Words: Jake Kring-Schreifels
In the closing scene of Good Night, and Good Luck, Edward R. Murrow, played by David Strathairn, stands in front of a small assembly and says of the television, “this instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends.” It’s a quote that has profound resonance today, mostly because it sounds like Murrow could be talking to our generation, too.
Another scene with equal, and ultimately disappointing, timelessness comes earlier when Murrow and producer Fred Friendly are told by boss William Paley (Frank Langella) that their news show will be pulled from the air. Murrow’s strong opinion and public disgust over Joseph McCarthy’s Red Scare tactics began to brand CBS in negative light to its most profitable advertisers. Money has power; the truth, even from the most respected news anchor, can’t compete. Just watch HBO’s The Newsroom to see how far we’ve come. Hint: not that far.
It does promote wonderful discussion though, and that’s what occurred Monday night as part of the Forum Film Festival, which took place at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center Campus. Following the screening of George Clooney’s feature directorial debut was a panel consisting of the film’s star, David Strathairn, Bob Simon of 60 Minutes, and New York Times urban affairs correspondent Sam Roberts. With over an hour of conversation, the topics strayed to various parts of journalistic experience, anchored by discussion of Murrow himself, whose on-air defiant public charge against Senator McCarthy became historical.
Bob Simon sparked dialogue with an objective, curmudgeoney stance on the general state of how Good Night and Good Luck portrayed the daily ins and outs of the fraternity news team.
“[The film] really did capture a news room in that people were talking over each other. No one was really paying attention to anything anyone else was saying, it was really authentic. Whereas Newsroom is not,” he said. “A lot of the scenes in Newsroom, we just look at each other and say, ‘that never happened in a newsroom.’”
His truth seeking was also present in his against-the-grain report on the new film Argo, which according to Simon was “an outrage” for bending history and misappropriating events. I respect his foreign news reporting background, but it’s the wrong take. Films are cultural products and are meant to be understood that way, vessels of ideology and pop culture. Why must a film portray absolute truth? Is that even possible? But there is something to be said about the change from relaying real news to making it for entertainment purposes.
Murrow’s public denunciation according to Sam Roberts was an epochal change in how we related to our television anchors. “It was a transformative moment; it made a star out of the television personality for better or for worse,” said Roberts. “We complain about stars today, about the fact they are too much celebrity and not enough heft. Well Ed Murrow started that. He had both.”
There he sits, or rather, there David Strathairn sits, angled in his chair, ever-burning cigarette stuck between his two fingers next to his face, and that stern, domineering glare through the screen. As Simon states, “you could not take your eyes off of his eyes, it was magnetic.” His See it Now program was a television copy of his radio show Hear it Now, and back in the early days of TV, making that switch wasn’t a big deal. Performance gesture, makeup, lighting, and screen presence were terms no one cared for or understood. It wasn’t really until the famed Nixon-Kennedy debate that we saw that paradigmatic shift in thinking.
But Murrow, according to Strathairn, wasn’t seeking the limelight, and stuck to his older principles. “It’s quite true that the aesthetic of television is performance over content,” he said. “As we’ve seen the way the pundits respond during the debates, the performance, the evening, takes precedence over a career of effort.”
“Murrow was a celebrity, but he shunned that for a long time. He thought the truest way to impart information was audibly and not visually.”
Maybe that’s why the film was handsomely shot in black and white, and took place almost entirely in the CBS studio. The dichromatic screen can implicate McCarthy’s black and white world, and Murrow’s defiance that the issue is in fact all shades of gray. Maybe Clooney’s telling us we aren’t supposed to see Murrow in color, just like no one did back then; that the content is more important than warm colors and bright spaces. Regardless, Clooney is tapping into something deeper here.
Strathairn brought up another key point in that Murrow was in the crosshairs of the television and advertising revolutions, things that quite overtly were intent on persuading and propagandizing information. He was but one of a select few well-respected journalists after World War II, credited not only by other members of the press, but by families who tuned in each night.
Politicians, too, “were genuine” said Simon, “there was some feeling and some thought and some reflection there.” He continued his nostalgia trip by remembering many crossing party lines on policy, and noting that Murrow’s attack of McCarthy was considered “crusading journalism.” Nowadays, Simon said, he and his coworkers “would get in deep trouble if it was thought we were crusading for a cause.”
But the evening news has lost its gusto, its appeal to mainstream America. At one point in the film, Murrow tells his boss Paley that what he does at the news division is, ultimately, what people know about our network. Neither Scott Pelley, Diane Sawyer, nor Brian Williams is defining his or her respective networks today, and the lucrative commercial money is dropped instead into sitcoms and reality shows. It’s also due in large part to 24/7 cable networks, who stretch thin any substance and just as quickly dismiss it.
The most striking part of the conversation was this continuing assessment of contemporary truths. Roberts recalls a New York Times article stating that “shame is vastly overrated,” in reference to the presidential debates. “Truth doesn’t seem to matter anymore. The candidates could say anything they want, and there was no one with the stature of a Cronkite, of a Murrow, to hold them accountable and say ‘you lied.’” That now infamous brief moment in the second Presidential debate, where Candy Crowley affirms Barack Obama’s transcript comments over Benghazi, seems to have been the only thing to come close.
Good Night, and Good Luck is a film that keeps that journalistic truth fervor alive, that breeds an ideal form of breaking code for the greater good. It also equivocally shows just how little we’ve progressed, how un-influential news anchors are becoming, and how corporate America still brings down that greater good. Ed Murrow and the Newsroom’s Will McAvoy are still fighting the same battle.
Simon read a small passage from the biography Primetime: The Life of Edward R. Murrow, and it is remarkable how relevant it remains. Murrow said, “They say future political candidates must be personable on television. Why? Are we reaching a ridiculous stage where we’ll be invited to taste a candidate like toothpaste? I find it ominous, this reliance on advertising technique and catch phrases instead of statesmanship and leadership. Some people say TV separates the phony from the statesman. I don’t think there’s anything in this new medium that can do that.”
Murrow wanted to tell the truth. He just didn’t believe spin and smiles were preconditions for it.
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