From Edward R. Murrow to Katie Couric: The Devolution of Television News

Living in an era where Ms. Katie Couric is going to get paid $60, 000 a day for reading from a teleprompter makes George Clooney’s brilliant movie Good Night, and Good Luck all the more sad, tragic and depressing, if only because it pointedly reminds the audience of just how much we lost.

However, before I go any further, let me share with you a mini-autobiography: I’m 51 years old. I am a pre-internet Grumpy Old Man who remembers VCRs, rotary-dial phones, and black & white TV sets. I used to be a Negro, too.

What that means is I’m lucky enough to look back at the day-to-day bullshit I struggled with years ago and get to call it “history”. This is important to remember when hucksters try to sell you the new “good-old-days” snake oil in old bottles

So, I have to confess, I’m not addicted to nostalgia. I think yesterday is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there. How can you move on otherwise? Seeing the past as an unsoiled utopia is a myth. I know this. I was there for part of it. But, having said that, there are a few extinct momentoes I’d like to have back.

Good Night, and Good Luck intelligently and perceptively examines this seductive ambiguity. It’s a complex film that’s almost too big to neatly fit into the narrow category of being a “historical” drama. Yes, it’s a loving Valentine to a bygone era in American history, but it’s also a horror movie, a time capsule packed by a sharp-eyed, unsentimental archivist, and a political allegory. Specifically, as Lillian Hellman commented in her memoir describing her experiences as a blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter during that period, it was “scoundrel time”.

When Good Night, and Good Luck begins, it is 1953 and the angry hysteria of McCarthyism is at its peak. Anybody who foolishly expressed their First Amendment rights suddenly found themselves vilified as “commies” and either lost their jobs or were threatened with treason for “anti-American” activities. In those grim days, the United States was a horror novel co-written by George Orwell and Franz Kafka.

People were absolutely scared to death of Senator Joseph McCarthy. They had good reason to be. So can you imagine what an odd mismatch it appeared to be when Edward R. Murrow, the respected TV journalist, calmly walked up to McCarthy and – after inhaling deeply from his ever-present cigarette – purposely blew smoke in his face?

Although Good Night, and Good Luck is only his second film, Clooney constructs this gripping cat-and-mouse game with skill and confidence. It’s a pressure cooker of a drama that simmers to a feverish, claustrophobic intensity. However, throughout the film, Clooney inserts small, ironic historical bookmarks of the era that brings to mind political songwriter Gil Scott-Heron’s observation: “What you call nostalgia ain’t what I been missing”.

First of all, there aren’t any men or women of color working at CBS. If so, they were mopping the floors, taking out the trash, and shining white men’s shoes. There wasn’t a “White Only” sign in sight, but it didn’t have to be. No, I’m not saying that the people employed at CBS were racist, but the circumstances that kept the workplaces in America segregated certainly were.

The few women who weren’t secretaries at CBS in the 1950s had to struggle with gender politics as well. Sure, they worked just as hard as their male counterparts in the newsroom, but they were also expected to get the coffee, too. Do you think somebody is going to yell at Ms. Couric, “Hey, Katie! Will you get me a large Vanilla Chai latte – skim milk, please, no cream” today?

And, of course, everybody smoked. In Good Night, and Good Luck, there’s a scary, it-shouldn’t-be-funny-but-it-is moment when an actor in a TV commercial is selling lung cancer with a smile as he cheerfully explains why Kent cigarettes are “good for you”. No, I don’t miss these distasteful cultural anachronisms at all.

But Edward R. Murrow, the honorable “face of television” is gone and he left behind a vacuum that today’s journalistic pygmies have been unable to fill. The tough, stubborn, hard-boiled TV news reporter who digs up scandalous crimes that the public needs to know about is a heroic archetype in American culture that doesn’t exist anymore. A contemporary talking head like Katie Couric isn’t on the CBS evening news to inform us. Couric is there to make us feel better. She’s a smiling, bright-eyed opiate in a thousand dollar business suit telling us comfortable, well-written lies. And all of us are poorer for it.

The German philosopher Nietzsche wrote, “Madness is rare in individuals – but in groups, parties, nations, and ages it is the rule.” Good Night, and Good Luck illustrates in chilling detail how McCarthyism, or, the “Red Scare” was the collective lunacy that seized the United States by the throat and wouldn’t let go. Brave men like Edward R. Murrow helped set us free by taking a stand, asking the hard questions and telling us the truth.

Who’s doing that now?

When did news become lightweight entertainment?

After seeing the film, I can’t help thinking that maybe the angry patriotic fervor ignited by 9/11 which led to this brutal and unnecessary war with Iraq could have been stopped if a real TV or newspaper journalist – and not a White House cheerleader – asked the right questions before it was too late.

Good Night, and Good Luck ends with these prophetic words about television by Edward R. Murrow:

“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. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box.”

So, has Couric done the inevitable interview with Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes about the new baby yet?

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