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Movie shows times haven't changed much

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

I took some time off last week and actually made it to a movie theater not once, but twice. I seldom get to go as often as I would like as my movie watching tends to be dominated by the DVDs I need to review.

My wife and I saw Walk the Line, the bio-pic on Johnny Cash and June Carter and it was outstanding.

The other film was also a depiction of real events, Good Night and Good Luck. The films tells the story of how in 1954 television journalist Edward R. Murrow stood up to Senator Joseph McCarthy who was leading a movement in this country that called everyone's beliefs and patriotism into question.

McCarthy believed that Communists had infiltrated a significant portion of American industry, business and government. He was not alone in his convictions and, in the wake of the revelation that the secrets of the atomic bomb had been given to the Soviet Union, many Americans also believed the country was in danger from an invisible enemy among us.

The problem with McCarthy's attack was that he didn't seem to have the facts to go along with his accusations. While he claimed there were hundreds of "card-carrying" Communists in the State Department, he didn't name names.

While there was no doubt there was Soviet espionage in this country, McCarthy never really rooted it out. He did do one thing that undoubtedly pleased the Soviet leadership at the time: he created a hysteria that divided and terrified this nation.

The film shows how Murrow, with this weekly news program See it Now, took on McCarthy and was able, by using film of the senator's own speeches and investigations, to show America how wrong he was.

George Clooney, who directed, co-wrote and co-starred in the film, re-created Murrow's broadcasts and used the actual McCarthy footage that Murrow had used. The result is the film has a documentary feel.

Clooney spends little time introducing Murrow and there isn't a tremendous amount of screen time spend on story elements outside of the broadcasts. The film has immediacy to it because of this treatment.

The director also condenses the aftermath of the McCarthy shows and perhaps does a slight disservice to CBS Chairman William Paley.

For people who weren't around at the time and for non-journalists, the film does little to establish Murrow's role in both radio and television journalism. This is the guy who transformed television news in the early 1950s from an announcer reading headlines from behind a desk to filmed reports from the scene of a story. This is the reporter who actually succeeded for a time in preserving the autonomy of the news department as a separate organization which answered to its own standards and its viewers.

There are people who say this film is little more than an attack on the Bush administration and its policies. I'm sure the case could be made that the timing of this film carries a political implication.

What Murrow did was to question the conventional wisdom that Commies are everywhere that was spread by McCarthy and others. Murrow demanded proof to back up those claims. All McCarthy wanted to give Murrow and his other critics was a new set of accusations about their patriotism.

With McCarthy, asking questions or expressing a dissenting viewpoint was either the act of a patsy or of a traitor. This sort of sounds familiar, doesn't it?

I wonder how Murrow would report on this administration. How would he look at the war on terror, the teetering economy or the response to Hurricane Katrina? Would he accept the speeches or the answers at press conferences as fact? Would he push his network to report longer and more in-depth on issues and save the fluff as he did for shows other than the nightly news broadcast?

Well, there are few television news operations that operate today as Murrow did over 50 years ago. Today, the shows have to be done as cheaply as possible to maximize profits, and contain elements that guarantee an audience sex, celebrity and crime.

If anything, Clooney's film should make us ask ourselves as audiences what we are willing to accept as news on television. Perhaps we should be asking for more.

Yes, these are my opinions alone. Want to learn more on Murrow? Read Bob Edwards's book Edward R. Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism. Send me your thoughts at or to 280 N. Main St. East Longmeadow, MA 01028.