Sunday, November 13, 2005

Eagle columnist says movie shows Murrow's warnings of decadence, escapism went unheeded

Sunday, November 13

A warning that went unheeded

Bill Everhart, Berkshire Eagle Staff

'This just might do nobody any good.' So began CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow in his legendary speech to the Radio-Television News Directors' Asso-ciation (RTNDA) Convention in 1958, a speech recreated in part in the brilliant film 'Good Night, and Good Luck,' at Triplex Cinema in Great Barrington, and Images Cinema in Williamstown.

Murrow warned his uncomfortable audience that their profession, electronic journalism, was being corrupted by fear of controversy, blind allegiance to sponsors and a lazy pandering to listeners and viewers who should be challenged.

That speech would have done someone some good if it had been heeded, but nearly a half-century later, all of Murrow's fears have been realized in full.

Anyone who remembers or has read about Sen. Joe McCarthy's Communist witch hunts and Murrow's heroic deflating of this dangerous zealot will be mesmerized by director, co-writer and actor George Clooney's faithful recreation of this important moment in American history and journalism.
David Strathairn's dour, principled Murrow not only has to take on McCarthy and risk being smeared by the senator and his media stooges, he also must appease CBS Chairman William Paley (Frank Langella), who worries that Murrow's efforts will backfire on his network and cost it sponsors.

Of course, many young people have no first-hand knowledge of the McCarthy era and maybe no more than a dim recollection of it from history class. They, more than anyone, should see 'Good Night, and Good Luck' (Murrow's trademark sign-off) and tell their friends to see it too.

Murrow, and many other print and electronic journalists from the post-war era, spoke truth to power and were not reluctant to challenge conventional wisdom. Their job, digging out and presenting the facts to their readers and viewers, was serious, and they prided themselves on taking it seriously.

How far we have come. Today, under the Orwellian slogan of "Fair and balanced," Fox News shills for the Washing-ton powers-that-be, mocks those who challenge the establishment and makes a shambles of journalism.

Hapless CNN, losing the all-important ratings game, dumps sober, respected newsman Aaron Brown for pretty boy Anderson Cooper, a Katrina-bred superstar it markets as if he were a teen idol pop singer.

The three major networks provide news almost grudgingly before turning to lifestyle stories and other soft features on their early evening newscasts.

In the days of David Brinkley and Walter Cronkite, these news programs not only provided Americans the news, they offered context and perspective so viewers would know why that news was important for them to know.

Most networks don't have the perverse agenda of Fox News, they are simply prisoners of their sponsors and of the theory that audiences must be entertained above all else.

The dangers of this approach to news was unveiled in the early stages of the Iraq war when "embedded journalists" sold the war as

if it were a reality show with U.S. soldiers as the colorful contestants.

Tough questions about adequate troop strength, absent weapons of mass destruction and post-war strategy went unasked, in part, as in the McCarthy era, because it would have been "unpatriotic" to ask them, but also because that hard news approach didn't fit in with the networks' soft news treatment of the war.

Not that the print media doesn't come in for its share of criticism. The New York Times has apologized in print both for failing to challenge administration claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and for allowing alleged First Amendment heroine Judith Miller to mislead her newspaper about her dealings with Lewis "Scooter" Libby on the Valerie Plame leak. (Miller was also a gullible saleswoman for WMDs.)

At least the Times apologized. Don't wait under water for apologies from other print and electronic media organizations who owe them to America for their Iraq coverage and commentary.

Once they get past the oddity of watching newsmen smoking like chimneys on air and off, young audience members viewing "Good Night, and Good Luck" may be struck by the even odder presence of a craggy, unsmiling newsman sternly lecturing viewers with the eloquence of a preacher. You don't see or hear that much anymore. They, and everyone else, will also laugh at the spectacle of that same newsman, Murrow, awkwardly interviewing early TV celebrity Liberace. Even in 1958, the sanctity of television news was being encroached upon.

"If there are any historians about 50 or a hundred years from now ... they will find recorded in black and white or color, evidence of decadence, escapism and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live," Murrow warned his audience at the RTNDA Convention.

It has been about 50 years now since that speech, and if we look at tapes of that era's television we'll find examples of what Murrow saw and detested. But there is no need. With Murrow's warning unheeded, we can simply turn on the television news to see the "decadence, escapism and insulation" Murrow spoke of, now in full flower.

Bill Everhart can be reached at or (413) 496-6271.

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