Murrow's (and Clooney's) Message About TV News

Even though the demagogue he so valiantly challenged, Senator Joseph McCarthy, is finally getting his comeuppance, George Clooney's terrific new film "Good Night, And Good Luck" does not end well for Edward R. Murrow and his CBS News colleagues.

After a contentious meeting with CBS boss William Paley, Murrow is bumped from the prime time lineup while CBS starts handing out pink slips in the newsroom. Murrow himself notes that comedian Milton Berle is now the most trusted man in television. Even though Murrow's crusading programs helped end McCarthy's reign of terror, it is a dramatic foreshadowing of the triumph of entertainment over news values.

Murrow's been dead for 40 years, but this film comes at a propitious time. Television news is in trouble, with the broadcast networks steadily losing market share and saddled with unfavorable demographics. Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw have moved on and Peter Jennings is dead. (In two of the three cases, there is no clear heir apparent.) The Fox News Channel has moved to the top of the cable news heap with an overtly ideological tilt and a prime-time lineup of shouting heads. The genre is so desperate to connect with viewers that it is seizing on an initially favorable public response to the emotional and passionate coverage of Hurricane Katrina as a potential new direction. See this New York magazine piece on hurricane hero Anderson Cooper

And if "Good Night, And Good Luck" made Bill Paley seem like an old meanie bean counter at times, compare him to the CEO's, money men and investors that effectively run today's mega-corporations that just happen to have television news operations among their varied and sundry properties.

There is much in "Good Night, And Good Luck" -- filmed in black and white -- that seems anachronistic. Murrow's mission-driven, fearless journalism for one thing. (It is true that he also had to conduct interviews with celebrities on his "Person to Person" show.) The primitive television technology of the 50's. The standard shirt and tie attire of the CBS crew. And the constant, relentless cigarette smoking. (It's hard to remember to what degree that little combination of tobacco and paper dominated our lives not all that long ago.)

Clooney bookends this film with snippets from Murrow's famous take-no-prisoners 1958 speech to the Radio and Television News Directors Association in which he warned of the evils of infotaintment and the use of the power of television as an instrument to keep the public distracted, amused and largely ignorant.

Les Moonves, the chairman of Murrow's beloved CBS, recently said this about plans to remake the network newscast in an interview in the New York Times Sunday magazine: "On the one hand, we could have a newscast like 'The Big Breakfast' in England, where women give the news in lingerie. Or there's 'Naked News,' which is on cable in England. I saw a clip of it. It's a woman giving the news as she's getting undressed. And then, on the other hand, you could have two boring people behind a desk. Our newscast has to be somewhere in between."

Talk about rolling over in your grave.
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