Good Night, and Good Luck and bad history.

Media criticism.
Oct. 5 2005 7:29 PM

Edward R. Movie

Good Night, and Good Luck and bad history.

Note: This is the first of a two-part article. For Part 2, click here.

(Continued from Page 1)

Gould had his own ideas about "who killed McCarthy," and it wasn't Murrow. "It was ABC's decision to put the [Army-McCarthy] hearings on. That was the exposure that did it," Gould told Sally Bedell Smith in her biography of CBS chief William Paley, In All His Glory. The Army-McCarthy Senate hearings, commencing the month after the Murrow broadcast, ended up sinking McCarthy. The struggling ABC network carried the Army-McCarthy hearings live for 36 days; Murrow's CBS declined to air the complete hearings because they'd interfere with its lucrative daytime soap operas.

Other evidence of Murrow's less-than-crucial role in toppling McCarthy can be found in histories and scholarly works about the period. The well-regarded mainstream history of McCarthyism, A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joseph McCarthy by David M. Oshinsky, burns only four of its 597 pages on Murrow's role, regarding him as more cog than wheel in the flattening of McCarthy. Thomas Doherty's Cold War, Cool Medium: Television, McCarthyism, and American Culture, offers the revisionist view of Murrow as "a glory hog who played it safe, more puffery than paladin, an elite opinion-maker smart enough to strike at the heart of the beast already hobbled by braver hearts." Doherty cites Washington Post cartoonist Herblock and muckraker Drew Pearson as members of a "lengthy lineup" of Fourth Estaters who ridiculed and attacked McCarthy.

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Good Night, and Good Luck briefly acknowledges that Murrow wasn't standing alone when it recreates his See It Now program about McCarthy. The Murrow character cites the mainstream newspaper editorials criticizing the senator: the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, the New York Herald Tribune, the Washington Evening Star, the Washington Times-Herald, the Milwaukee Journal, the New York World Telegram & Sun, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Good Night, and Good Luck viewers not fluent in McCarthyese might ask how Murrow could be knock-kneed about the Wisconsin mad dog when the newspapers obviously weren't. We can pardon Clooney for not slowing to explore the topic, but Murrow's trepidations were more institutional than personal. Newspapers had complete First Amendment rights to criticize whoever they wanted to in government without worrying that federal agents would shut down their presses. Broadcasters, on the other hand, lacked First Amendment parity with their print cousins (they still don't enjoy parity, but things are much better now). They existed at the sufferance of the federal government, by virtue of the Communications Act of 1934, which required them to air news and public affairs. Irritating the government could prompt a congressional investigation or worse yet, a dressing down by the Federal Communications Commission and revocation of a network's radio and television licenses.

Such a shutdown could have been deadly in the early years of television, with networks struggling for a foothold. You could argue Murrow only risked his livelihood with his McCarthy broadcasts, but CBS chief William Paley (played by Frank Langella) risked his broadcast empire. (Though Paley didn't really have that much to fear. An Eastern moderate Republican, he'd befriended Dwight D. Eisenhower during World War II. The broadcast executive and the president golfed and played bridge together, according to In All His Glory, and in Washington, presidents always trump lone-nut senators who go on rampages.)

Because the essence of drama is conflict, it's odd that Clooney ignores the turmoil the McCarthy program caused Murrow. Biographer A.M. Sperber (Murrow: His Life and Times) writes that Murrow "was always uneasy about" the McCarthy attack, "almost anxious at times to disown it." When See It Now published its greatest hits as a hardcover book in 1955, Sperber writes, it did not include "A Report on Joseph R. McCarthy."

Why did Murrow feel so queasy about his takedown of McCarthy? See Part 2to continue. 

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

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