When Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, and Peter Jennings yielded their anchor desks during this past year under divergent circumstances, their departures were widely seen as ringing down the curtain on the “voice of God era” in network news. While that trio will be missed, there are some salutary aspects to the end of this era. Partisan excesses of the blogosphere notwithstanding, there’s something to be said for the decentralization of media power. There was always more than a little presumption in Walter Cronkite’s evening signoff, “And that’s the way it is.” A viewer’s reflexive impulse was to reply, “Sez who?” In fact, one of my favorite New Yorker cartoons showed an irate burgher jabbing his finger at the TV set and shouting, “No, Walter, that’s not the way it is!”

CBS correspondent Edward R. Murrow’s weekly signoff as host of “See It Now,” television’s first documentary series (1951-1958), was far more modest: “Good night, and good luck,” he’d say. There was a formality to it—Murrow was a formal man, and these were the buttoned-down 1950’s—but his parting words also conveyed a certain solidarity with the viewer, a sense that we’re all in this together. Murrow’s weekly benediction implicitly suggested that democracy and life itself were precarious enough that we’re going to need good luck. Murrow’s sense of history and duty prompted him to use the airwaves on March 9, 1954 to confront redbaiting demagogue Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. In doing so, the newsman—to borrow Murrow’s description of Winston Churchill—“mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.”

That Murrow-McCarthy showdown is the subject of director and actor George Clooney’s “Good Night, and Good Luck,” a taut, well-made film that reminds us that, for good or ill, the whole voice-of-God business began with Murrow. Unlike many broadcast journalists today, who seem constantly to be auditioning for the role of America’s Chum, Murrow was a serious man for serious times. He stood for something and thought the news business should, too.

Indeed, the Murrow mystique has haunted CBS for decades. Paddy Chayefsky invokes Murrow in his prescient script for the 1976 movie “Network,” in which a CBS-like network abandons its news judgment and eventually its senses in a fevered quest for higher ratings. (Fittingly, Clooney is at work on a live TV remake of “Network,” slated to air on CBS next fall.) In late October, art bracketed life once more. As “Good Night’’ was finishing its third week in movie theaters, reminding viewers of a time when CBS took aim at a powerful elected leader in Washington and helped bring him down, the network’s news president, Andrew Heyward, stepped aside, having been weakened, as Dan Rather was, by the 2004 “60 Minutes II” report on President Bush’s National Guard service that blew up in the network’s face.

Clooney made two smart casting choices. First, he used archival footage of McCarthy himself rather than an actor, so we see “Tailgunner Joe” in all his sweaty venality, making us wonder anew how such a loon ever got as far as he did. Secondly, he tapped the chronically underrated David Strathairn to play Murrow. That choice is rewarded with numerous onscreen moments of quiet power. My favorite is when Murrow and producer Fred Friendly (played by Clooney) are meeting with “See It Now” correspondents and producers to ask that they disclose any past political activities that McCarthy might use against them and the show. One staffer offers to leave the show, nervously acknowledging that his ex-wife might at one time have attended a left-wing meeting of some kind. After a long silence, during which Murrow’s face tightens still further, we hear him say, “We’re going to go with the story, because the terror is right here in this room.”

As several critics have noted, Murrow was far from the first journalist to challenge McCarthy. And it is also true that Clooney valorizes Murrow out of all proportion. But when has Hollywood ever been able to resist the temptation toward hagiography? Though this is history simplified and reduced to broad strokes, the big picture seems essentially sound: As with Cronkite’s tide-turning 1968 description of the Vietnam War as a “stalemate,” Murrow’s decision to take on McCarthy constituted a kind of tipping point.

“Murrow and ‘See It Now’ did not topple McCarthy,” Stanley Cloud and Lynne Olson wrote in “The Murrow Boys,” their fine 1996 book on the careers of Murrow and colleagues such as Eric Sevareid. “The senator was already losing his grip on the country by the time they went after him. Murrow’s program did, however, give him an extra and significant shove. By the end of the year, McCarthy would be in disgrace, censured by the U.S. Senate. Murrow, in contrast, became the object of a national outpouring of praise and gratitude. He may not have caused McCarthy’s downfall, but the broadcast was so good, its dissection of McCarthy so masterful, that it almost seemed as if he had.”

Holding a Mirror to Our Times

Today, with network news divisions in decline, their one-time clout ceded to the fluffier morning shows and with press credibility generally in tatters, one has to wonder if there is a newscaster alive who enjoys this kind of moral authority.

Politically, Clooney’s larger purpose in reconstructing McCarthy’s smear campaigns and his efforts to criminalize dissent is to invite us to consider parallels to the present day. In this film, Murrow intones on-air that “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We cannot defend freedom abroad while deserting it at home.” As we hear him say this, it’s hard not to think of former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer’s infamous admonition in 2001 that Americans “need to watch what they say, watch what they do.” More recently, there is the Valerie Plame case, in which she was outed as a CIA agent after former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, her husband, wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times—based on evidence he’d gathered while on a fact-finding trip to Niger—accusing the Bush administration of twisting prewar intelligence on Iraq’s nuclear weapons program to bolster the case for war.

It is also hard to watch this film without pondering what has become of broadcast journalism and, in particular, of the TV medium in which Murrow spent the latter part of his career and for which he harbored both high hopes and grave doubts. At the end of the film there is a depiction of Murrow’s 1958 speech to the Radio-Television News Directors Association, in which he warned that if television “is good for nothing but to entertain, amuse and insulate, then the tube is flickering now, and we will soon see that the whole struggle is lost. 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.”

There are some honorable exceptions but, in general, the sort of enterprise reporting and investigative digging that Murrow prided himself on is generally in scant evidence on TV today. Far too many network newscasts consist essentially of images packaged to illustrate whatever was in that morning’s New York Times or Washington Post. How often do the networks actually break news these days? Meanwhile, the documentary form of which “See It Now” was the pioneer is all but dead on the broadcast networks, and TV newsmagazines, which might have been expected to fill the public-affairs gap, are instead largely given over to lurid true-crime stories and missing-person melodramas.

For all that “Good Night” evokes the atmosphere of the 1950’s, with its black-and-white cinematography, its plumes of cigarette smoke and its paranoid chill, it also hums just below the surface with issues that bedevil journalists today. “I’ve searched my conscience,” Murrow tells CBS Chairman William S. Paley in the film, “and I cannot accept that there are, on every story, two equal and logical sides.” In the aftermath of the Swift Boat episode during the 2004 presidential campaign—and a host of other stories—those words surely resonate with reporters who worry that their attempts at “on the one hand, on the other hand” objectivity end up doing a disservice to the truth and thus to the reader or viewer.

Another echo of contemporary journalistic debates occurs during an exchange between Murrow and Paley (played by Frank Langella, who rose to fame in his role as Dracula). “People want to enjoy themselves,” Paley tells his prideful newsman. “They don’t want a constant civics lesson.” Paley was giving voice to a credo that seems to guide today’s network executives as we witness how they have reduced coverage of national political conventions to a blink-and-you-miss-it minimum. Sustained coverage of important civic events—and serious-minded reporting about issues of national importance appearing in evening time slots occasionally—would not seem to be too much to ask of the holders of lucrative broadcast licenses. But, hey, people want to enjoy themselves.

Whatever his flaws and whatever the flaws of this film that memorializes his words and deeds, Edward R. Murrow knew that the pursuit of happiness rested on firmer principles than the quest for entertainment and for eyeballs. What a pity that the networks have been in flight from Murrow’s principles ever since.

Don Aucoin, a 2001 Nieman Fellow, is a reporter and former TV critic for The Boston Globe.

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