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.

David Strathairn does his best Gary Cooper as Edward R. Murrow
Click image to expand.
David Strathairn does his best Gary Cooper as Edward R. Murrow

If Jesus Christ no longer satisfies your desire to worship a man as god, I suggest you buy a ticket for Good Night, and Good Luck, the new movie about legendary CBS News broadcaster Edward R. Murrow. Good Night, and Good Luck's Murrow burns cigarettes like altar incense. He speaks in a resonant, godly rumble. And he plods through the greatest story ever told about the hunting of communist hunter Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy like a man carrying all the world's sins.

Of course, Murrow was no god. Point of fact, he shouldn't be regarded as the patron saint of broadcast news his fans, among them Good Night, and Good Luck director George Clooney, make him out to be. But the passage of time, the self-serving testimonials from the broadcasters he recruited to CBS ("Murrow's Boys"), and the usual nostalgia for newsrooms choking on their own cigarette smoke have puffed the considerable accomplishments of a mortal and flawed newsman into modern miracles. Good Night, and Good Luck, a docudrama that pits Murrow against McCarthy, escalates the veneration to heavenly levels.

A terrific movie about the Murrow-McCarthy duel could be made, mind you, but Clooney and company ignore the material that might argue against their simple-minded thesis about Murrow, the era, and the press to produce an after-school special. It's a shame, too, because Good Night, and Good Luck's unbeatable production values and sharp performances constitute key ingredients of a great historical drama. Plus, Clooney is an able director, artfully meshing the original documentary film footage from Murrow's weekly CBS series, See It Now, with recreations of the studio end of the broadcasts.

But it all goes wrong with the naive screenplay, written by Clooney and his collaborator, fellow actor/producer Grant Heslov. Plowing through the Murrow and McCarthy literature after viewing the film, I was impressed at how deeply Clooney and Heslov researched the topic yet dismayed at how they cherry-picked material to compose their sermon.

The film covers the five-month period from late 1953 to early 1954 during which Murrow combated the McCarthy-inspired hysteria over communist subversives with a quartet of programs on his weekly CBS series See It Now. The Venona transcripts have shown definitively that American communists and Soviet sympathizers, such as Alger Hiss and Julius Rosenberg, did gather information for Moscow in the 1930s and 1940s. Yet for all his thuggery and congressional hearing grandstanding, hounding a suspected red dentist who got an Army promotion or a Pentagon clerk suspected of Communist Party membership, McCarthy bagged not a single commie spy.

Good Night, and Good Luck never comes out and credits Murrow with single-handedly slaying McCarthy on March 9, 1954, with his famous See It Now program, "A Report on Joseph R. McCarthy." But if you want to form that impression, the moviemakers won't mind. David Strathairn plays Murrow as if he's Gary Cooper in High Noon, an unblinking stoic facing down and defeating evil with solitary courage.

In reality, McCarthy's takedown was much more complex. As the Weekly Standard'sAndrew Ferguson wrote in 1996, "McCarthy had been hanging himself quite efficiently in the several months before Murrow offered him more rope." Ferguson continues:

By the time the [March 9, 1954] show aired, a mutiny was underway on his own subcommittee to relieve McCarthy as chairman. Prominent Republicans had joined Democrats in publicly denouncing him, even, gingerly, his former comrade Vice President Richard Nixon. In the mainstream press, anti-McCarthy feeling was endemic. Among those routinely critical were Time magazine and Col. Robert McCormick's Chicago Tribune. If Col. McCormick and Henry Luce were denouncing a right-wing icon, you could feel pretty safe in firing away.

But don't take Ferguson's word for it. The McCarthy program "came very late in the day," said one of Murrow's brightest "boys," Eric Sevareid, in a January 1978 broadcast.  "The youngsters read back and they think only one person in broadcasting and the press stood up to McCarthy," Sevareid said, "and this has made a lot of people feel very upset, including me, because that program came awfully late." Sevareid named Elmer Davis and Martin Agronsky as two broadcasters who had taken on McCarthy long before Murrow.

But don't take Sevareid's word for it, either. Listen to Murrow. Jack Gould, the New York Times television columnist whose Murrow praise is read aloud in the movie, took lunch with Murrow shortly after the McCarthy program. Murrow confessed his tardiness in taking on McCarthy, according to an interview Gould gave to Edwin R. Bayley for his 1981 book, Joe McCarthy and the Press. "My God," he recalls Murrow saying. "I didn't do anything. [Times columnist] Scotty Reston and lot of guys have been writing like this, saying the same things, for months, for years. We're bringing up the rear."

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.

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. 

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