Good Night, and Good Luck: The Story of a Nationwide Backlash Against McCarthy

Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)                                                              Director: George Clooney                                                             
Starring: David Strathairn, George Clooney, Robert Downey Jr., Patricia Clarkson, and Jeff Daniels

By Rebecca Doser and Yoshifumi Kobayashi

good night, and good luck part 1
Fig. 1: Good Night, and Good Luck directed by George Clooney appeared theaters in 2005.

Good Night, and Good Luck (Fig.1) is a historical drama based on the true story of  Edward R. Murrow‘s criticism of  the  Red Scare and Senator Joseph McCarthy through the television show See It Now. Murrow’s show contributed to the ultimate downfall of McCarthy himself. The title of the film as”Good Night, and Good Luck” was the ritualistic comment that Murrow used to close his show.  This movie focuses on media responsibility and a voice of dissent from government policy led by Murrow. Murrow was a television journalist and previous radio personality but then became a television host for the program See It Now. He led the resistance of McCarthyism by defying corporate and sponsorship pressures and pushing people to not let the fear of the Red Scare take over their freedom of thought and expression.

This film is framed by the 1958 speech given by Murrow to the Radio and Television News Directors Association (RTNDA), which appears both as the beginning of the film and the end. Through this speech, Murrow reprimands his audience not to delve deep into a reliance on the current television entertainment and its perceived ability to educate the majority because it is simply becoming “wires and lights in a box.” In his speech, Murrow is saying that the structure of the news networks is in danger because “those who finance it, those who look at it and those who work at it, may see a totally different picture too late…” This picture is that few members in the press are willing to stand up against McCarthy for fear that they too, will be targeted. Murrow feels as though he is the only one who is relaying that it is his “desire, if not my duty, to try to talk to you journeymen with some candor about what is happening to radio and television.” Throughout the 1940’s and 1950’s, America is so overwhelmed with concern about the threat of communism that no one is willing to overcome self-regulation and actually seek out that “this instrument” aka the television can indeed be used to “illuminate and even inspire.” Murrow  relays that corporations are abusing their freedom of speech granted by the First Amendment by using television to “distract, delude, amuse and insulted us” with a “built-in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information.” Take for example, the fact that Senator McCarthy made a public accusation that more than 200 “card-carrying” communists had infiltrated the United States government. This imposes self-regulation on the majority of the audience watching television as they are fearful of actual news, and an actual “importance of ideas and information.”

Television took the “safe path” and in turn, the industry itself “caved in” (Baran, 2015, p. 188). Television turned into an instrument good for nothing but “to entertain, amuse and insulate,” according to Murrow. No one exerts his or her freedom of speech freely during the Red Scare because “the networks employed security checkers to look into people’s backgrounds, refused to hire suspect talent and demanded loyalty oaths from performers”(Baran, 2015, p. 188). Media corporations are thus abusing their freedom of speech and Murrow’s ultimate goal is to portray that television is nothing but “wires and lights in a box” if no one is determined, like he is, to actually relay the importance of exposing the senator’s lies and hypocrisy (Baran, 2015, p. 188). In analyzing Murrow’s speech, one can connect the concept of technological determinism in that technology’s influence is ultimately determined by how much power it is given by the people and the cultures that use it.  Baran argues that if these technologies, such as television, are indeed neutral and their power resides in how we choose to use them, then we can utilize them responsibility in order to construct and maintain whatever type of culture we desire (Baran, 2015, p. 17). Similarly, Murrow argues that the complacent, indifferent and uninterested individuals watching television for simply entertainment are being manipulated by the power given to the producers, reporters and television industry to control what is and is not relayed to an audience.  For once, Murrow expresses that he would actually like to see the importance of ideas and information extended to the audience in place of Ed Sullivan on a Sunday night or other means of simply using television as a source of uninformative entertainment.

Fig.2: Edward R. Murrow produced multiple reports that ultimately led to the censure of Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Clearly, See It Now is one of the most significant TV shows in history because of its achievement and development of journalism in the television industry. The See it Now special titled, “A Report on Senator Joseph McCarthy” contributed to the nationwide backlash against McCarthy and stands as one of the largest turning points in television history (Fig. 2). As we saw in Guilty By Suspicion, members of the film industry were too afraid of getting caught as communists or in opposition of the Red Scare and McCarthyism.  The people who were in the film and television industries could not stand against McCarthyism, even if they wanted to, for the sake of business and keeping their jobs. In other words, directors and producers were too afraid of losing their sponsors, which ultimately bring money into their company/business in order to survive.

As a matter of fact, the Red Scare encouraged advertisers “to avoid buying time from broadcasters who employed these ‘Red sympathizers'” (Baran, 2015, p.188). Without sponsors, companies serving those industries would soon collapse if they could not collect enough money to keep on producing. This is exactly how the ad-pull policy works. The ad-pull policy is an example of self-regulation during the 1980’s when producers imposed their own regulation in order to maintain their sponsors and furthermore, maintain their job status and income. For instance, in this movie the one and only sponsor of See It Now, Alcoa, rejected to provide commercials for the show after CBS broadcasted the corruption of the Air Force towards a suspected communist man Milo Radulovich on See It Now. In this case, however, CBS did not suspend the show but rather decided to ignore the advertisers bullying them. Murrow made his show a clear example of the courage and recklessness necessary to expose McCarthy’s perverse political practices and abuses of civil rights. In fact, Murrow pursued the truth by referring to McCarthy directly in during the McCarthy era by using excerpt from McCarthy’s own speeches to not only criticize him, but also to point out areas in which he contradicted himself.

See It Now became a symbol of the power of “democracy and freedom.” As a result, “television had given the people eyes and ears -and power-” (Baran, 2015, p.188) for people technically saw how they could express their own opinions through television even during the darkest era when most people hesitated to do so. Of course, this brought disagreement over the role of journalism between Murrow and his boss William Paley, the chief executive who built CBS from a small network to one of the most renowned radio and television network operations in the U.S.. The conflict created a proverbial wall between the editorial and corporate interests of both men. After one colleague sent a report about Murrow’s suspicion of being a communist,  Paley asked Murrow, “Are you on safe ground?” Paley needed to make sure Murrow had never been associated with the communist party so that he, and his network, would not be accused of a communist association as he was “responsible for a hell of a lot of goddamn reporters.” Murrow insisted that, “you told me that corporate would not interfere with editorial-the news is to be left,” indicating that reporters should not simply surrender to the greater power (McCarthy)  and make accusations of subversion or treason without proper evidence . Paley answered saying, “but editorial will not jeopardize the hundreds of employees of the Columbia Broadcasting system.” On the other side of the coin, Paley was maintaining that corporate did have the power to jeopardize his majority of employees, therefore, he had to obey corporate at some point as the person in charge. Later, however, he also said that, “We don’t make the news. We report the news.” He did not intend to stage the news, but he attempted to limit, that is, to regulate, what was reported due to the self regulation imposed by the Red Scare. Murrow opposed Paley’s belief that CBS needed to adhere to the people imposing regulation on themselves by stating: “We would all be just the kind of people Joe McCarthy wants.” He knew that it was not McCarthy who created that “situation of fear,” but that it was the people themselves. Paley concluded that, “I would argue that everyone censors, including you (Murrow).”

The two men also discussed how they can deal with the rejection of Alcoa to pay for asking to air advertisement during the program. Paley stated, “’The $64-thousand Dollar Question brings in over $80 thousand in sponsors and it costs one-third of what you do…. people want to enjoy themselves. They don’t want a civics lesson… I don’t want to get a stomachache every time you take on a controversial subject.”

$64,000 question show
Fig.3: Before the quiz show scandal of the late 1950s, The $64,000 Question was a high-stakes, nail-biting, ratings-topping game show phenomenon.

The $64,000 Question was the quiz show that aired in the 1950s (Fig. 3). It led to the discovery that it “had been fixed by advertisers and producers to ensure the desired outcomes” in 1959, which is now known as the quiz show scandal (Baran, 2015, p.187). At that time, it was a trend to envelope “interdependently produced, single-advertiser-sponsored programs” (Baran, 2015, p.187) thus, it cost less by employing one sponsor and led to more revenue in broadcasting entertainment such as the quiz show. Paley claimed that the quiz show did well in regards to business because it provided people with what they wanted, which was entertainment. So, what Paley was trying to say was that See It Now needed to not only find a new sponsor but also shift its focus to entertaining news, often called soft news, in order to attract the sponsor so the sponsor would invest in the show’s time. Paley was commenting on the fact that Murrow’s intense investment in digging deep into McCarthy’s claims and proclamations was too controversial and intense for viewers. Viewers preferred entertainment and enjoying themselves as opposed to the controversial claims and intense investigation that Murrow was seeking out, which ultimately did lead to the censorship of McCarthy and stands today as one of television’s finest moments.

Baran, Stanley J. “Chapter 8.” Television, Cable, Mobile Video. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2015. Print