Standing on Principle

George Clooney’s articulate 2003 film, Good Night, and Good Luck, is about character assassination and the two men taking a principled stand against such acts: CBS journalist Edward R. Murrow, and producing partner, Fred Friendly.

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After publically exposing U.S. Senator Joseph R. McCarthy for destroying careers and lives through rumor and innuendo – usually claiming guilt by association – the two set out to show McCarthy for what he was: a blatant demagogue wrapped in the American flag.

In their persuasive March 9, 1954 broadcast, See it Now, Murrow and Friendly used McCarthy’s own words to demonstrate to the American public the reckless and dangerous accusations McCarthy used against any individual he labeled a communist.

At the programs end, Murrow offered McCarthy equal time to respond, and three weeks later, they aired his reply.

“…Murrow is a symbol,” McCarthy bluntly declared, “a leader, and the cleverest of the jackal pack which is always found at the throat of anyone who dares to expose individual Communists and traitors.”

Tens of thousands of letters, telegrams, and phone calls flooded into CBS in support of Murrow’s report, and the power and influence of McCarthy began to collapse as he faced his own Senate investigation and eventual censure.

When the records of McCarthy’s closed hearings were made public in a 2003 report, Senators Susan Collins and Carl Levin wrote, “Senator McCarthy’s zeal to uncover subversion and espionage led to disturbing excesses. His browbeating tactics destroyed careers of people who were not involved in the infiltration of our government. His freewheeling style caused both the Senate and the Subcommittee to revise the rules governing future investigations, and prompted the courts to act to protect the Constitutional rights of witnesses at Congressional hearings… These hearings are a part of our national past that we can neither afford to forget nor permit to reoccur.”

In the end, Murrow and Friendly paid a price for their integrity. CBS chairman Bill Paley banished their show to the backwater of Sunday afternoons due to the journalists continuing focus on controversial topics.

Four years later, in a speech before the Radio and Television News Directors Association, Murrow criticized television for its emphasis on entertainment and commercialism at the expense of the public interest on important issues of the time. His “wires and lights” speech, as it became known, would remain a cautionary diatribe against the excesses of a new medium with far too much power and influence.

And look what has followed since.

Today, we are inundated and insulated by that great, national, attention-deficit-disorder known as 24/7 cable news that is so melded to commentary, hate-speech and “info-tainment” that it has become difficult even for the reasonably well-informed to tell the difference between fact and fiction; even then, too many are willing to believe the fiction over the fact.

And why? For some it boils down to one amazingly ignorant reason: They’re on television and radio, so they must be right!

In his opening to Common Sense, Thomas Paine wrote, “…a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it the superficial appearance of being right….”

Of course, Paine was referring to the various abridgments of freedoms imposed on the colonials by King George. Today, we face a far more critical abridgment by way of millions of citizens turning their thinking over to a handful of talking zealots who fervently believe that God, the founding fathers (or their major representatives) speak through them to tell the rest of us what to think or how to respond to any given issue or individual.

The message from Good Night and Good Luck is clear. When millions submit to demagoguery from populists like McCarthy; when they rely on exaggeration, innuendo and outright lies, many need to be awakened from their collective coma and apprised of the facts. In short, we need to perform our own due diligence into the accuracy and purpose of these people.

Murrow’s closing remarks from his 1958 speech are more vital today than ever.

“…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.”

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