by Luke Baumgarten & r & In the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the disastrous relief effort that followed, the press pounced. From nearly every angle came withering criticism of FEMA's response. At the level of the correspondent, everyone from Anderson Cooper to Geraldo Riviera was voicing disgust at the state of the evacuation and putting down their microphones and rolling up their khaki "reporting from a Third World disaster" sleeves to help where authorities were not. Despite the carnage -- and indeed because of it -- the reaction, compassion and criticism we got from news affiliates felt like a victory for discourse in this country. There was a feeling that the media, for the first time in a long time, was looking out for its audiences. But that was a brief return to a place broadcast journalism hasn't been for a long time: a place of advocacy for the American people, serving as the vanguard and watchman of our government.
It's a place George Clooney would like to see the networks and their anchors spend more time. To that end, he's offered up a cinematic lesson in journalistic history. The film is Good Night, and Good Luck, and it captures the struggle between CBS news anchor Edward R. Murrow and Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, whose anti-communist tactics, Murrow believed, circumvented and violated constitutional rights. It's certainly a cautionary tale against the American people willfully trading freedom for safety. The famous lines from Murrow's broadcasts, "We can't protect freedom abroad by denying it at home" and "We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty," ring especially true today.
There's another tale told here, though, in the wake of eroded civil liberties and a limping occupation of Iraq. It's about going beyond merely providing administration sound bites and instead creating meaningful broadcast journalism that informs its people and holds its nation's leaders accountable for their deeds. "It's an interesting time to talk about the responsibilities of the Fourth Estate," Clooney told the LA Weekly.
In a speech earlier, to the Radio and Television News Directors Association, Clooney had elaborated on the context. "We get scared every once in a while because we don't want to be called unpatriotic. So it becomes 'my country, right or wrong.' And when I was brought up," Clooney said, "[that] meant women can't vote, blacks are sitting on the back of the bus and we're still in Vietnam. It's not just your right, but your duty, especially as a journalist, to question power." Of course, women had been voting nationwide since 1920, well before Clooney was born, but the rhetoric rings true.
His words echoed the sentiment of Murrow, speaking to the same body, some 48 years earlier. "Just once in a while," Murrow had said, "let us exalt the importance of ideas and information" over television as an opiate and a distraction. Murrow's major contribution to that ideology - or at least the one for which he is best remembered - was a scathing report on the tactics and doctrine of the junior senator from Wisconsin on Murrow's news program, See It Now, entitled "A Report on Senator Joseph McCarthy." It was that report and those ideals, journalistic lore teaches, that eroded McCarthy's power forever.
These noble notions, though, were highly controversial even in Murrow's day, and his reputation and career suffered because of them. In the intervening 50 years, the world of broadcast journalism has only moved further away from his ideal, prompting the question: Can there ever be another Edward R. Murrow?
As the lens of history gradually dials back and the broader picture surrounding McCarthyism and Murrow's fateful broadcast takes its place in a larger context, the extent to which Murrow was responsible for McCarthy's political demise is up for debate. Good Night, and Good Luck has a tightness of focus that certainly suggests Murrow was the knight who slayed the beast, his 40 million viewers the broad sword of public opinion that left McCarthy all but decapitated. But Thomas Doherty, professor of film studies at Brandeis University and the author of a book on television and McCarthyism, says there were other forces at work. Shortly after the See It Now pieces aired, the Senate voted to censure McCarthy. Writing in the Boston Globe, Doherty calls the censure "a more devastating ... death blow ... than any See It Now episode."
What no one seems to argue with, though, is that Murrow's fight came at a cripplingly high cost. The attack on McCarthy had required him to use all of his political capital. That included every ounce of trust and rapport he'd built up with America, while sending radio transmissions from the rooftops of London during Luftwaffe air raids in WWII and years afterward in television broadcasts beamed into 40 million homes. He mortgaged it all on the hope that broadcast journalism could be the voice of the people and of the Constitution that print sources of the time were. Murrow believed these principles were more than a mere programming choice, but cut to journalism's core values. The risk, recounts Bob Edwards, author of a biography on Murrow and host for 30 years of NPR's Morning Edition, didn't break in Murrow's favor. "Two years after the broadcast, he lost his sponsor; two years after that, he lost his program; and two years after that, he was so marginalized at CBS, used so infrequently, that he quit in frustration."
By the time Murrow got up to give that impassioned speech to the Radio and Television News Directors Association in 1958, he'd already lost his show and was exiled to CBS' fluffy Sunday circuit.
At the center of Murrow's fight to air the McCarthy story was a clash of ideologies, the journalistic vs. the corporate. "Murrow ... felt that, once in a while, principles of journalism have to prevail over the values of the corporation," says Edwards, who now broadcasts The Bob Edwards Show on XM Satellite Radio. "And Bill Paley, his boss -- the chairman of CBS -- felt quite differently. He felt that they were a corporation and nothing tops corporate values."
In the mid '50s, like today, as go the ad dollars, so goes the news content. In other words, says Edwards, "[commercial broadcasting] doesn't like to upset people," because, if people are upset, they tend to stop watching. Murrow won the argument with Paley, but ultimately lost the fight with his audience and his sponsor.
This paradigm was in place at broadcast's birth, and has only gotten worse with the recent, meteoric rise of synergistic conglomerates. CBS, for example, is now owned by Viacom, which also owns UPN, MTV, the Showtime networks, the Paramount companies, Infinity radio and the world's third-largest outdoor sign business. In this cutthroat climate, network news divisions get none of the special treatment they got in Murrow's era. Back then "news was done because they felt news needed to be done, as a public service. It was a loss leader," says Edwards, meaning that news was meant to draw in viewers, even if it didn't make any money. The important thing was to build the trust of the American people through honest reportage. In today's climate, both ratings and profitability are necessary, making the prospect of a hard-look, issues-based anchor and news show even more remote.
Almost exactly a month before Good Night, and Good Luck had its initial release, the New York Times Magazine ran a profile on Les Moonves, the current chair of the Viacom wing that controls CBS and the man credited with turning the network from the stodgy retirement-aged home of Murder, She Wrote and Touched by an Angel to the No. 1-rated network in America. The article is about one thing: giving audiences what they want.
But Moonves doesn't just want any audience; he wants the biggest audience. And for that, you need the kind of entertainment that captures the attention of tens of millions of people, the kind of entertainment that doesn't offend or upset. In order to broker in those kinds of numbers and keep them entertained, Moonves has found, you can't get too dark or too serious. Above all, you have to offer a happy ending. On CSI, the network's flagship drama about police forensic teams, you'll see a lot of gore, but it's viewed through a clinical lens and, at the end of the day, the perpetrator is always caught. This formula has been immensely successful for CSI and its two spinoffs. "[American audiences] don't like dark," Moonves told the magazine. "They do not respond to nervous breakdowns and unhappy episodes that go nowhere. They like strength, not weakness ... This is a country built on optimism."
Now that CBS' programming is on top, Moonves wants to apply that winning formula to the CBS Evening News, which languishes in third place among the top three networks. "There's a way to fix news, just as there was a way to fix prime time," Moonves said. Against the backdrop of Tom Brokaw's retirement, Dan Rather's fall from grace and Peter Jennings' tragic death, Moonves has expressed a desire to "bomb the whole [CBS News] building" -- and create in its place a friendlier, younger, more irreverent newscast. At one point, Moonves entertained the idea of giving The Daily Show's Jon Stewart a few minutes a night to rant. It'd be fun and synergistic, but all the farther from hard news.
These trends are enough to lead Bob Edwards to conclude that "commercial radio and television [don't have] the stomach for doing aggressive journalism."
Murrow began his report on Joseph McCarthy with a quotation from Shakespeare. "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves," he said, reminding Americans that we are not bound by fate, and that we have a duty to engage and question our leaders. Clooney is doing the same with his film, cajoling the nation's press to take up the sword, to act as an advocate for its people. But that seems less realistic by the day. The sentiments of both Moonves and Paley, though separated by 50 years, suggest that advocacy is the last thing news anchors should concern themselves with. In broadcast news' corporate environment, keeping people happy and watching is job one.
That mood is especially strong now that news divisions are expected to pull their own financial weight, and it's painfully clear that what is good for a network's bottom line is most often not what is best for public discourse. All of this makes a return to hard-hitting journalism seem like a bigger coup than any small-budget film can manage. Good Night, and Good Luck. Edwards applauds Clooney's intentions, but tempers that with 30 years of industry realism. "I share his hope, but I won't hold my breath waiting for it."
So can there be another Murrow? Hurricane Katrina showed at least a spark in several correspondents. If -- years from now -- those sparks haven't yielded flame, it may be that the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our journalists, but in their multi-national parent corporations.
Read the entire & lt;a href= "http://www.inlander.com/bigscreen/348529147157070.php " & interview with Bob Edwards & lt;/a & .