Media Communications Prof. Morrissey 1/23/14
Good Night and Good Luck
In the post World War II United States, Americans dealt with a great deal of horror and one of the largest threats to global freedom ever put forth. This was a much different war than the previous world war. The second world war was one that was ignited by a singular threat and core set of beliefs by a group of people. Americans knew that the threat of the Nazi party was all but wiped out on a national level. However the U.S. had to work with a different group of people with a set core of fundamental beliefs that strayed from things written in the United States Constitution. The new foreign threat Americans perceived to face was perpetuated by communists, who mostly came from The Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics. Americans became increasingly vigilant of communists during this time, hoping not to enter another world war against another group of people with different ideals. One American in particular tried to exploit this new found fear of communism for his own gain. Senator Joe McCarthy accused a great deal of people of being communist sympathizers with no substantial evidence. This caused many citizens to fear for their careers, knowing that even being accused by McCarthy of having communist sympathies could cause them to be shunned by friends and colleagues. One man who had the conviction and good moral conciseness to dispel some of these wild accusations was the esteemed journalist Edward R. Murrow. The film, “Goodnight and Good Luck” is a dramatized depiction of Murrow’s crusade against McCarthy’s “red scare,” and also can be seen as an example of mass society theory in practice.
This series of events and actualities is intensified when explored under the context of mass society theory. Mass society theory is a subject matter that can be prone to debate. Mass society theorists look at communication between those of a certain culture and explain and derive principles based on that culture. Mentioned in the text book, their are several assumptions one can make if looking at something while utilizing mass communication theory. The aspect that is most applicable of all these different assumptions in this case is the assumption that “The social chaos initiated by media will likely be resolved by an establishment of a totalitarian social order.” Granted, in this instance the only government involved that could qualify as totalitarian is not directly involved with the characters, Joseph McCarthy is still a government official and is representative of social order, while Murrow on the other hand is representative of the media. However, what is unique in this situation is that it is the media is trying to restore order to the chaos that is being implemented by McCarthy and his “red scare.” Both of these men would broadcast over the air waves to millions of Americans with two different messages. McCarthy’s was one of assurance in his ability to removing communists — who he claimed were inherently a threat — from America. Conversely, Murrow would try to more accurately examine McCarthy’s true nature and the results of his exploits, as well as call McCarthy on his inconsistencies and lies. This tug of war for the support of the public between McCarthy and Murrow went on formonths and started one sided. Many Americans, wanting to be “good patriots” and support McCarthy, originally supported his tactics. Murrow and his media counterparts had to manage their broadcasts with the realization they could become the victim of a baseless communist accusation and may suffer from it. McCarthy routinely portrayed himself as an All-American fighter for “core values,” while systematically employing tactics so corrupt that in years to come, “McCarthy-ism” has entered the public vernacular as synonymous with a vehement, irrational hatred of a person or group.
Murrow lost sponsors on his show because he chose to investigate McCarthy. His job was also placed at great risk, and he frequently clashed with his network bosses, including CBS President at the time, Bill Paley. Murrow persisted, however, and was successful in debunking a majority of McCarthy’s claims. Murrow, as a journalist, and a member of the contemporary media fulfilled his duty of being a “watchdog.” He sniffed out McCarthy’s claims and asked simply for any proof in a public forum. As discussed during a passage regarding this subject matter within the textbook, this issue of the contemporary media being a “watchdog” is translatable to more current times with the mention of the war in Iraq under president President G.W. Bush. Following the acts of 9/11, American patriotism was at an astounding upward trend, a trend similar to post WWII America in the 1950’s. The difference was that America was approaching a foreseeable war as opposed to just finishing one. Unlike the American 1950’s, America lacked the good fortune to have an esteemed, persistent, and vigilant reporter like Edward R. Murrow. America was told many times by the Bush administration that not only was the Al-Qaeda organization mainly operating out of Iraq, but that Iraq had in its possession weapons of mass destruction. Through different statements the Bush administration made the case for a war in Iraq based on their “evidence” of such weapons. Secretary of State Colin Powell went in front of the United Nations security council to plead the case for a first strike on Iraq. If these claims from the administration had been questioned nightly or even profiled by an investigative journalist of Murrow’s caliber, Americans would have been more likely to second- guess the president. Without thorough reporting over time, America did end up in a conflict with Iraq. No weapons of mass destruction were ever found in Iraq and thousands of American troops found themselves in a war zone, and some of them lost their lives. A dictator of the country, known for atrocities and crimes against his own people, was removed from power, which became the silver lining for this military action. It seems in this instance that “fearful” journalism won the day, like in the 1950’s, taking on a member of the government based on recent circumstances would be a huge risk for any outlet. A network that would act so boldly as to question the President of the United States following an act of terrorism on its soil could have been viewed as highly un-patriotic, to those who believed they were provided all the facts by the government. Networks or any outlet would risk loosing sponsors just as Murrow did before them. However, at the end of the day, the truth would expose itself, as much as a network would have to risk by questioning the Bush administration they also would have had a lot of credibility to gain.
The point of view of the film is also the point of view of Murrow’s, as seen in the final moments of the film, in which he is quoted. “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 is being used to distract, delude, and amuse, and insult us, then television and those who finance it, and those who work at it, may see a totally different picture too late.”(Baran Davis 62) Murrow’s cry isn’t just that American journalism should be a “watchdog” but they must also strive to stay one. Journalists dropped the ball and left their built-in instinct to search for the truth by the way side when America needed them following 9/11. This ultimately cost Americans something that all people hold dear, life. Worst of all this happened under a false pretense. This maybe the culmination of the beginning of what Murrow warned could be a possibility during the age of television, and what has become the age of information.
The film Goodnight and Good luck, is an exploration of a moment in time and does many things well, there is good acting, cinematography, editing and so on. The thing this film does best, however, is tell a story. The story of a journalist taking on something bigger then himself at a great risk to try and better inform the American people. With the addition of mass communication theory for analysis this is a story that can be further taken apart and understood. Not only did Edward R. Murrow fulfill his duty as a journalist the film also includes his message of caution and non-complacency going forward for a medium he fully understood. The timing of this films release a few years following the United States involvement in Iraq is poignant, in that it was a call to arms for journalists to stand by the fundamentals of their craft. It is an example of when journalism worked towards the greater good for the sake of it, and how it is something Americans will always need.
Baran, Stanley J. and K. Dennis Davis. Mass Communication Theory:
Foundations, Ferment, and Future. Vol. 6th. Michael Rosenberg, 2012.