Empty-Headed Cable Talkers

The newly released film “Good Night, and Good Luck,” chronicles famed journalist Edward R. Murrow’s running duel with Senator Joseph McCarthy during the early 1950s. 

It presents a compelling message that implores us all to be more engaged and vigilant in defending individual freedom and individual rights.

But equally interesting, the film’s unusual construction gives us a window into journalism in its golden years, and the contrast with today’s all-empty-suit-all-the-time cable wind-bags couldn’t be more apparent.

To be sure, the film presents an interesting behind-the-scenes account of Murrow’s decision to take on McCarthy and the events that follow. But most of the screen minutes are given over to the legendary Murrow himself, admirably portrayed by David Strathairn, through reproductions of Murrow’s famous broadcasts.

The politics of the film aside, listening to Murrow’s elegant prose illustrates just how pathetic today’s journalists are in comparison. And not just in rhetorical skill.

Murrow was ultimately able to successfully take on McCarthy because he had built infinite credibility through years of scrupulously accurate and fair reporting. Yet, despite this bottomless well of good will with the public, Murrow took nothing for granted. Instead of splicing together a carefully scripted hit-piece that sought to take down McCarthy a la 20-20 or Dateline, he presented a full half-hour of Senator McCarthy in his own words, and then offered McCarthy equal time on his very own program. (McCarthy accepted and made matters worse by accusing Murrow of being a communist – charges that were demonstrably false and hardly believable given Murrow’s exemplary service reporting from war-torn London.)

But no difference between Murrow and today’s empty-headed cable talkers is more important than Murrow’s commitment to depth. Murrow understood that complex and controversial issues required significant time and thought to sort through. His reports didn’t merely scratch the surface. They provided context, and fair treatment to both sides of an argument.

Finally, of course, there are Murrow’s words themselves. There can be no question that Murrow was a special talent, the kind of journalistic bard who might come along once in a generation. He had a way with words, both writing and delivering them in a kind of journalistic poetry, that few could be fairly expected to equal.

Yet if Murrow were presenting for CBS today, it’s doubtful that any of us would ever benefit from his gift. These days, the news – both electronic and print – is increasingly being lowered to the least common denominator. Anchors and authors craft prose that any eighth grader can understand, and do so explicitly.

Murrow expected better, and his writing and reporting reflected it. He wasn’t going to lower his standards. He expected members of his audience to raise their own. And he knew that they would.

Perhaps the most extraordinary device in “Good Night, and Good Luck” is the film’s reliance on a speech that Murrow gave in accepting an achievement award from an industry association in 1958. Murrow’s speech castigated the networks for not taking advantage of the opportunity that television presented to educate and inform Americans.

His speech ended this way:

I began by saying that our history will be what we make it. If we go on as we are, then history will take its revenge, and retribution will not limp in catching up with us.

We are to a large extent an imitative society. If one or two or three corporations would undertake to devote just a small fraction of their advertising appropriation along the lines that I have suggested, the procedure would grow by contagion; the economic burden would be bearable, and there might ensue a most exciting adventure — exposure to ideas and the bringing of reality into the homes of the nation.

To those who say people wouldn’t look; they wouldn’t be interested; they’re too complacent, indifferent and insulated, I can only reply: There is, in one reporter’s opinion, considerable evidence against that contention.

But even if they are right, what have they got to lose? Because if they are right, and this instrument is good for nothing but to entertain, amuse and insulate, then the tube is flickering now and we will soon see that the whole struggle is lost.

It seems that Murrow’s final prediction is closer now to reality than even he could have imagined. There are no fewer than three major outlets in this nation alone supposedly dedicated to exposing ideas, yet all three seem more focused on entertaining, amusing and insulating than reporting and educating, and the tube just keeps flickering.