Hearkening back to darker times

At the risk of betraying my age, I will confess that the McCarthy era baffles me. It strikes me as surreal. And so it seems so perfectly placed within the confines of Good Night and Good Luck, cloaked in black and white scenes, the historic footage of Congressional trials interspersed with fictional actors performing half a decade later.

Edward Murrow and Fred Friendly are crusaders for the cause of rationality in an era of hysteria. Despite pressures from their superiors and sponsors, they air night after night of broadcast content calling into question the communist-hunting tactics of Senator Joseph McCarthy.

But as surreal as that point in history feels to me, there were certain points of the movie that struck me as familiar, modern even. It is a film about the influence of journalism and the responsibility of the fourth estate to be a watchdog, a protector of truth. It’s about the struggle for objectivity and the struggle to say something different than what everyone else is saying, to create controversy when it is perhaps vital.

It was when Murrow said “we must not confuse dissent with disloyalty” that the bell in my head went off. For 2005 was not such a good time to be a dissenter, either. Replace “communist” with “terrorist” and the situation becomes exclusively contemporary. “We cannot defend freedom abroad while deserting it at home,” Murrow argues—rhetoric fit for anyone arguing against the Bush administration. In a climate where people were afraid to speak out against the war in Iraq because it was part of the War on Terror and to argue against it was an affront to everyone that died on September 11, the Edward Murrows of the world had to be there to speak out.

Even in the media, rumors circulate. At some point Murrow and his team have to reiterate that the ACLU is, in fact, neither communist nor on any watchlist. There is a responsibility for journalists to tell the truth and get their facts right, because the entire nation is looking to them for information. And I think behind the curtain, we sometimes forget that. If the New York Times prints it, it’s true. If CNN says it, it’s true. But journalists are human, with human shortcomings and human bias.

The most heartbreaking part of the film is when Don Hollenbeck is brought nearly to tears by a bad review in a paper, one that insinuates that he’s less than completely impartial. Today, partisan news is an old hat, and you don’t see anyone crying over it. But Hollenbeck felt a deep responsibility to his show, to do his show justice and make it fair. And I admire that. I have all but lost faith in broadcast news, but Good Night and Good Luck gives me hope that it doesn’t all have to be puppy pageants and over dramatized car chases, that the news that beams into our homes each morning, afternoon and night can truly have an impact.

Few other professions can boast that kind of power. And it isn’t the kind of thing that can be taken lightly.

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