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Scott Larson

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The ghost of Ed Murrow

You are quite likely already aware that there is a movie currently playing in America called Good Night, and Good Luck. If I were any good, I would be writing about this movie and giving you informed and thoughtful opinions about it. But I’m not any good. Or, more to the point, this movie isn’t playing in Ireland yet, so I haven’t had a chance to see it. But I’ve been thinking about it anyway.

The movie, directed by George Clooney, tells the true story of journalistic legend Edward R. Murrow and his confrontation with Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1954, at the height of the Red Scare in America. As someone who has actually attended journalism school and even holds a journalism degree (which, I assume, to this day is still good), I am well acquainted with Murrow and his career. If American journalism was a church, Murrow would be one of its holiest saints or prophets. I think it is fair to say that, in the press pantheon, he is even bigger than Woodward and Bernstein put together.

Why is this? The obvious answer is that he was a great journalist. He was justifiably renowned for his reporting skills and the stories he reported. He was also the key pioneer who, more than any other single figure, shaped what we have come to think of as television journalism. Every on-air reporter who ever gets a shot on the TV news, somewhere in his heart, is dying to be Ed Murrow, the same way that every pilot who settles into a cockpit, deep in his chromosomes, wants to be Chuck Yeager. Murrow’s the prototype, the paradigm, the epitome, the real deal.

It is therefore no surprise that Clooney’s film has received a fair amount of exposure from various media outlets. For a couple of weeks there around the end of September, it was hard to avoid hearing or reading about the movie, especially if you were a National Public Radio listener. And it is further no surprise that the criticism of and reporting on the film was pretty darn deferential. At least as far as the subject matter was concerned. It was a bit like asking a Christian book club to critique a new edition of the Bible. (Apparently, the movie is actually pretty good, so that may be another reason.)

Why do journalists of all ages hold Murrow in such awe? For one thing, he was there at The Beginning. As already stated, he played a big part in inventing television news. But there is another reason why he, above any of the other pioneers, is held in such esteem. He brought down a powerful politician. This is the same reason, of course, that Woodward and Bernstein are also admired in the journalism profession. The aim of the journalist is basically to inform. But, as a corollary, it is also to Make A Difference, that is, to provide information that actually changes things for the better.

Now, you can argue that McCarthy could and would have been brought down without Murrow, that America’s democratic system would eventually have flushed him out as the political debris he was. Similarly, you could argue, less convincingly however, that Nixon would have had to resign even without Woodstein’s reporting. But it is taken as faith that these journalists, on a scale matched by few other scribes, actually affected the balance of power in the United States. That makes them demigods in the world of reporters and anchors.

It is my own nature, however, to take well established “facts” and shake them around a bit and see what falls out. When a thing is accepted as true and good to the point that no one bothers questioning it anymore, I get interested. What particularly caught my interest was an interview that Brooke Gladstone did on the NPR program On the Media a month ago. As a tie-in to the new movie, she interviewed Joe and Shirley Wershba, who were Murrow’s colleagues and who were played in the film by Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson. At one point in the interview, Gladstone says the following: “You know, you two have in the film an exchange in bed one night. It’s of such critical dramatic significance, I kind of thought it was added by the writers. Joe, you sort of muse, what if we (we, meaning Murrow’s boys) are wrong? What if there are Communists out there poised to take down our government? And you said, what if we are protecting the wrong people? Did that exchange happen?”

Following this, there was the briefest and most awkward of pauses. Then (in a delivery reminiscent of the late John Belushi in an old Saturday Night Live skit, where he deliberately upskittles a moment by exclaiming, “Nah!!!!”) Shirley Wershba replies, “Mmmmmmm… Not really.” This is followed by her laughter.

It is a telling moment and one that speaks volumes about the press and its adversarial relationship with the government. The main value that the press operates on is that getting information is almost always better than not getting information out. But, in this particular case, it was not the release of a piece of information that the fictionalized Wershbas were debating over their pillows. It was the decision of CBS News to abandon its mask of objectivity and directly attack and criticize a major politician. The journalistic cult of objectivity was a fairly recent phenomenon. Newspapers, which had been the main organs of the press before radio and television came along, often took sides and, in much of the world, still do to this day. But in America the idea developed that the press should be completely neutral, at least as far as politics was concerned, so that all consumers of news could accept it as the voice of authority. It was the aura of objectivity and neutrality that gave Murrow’s words such power when he did take an editorial stand against McCarthy’s bullying. It was a moment that champions of press power regard with heartfelt nostalgia to this very day.

The other great moment in this vein was when Walter Cronkite returned from Vietnam and pronounced, on his nightly newscast in February 1968, that “we are mired in stalemate” and that “it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.” President Lyndon Johnson was reported to have reacted by saying that, if he had lost Walter Cronkite, he had lost the country. His political fate was sealed. The war would continue another half a decade, but eventually the Nixon administration would enter into the negotiations recommended by Cronkite, earning a Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 for foreign ministers Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho. The latter refused his half of the prize, however, perhaps cognizant of the fact that, as soon as most U.S. forces had been withdrawn under the provisions of the treaty, North Vietnam would promptly throw out the treaty and sweep over South Vietnam.

It is no coincidence that the Red Scare of the 1950s sowed the seeds of the current entrenched political division of America and that the Vietnam experience accelerated its progress. Or that the brief period in which almost all Americans trusted the same source of information passed away, not unlike the relatively brief historical period of the latter 20th century in which hurricane seasons were generally milder than in most of recorded time. During the last presidential campaign, when pundits were arguing over things like Swift Boat ads and a forged memo being defended by Dan Rather, there were voices lamenting the halcyon days when there was one journalistic authority where everyone could turn to in order to get reliable information. Of course, virtually all of the people saying this were themselves journalists. In other words, they were lamenting the power they once briefly held in America’s discourse. I am sure that there are also politicians who lament the days when citizens automatically believed everything the government told them.

The fact is, we are better off with lots of different sources of information and that they don’t always necessarily agree with one another. It makes things much messier and puts more work on consumers of news to sort things out. And it does nothing to heal the country’s political divisions since most people will tend to seek out news sources that validate beliefs they already hold. But we have a much better chance at arriving at the truth if news reports have to compete in an open market rather than giving one organization, no matter how trusted, a monopoly.

The down side of today’s fragmented media world is that an Ed Murrow probably could not single-handedly bring down a Joseph McCarthy today. The up side is that it would be much harder in today’s media environment for a Joseph McCarthy to gain as much power as he did in the 1950s.

-S.L., 27 October 2005

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