A Head-Spinning Ethics Movie For 2019: 2005’s “Good Night And Good Luck”

I avoided George Clooney’s film “Good Night And Good Luck” when it was released, because I knew it had been designed as an anti-Bush administration allegory, weaponizing Edward R. Murrow’s battle with Senator Joe McCarthy as progressive propaganda. See the courageous and principled journalists stand up against ruthless Republican bullies! See the dangerous power-abusers strike back with guilt by association allegations and by attacking the messenger! See the objective, non-partisan journalists help bring down the threat to democracy!

I finally watched the film this week, and was struck by several things. First of all, the movie, which Clooney directed as well as co-starred in (as Fred Friendly) was much better and fairer than I expected: let that be a lesson to me.

Second, David Strathairn as Murrow once again showed what an excellent and under-appreciated actor he is, although his voice is an inadequate substitute for Murrow’s rich baritone. Third, Senator McCarthy really was a sinister creep, and it radiates from the screen. Those who still defend him, like Ann Coulter, are allying themselves with the Prince of Darkness. The man claimed that the ACLU was a Communist front organization!

Most of all, however, I was struck by how ironic and convoluted the film’s analogies had become in just 14 years, and found myself wondering who Murrow would regard as the bad guys today.  For example, Murrow, speaking of McCarthy’s hearings on Communists in the Army and elsewhere, tells his audience that while Congressional hearings are an important part of the body’s oversight function, the line between legitimate hearings and “persecution” is thin. What would he think about today’s Democrats’ endless fishing expeditions designed to find some justification for impeaching the President?

Murrow went on television to condemn McCarthy’s repeated accusations based on assertions of facts, evidence and documents that didn’t exist. Would he have done the same today, but with his target being Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Ca) or Gerald Nadler (D-NY), both of whom have repeatedly, McCarthy-like, claimed to have “proof” of President Trump’s collusion that didn’t exist?

What would Murrow have said about today’s broadcast news, when in the Fifties he was bemoaning TV’s tendency to tell Americans what they wanted to hear in order to maximize profits, rather than revealing uncomfortable truths? Who would Murrow regard as the 2019 equivalent of Joe McCarthy? Would it be the President, for his penchant for attacking journalists as “enemies of the people”? Would it be Democrats who have used guilt by association and false accusations of conspiring with Russia for cynical their political gain? Or would it be mainstream media darlings like the Southern Poverty Law Center, which designates organizations as “hate groups” just as falsely and irresponsibly as McCarthy declared organizations to be “Communist fronts”?

Finally, how would Murrow square 2019 news media with the vision he and his CBS news colleagues share in the film (and apparently shared in real life) of broadcast journalism’s duty to be a courageous, non-partisan watch-dog on government and politics, whose only stakeholder is the public and whose only mission is to reveal the truth?

I recommend the film highly. I think George Clooney might want to watch it again.

9 thoughts on “A Head-Spinning Ethics Movie For 2019: 2005’s “Good Night And Good Luck”

  1. We saw it in theaters and loved it. If I recall correctly, preview groups seeing the film complained that the actor playing Joe McCarthy was too over-the-top and needed to tone down his performance. Then they were told that there was no actor – that was stock footage of the real McCarthy.

  2. My bias and visceral reaction is Murrow would be just like the rest, corrupted by the pervasive and apparently persuasive leftist culture. How many have escaped it in the last 20 years? Very few indeed.

  3. I am not old enough to know first hand the puplic sentiment at the time of Mccarthy but have recognized many times HUAC being attributed to him and “his” war on Hollywood. At that time and later confirmed the commies really did have some deep penetration into our country but it seems that despite many in government who shared his concerns he is treated as an anomaly who was primarily responsible. I am not sure that is ethical.

    • It is interesting that HUAC is widely portrayed as a Republican instrument. It existed from 1945-1975. McCarthy was a senator and not associated with the committee. In 1945, Congress was 244 Democrats, 189 Republicans. During the entire time of HUAC, Republicans only controlled the House for 4 years. Unless I am mistaken, the majority party controls the committees.

  4. “The man claimed that the ACLU was a Communist front organization!”

    A ludicrous accusation in the 1950s, for sure.

    At the rate things are going, though, by 2050 it will be spot-on.

  5. I’ll look for the film. Meantime, there are a few important aspects to the Murrow story worth noting (not certain if these are in the film).

    First, Murrow was actually something of a Johnny-come-lately to the whole McCarthy train wreck. Other journalists had already exposed his frauds, but in those days there was no such thing as national media, other than the tree Alphabet news channels – and in those days, less than half of American households had a TV set, and many of those households didn’t have access to all three major networks. So while Murrow was hugely important to the story, his role in McCarthy’s undoing has become something of a matter of legend (“print the legend.”).

    Second, and I find this the more interesting part, Murrow inadvertently played a big role in making media what it is today. There were two main watershed moments in the development of the largely-American conceit of “objective reporting.” The first came courtesy of Joseph Pulitizer, who endowed the first journalism school (Columbia) and started holding his own editors and reporters to higher standards as a response to advertiser pressure regarding yellow journalism (to which Pulitzer’s papers weren’t exactly strangers). In other words, it was a business decision.

    The second came when William S. Paley, who led CBS at the time, thought that Murrow and his colleagues (especially Murrow) were injecting far too much of their personal political beliefs in their reporting and issued and edict that anchors were to say NOTHING that stated or implied them.

    Most other nations didn’t follow suit. From my perspective, one of our biggest challenges as a nation is that we were all raised to believe that the media is objective – or at least tries to be. It never was; it just did a reasonably credible job of hiding its biases.

    It no longer tries to hide them. Once we get our heads around that idea, we’ll be better off.

    If there’s anything left of the Republic by the time that happens, that is.

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