It seems like this year, especially in our current political climate, the media has a more important role to play than ever in how we as a nation are portrayed. In the past, the media has been a very powerful tool used for both protest and oppression. Look at the way MSNBC and Fox News have shaped the national opinion of the presidential candidates for proof; it has been used to promote the hatred of one, the cover-ups of another, and it has all but ignored another still. But we have something we haven't had in the past at our disposal; the gift of hindsight.
In order to properly look at our past mistakes in order to prevent them from happening again, there's a film you should watch. For this reason, in this writer's opinion, it is probably the most important film you'll see this year. And it came out eleven years ago.
Good Night, and Good Luck, directed by George Clooney, depicts celebrated journalist Edward R. Murrow tackling the Red Scare of the 1950’s head-on, as he discredits and attacks Senator Joseph McCarthy and his actions within the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. This is influential in itself; in that sense, Murrow’s program, See It Now, paved the way for other shows of that nature, such as The Daily Show, Last Week Tonight, and Real Time with Bill Maher (the irony and frustration that these are all comedic in nature does not escape me). But during that time, when free speech was placed second to national security, it was actually dangerous.
Murrow (portrayed by a stellar David Strathairn), faced monumental pressure on all fronts; from William Paley, chief executive of CBS, who feared that advertisers would no longer associate themselves with the channel due to the controversy; from the U.S Air Force, who attempted to put a stop to the episode in which Murrow defended Milo Radulovich, who was cut from the Force without a fair trial due to his sister’s political activity and because his father subscribed to a Serbian newspaper; and from McCarthy himself, who taped a response to Murrow’s attacks, which the show aired, that accused Murrow of being a communist and a member of the Industrial Workers of the World.
Murrow wasn’t the only reporter attacked, either; Don Hollenbeck (played by Ray Wise), another anchor for CBS, was driven to suicide after, among other factors, continuous accusations from newspaper columnist Jack O’Brian that he was a communist. However, Murrow and his dedicated team of writers and journalists were able to bring about the self-destruction of the junior senator from Wisconsin’s blatant attacks on innocent Americans; the film’s dramatic climax comes with the news of both McCarthy being tried by the Senate and Hollenbeck’s suicide.
When asked why he thought this story was important enough to film, Clooney said, “I thought it was a good time to raise the idea of using fear to stifle political debate.” That idea certainly isn’t new, as the film suggests, but it has become a more relevant tactic today. In fact, it seems to be a number of candidates’ main platform.
But we can't forget, the media acts as an instigator; when a candidate says that they will deport all Mexican immigrants, or that they will carpet-bomb the Middle East until the sand “glows in the dark,” or that protesters should be “roughed up” for exercising their First Amendment rights, it is entirely in the hands of the media to call them out for their dangerous rhetoric. Instead, they give the perpetrators hours of free air-time, discussing their remarks with pundits, supporters, and even the candidates themselves.
Senator Joseph McCarthy, who bears a striking resemblance to a current G.O.P candidate.
If current members of the media ever need a refresher course, they need to look no further than Edward R. Murrow’s career, and this film. Good Night and Good Luck is an effective case for journalism with integrity because of the choices it makes; instead of hiring an actor to play Senator McCarthy and his constituents, actual archival footage of the Senator’s SCPS meetings was used. This is effective because the audience is now seeing how McCarthy acted and what he actually said. If we look at his behavior and remarks in distaste now, then why are we not viewing our current candidates under the same critical lens?
This film can and should be used as a warning to the American people as we get closer to November. During a speech given to the Radio and Television News Director’s Association, Murrow addresses the crowd of his peers and colleagues: “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 in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse, and insulate us, then television and those who finance it, those who look at it, and those who work at it, may see a totally different picture too late.” That message resonates more than ever today. Television was a new invention at this time, and Murrow saw it not only as an instrument with great potential for change but one with the potential for an integral sacrifice as well.
For the most part, the latter is where we’ve been heading. But luckily, it’s very easy to be a television protestor: simply change the channel or turn it off. As a protester, you have control over what you are subjected to, you have control over what the media publishes, and you have control over whether they decided to tell you the truth or scare you. The media may have the information, but it is up to you what to do with it.
Murrow put it best when he said, “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. This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise, it is merely wires and lights in a box.” It is up to us to take those words seriously because the future of our country is too important to change the channel on.