the Murrow team an audio dub of Joe's film for $100 a couple of days before it broadcast. Sounds like something out of The Front Page, doesn't it?

The film—call it Confessions of a Dangerous Smoker—could flash forward to 1956 to document Murrow's intense partisanship. He secretly tutored the Democratic Party's presidential candidate, Adlai Stevenson, on how to speak to the camera effectively. The lesson failed, writes Jean H. Baker in The Stevensons: A Biography of an American Family, as Adlai had no patience for performance. Or watch Murrow offer a deaf and spent Winston Churchill $100,000 for a series of interviews. The material is that rich.

But Clooney is too blinded by his love for Murrow to think his way through his hero's inconsistent relationship with the medium: Murrow both chased hard news and whipped up celebrity fluff on Person to Person, his interview program from the same period. If we're going to praise Murrow for producing fearless TV news, we should also be ready to damn him for paving the way for Barbara Walters, Oprah Winfrey, and all the celebrity bootlickers on red carpets. Instead of grappling with the Murrow paradox, Clooney bookends the movie with the broadcaster's sanctimonious 1958 speech about television's lost promise.

If I judge it correctly, Good Night, and Good Luck intends to serve as a parable for our times and not a history lesson. Its makers want us to find contemporary "resonance" in the film and conclude that, compared to the giants of 1954, modern journalists have been cowed by those in political power. What a facile, Hollywood cliché. Journalism has improved vastly since 1954, certainly eclipsing the likes of Edward R. Murrow's overrated TV output, and today's reporters are more independent and willing to confront presidential administrations and powerful political figures than Murrow and his boys ever were.

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This I've got to admit: Murrow had a splendid voice and knew his way around a cigarette better than Howard Hawks characters. Send your Murrow-Clooney-Hawks musings via e-mail to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.