Saturday, June 19, 2010

Good Night, and Good Luck

In part because of my recent commentary on the role of today's political pundits, and in part because I had nothing better to do Friday night, I re-watched the 2005 film Good Night, and Good Luck. The film was appropriate with relation to today's events for a number of reasons -- today's complicated, money-driven media landscape, as well as the heightened angry rhetoric that has polluted our collective political discourse, among them.

"The idea of using fear to stifle political debate," director and co-star George Clooney said in 2005.

Edward R. Murrow, a television journalist with CBS in the 1950s, is often revered today as one of the finest reporters in American history -- his loyalty to the facts and professional integrity trumping all other concerns. He helped pioneer the field of television journalism, which makes him at least somewhat responsible for today's landscape of nightly newscasts and 24-hour news stations. Keith Olbermann concludes his MSNBC show, Countdown, by echoing Murrow's famous sign-off, "Good Night, and Good Luck."

Ironically, Murrow had deep misgivings about television in 1951.

As the host of See It Now, Murrow maintained his reputation for going after the truth regardless of consequence; the pursuit would come to a head when Murrow first examined Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisc.), who was on what seemed like a one-man crusade against communism -- a crusade which had led to hateful rhetoric and a pattern of accusing those who were ideologically different (read: liberal) as communists.

Much of McCarthy's rhetoric against communism is not much different than rhetoric during the George W. Bush administration, in which Americans opposed to the War in Iraq were accused of being unpatriotic, sympathetic to al Qaeda and weak on national security. Nor is it much different than the Tea Party's anti-Obama rhetoric today, comparing the President of the United States to anything from Adolf Hitler to The Joker to an African witch doctor.

While I doubt Murrow would take issue with the Tea Party movement today, I don't think he would remain silent about all the elected Republicans seeking to co-op the movement for their own political gains.

Shortly after the series of reports on McCarthy -- which eventually led the Senate to investigate him -- Murrow fell out of favor with CBS. This was in part because See It Now sponsor Alcoa (an aluminum manufacturing company) left the show and no other sponsor was found -- an early hint that corporate money would later have a large, and often adverse, effect on television journalism, if not the field as a whole.

With today's media landscape being what it is -- newspapers and television stations owned by large corporations, a show's fate relying more on advertising revenue and ratings rather than the quality of content -- the glimpse into the past offered by Good Night, and Good Luck is both pertinent and poignant.

The film is framed around a speech Murrow gave in 1958 to the Radio and Television News Directors Association, in which he admonishes his audience not to squander the potential television has to inform and teach the American public. Though the subject matter is more than 50 years old, I feel Murrow's words from the open and close of that film are as important today as they were back then, if not more so.

From the film's open:

This just might do nobody any good. At the end of this discourse a few people may accuse this reporter of fouling his own comfortable nest, and your organization may be accused of having given hospitality to heretical and even dangerous thoughts. But the elaborate structure of networks, advertising agencies and sponsors will not be shaken or altered. It is my desire, if not my duty, to try to talk to you journeymen with some candor about what is happening to radio and television. If what I have to say is responsible, then I alone am responsible for the saying of it. Our history will be what we make it. And if there are any historians about fifty or a hundred years from now, and there should be preserved the kinescopes for one week of all three networks, they will there find recorded in black and white, or color, evidence of decadence, escapism and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live. We are currently wealthy, fat, comfortable and complacent. We have currently a built-in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information. Our mass media reflect this. But unless we get up off our fat surpluses and recognize that television in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse and insulate us, then television and those who finance it, those who look at it and those who work at it, may see a totally different picture too late.

And the film's closing remarks:

I began by saying that our history will be what we make it. If we go on as we are, then history will take its revenge, and retribution will not limp in catching up with us. Let us dream to the extent of saying that on a given Sunday night the time normally occupied by Ed Sullivan is given over to a clinical survey of the state of American education, and a week or two later the time normally used by Steve Allen is devoted to a thoroughgoing study of American policy in the Middle East. Would the corporate image of their respective sponsors be damaged? Would the stockholders rise up in their wrath and complain? Would anything happen other than that a few million people would have received a little illumination on subjects that may well determine the future of this country, and therefore the future of the corporations? To those who say people wouldn't look; they wouldn't be interested; they're too complacent, indifferent and insulated, I can only reply: There is, in one reporter's opinion, considerable evidence against that contention. But even if they are right, what have they got to lose? Because if they are right, and this instrument 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.

Today's journalists and pundits would do well to heed Murrow's words. Excluding FOX News (which is essentially nothing more than a propaganda arm for the Republican Party), too many of today's media outlets sacrifice truth for win-lose political debates and profits. Too often, "fairness" boils down to letting one conservative and one liberal comment on an issue -- even though Murrow chided that approach in the film:

I've searched my conscience, and I can't for the life of me find any justification for this, and I simply cannot accept that there are on every story two equal and logical sides to an argument.

Other than MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, Ezra Klein of the Washington Post and the writers and editors of The Nation magazine (which is not corporate-owned and relies, to a degree, on donations), I am hard-pressed to find media that doesn't have corporate stink all over it -- a stink that affects our political discourse, often pushing it away from facts and in favor of corporate interests.

With an administration trying to convince the electorate it does not favor the corporate over the individual, and a Supreme Court that is ruling in favor of corporations when it comes to elections, such a media landscape is potentially damaging.

All journalists, current and future, would do well to heed Murrow's words. Newspapers are not just dying because of an evolution in technology, but because a lot of Americans are starting to see what the media has become. The media does not have a liberal bias, as some have alleged, but a corporate bias.

If many of today's reporters are beyond help, then maybe we can count on those currently studying to be journalists to do better -- to be better.

Journalism was once a field that meant something; to be a reporter used to carry some esteem. Now, reporters and commentators are largely caricatures of the profession, and the nation suffers as a result. There's a reason Maddow and Bill Moyers of PBS are so revered -- while others look for soundbites and "gotcha" questions and worry about profit margins, these two seek the truth, no matter who it favors, no matter what they discover.

I studied journalism in college because I know what the medium is capable of in the right hands. When handled correctly, journalism can keep the powerful honest and the general public informed. The public does deserve some of the blame for today's landscape, since we've become a Happy Meal society looking for quick fixes and instant gratification, but we have shown that when we are trusted with an issue, and treated as adults, we know how to respond.

President Obama is in the White House because of that.

Murrow, even in the 1950s, saw what we would become.

We have currently a built-in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information. Our mass media reflect this. But unless we get up off our fat surpluses and recognize that television in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse, and insulate us, then television and those who finance it, those who look at it, and those who work at it, may see a totally different picture too late.

I ask the journalists of this country to remember what their job is, why they got into the field in the first place. I ask the general public to look up from their Blackberrys and their iPhones and take a look at what goes on around them in the world. We do not live in a bubble, and an uniformed public is America's worst enemy.

Instead of fighting each other, instead of deceiving and misinforming each other, why don't we look outward and start caring about what goes on around us again? Wouldn't this country be better off if we all opened our eyes and uncoiled out fists?

Maybe I'm naive, but I'd like to think it would be.

Good night, and good luck.

No comments:

Post a Comment