Clooney tells the story of CBS news broadcaster Edward R. Murrow (masterfully played by David Strathairn) and his battle to expose the anti-Communist excesses of Wisconsin junior Senator Joseph McCarthy (played by himself, thanks to recovered 1950s kinescope footage). Led by CBS producer Fred Friendly (a be-spectacled Clooney) and supported by a loyal news team, Murrow’s courageous "See It Now" TV program confronted the domestic fallout of Cold War ideology (and, by extension, the military/industrial/media complex propping it up) while simultaneously staking out a more tolerant and inclusive version of American patriotism that honored privacy, individual rights, and a sense of fair play.
Does this debate sound strangely familiar?
While Murrow’s truth-telling won him praise from New York Times media reporter Jack Gould and other influential cultural gate-keepers, his nightly stories put "See It Now’s" parent company and Columbia Broadcast System CEO William Paley (Frank Langella, in the film) under tremendous pressure. Large corporations cancelled their underwriting contracts with CBS (during the 1950s, before the days of wall-to-wall ads, companies like Alcoa often single-handedly supported an entire program), and US military officials showed up in Friendly’s office for a not-so-friendly heart-to-heart chat.
In telling Murrow’s story, Clooney wisely plays to his medium’s strengths. Shooting in black and white, he has produced a compact film that is tightly edited, atmospheric, and, for TV news studio scenes, downright claustrophobic. We learn nothing about Murrow’s personal life, very little about any of the story’s major characters beyond the news room, and precious few details about Cold War culture.
What we do learn, thanks to Clooney’s decision to book-end his film with a speech Murrow made at a 1958 Radio-Television News Director Association dinner, is that many Americans like Murrow believed very much in the power of television to educate, enlighten, and inspire, rather than to simply sell people stuff. Murrow’s 1958 observations – now legendary in media circles – still stand as some of the most prescient and honest statements about TV and U.S. society ever made by an industry insider.
"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." Murrow observed on that October 1958 evening in Chicago. "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."
What would Murrow make of U.S. television today? The massive global consolidation of a hyper-commercial corporate structure? The 28 hours a week we Americans watch, on average? The Fox-ification of TV "news"? The 24-7 ad-driven "consensus trance" created by the medium, our society’s epistemological command center even today? The 1996 $70 billion Congressional giveaway of the publicly-owned digital spectrum – for FREE – to the telecommunications industry? Or, on the positive side, community cable TV broadcasters’ valiant efforts to exploit the medium to capture the real lives of real communities – to use TV for something other than simply selling us stuff?
And, if Murrow were alive today, would he tackle our most provocative but unreported national news stories-to-be? Election Fraud? 9-11 Truth? Corporate corruption on a grand scale? International drug trafficking by our country’s own intelligence agencies?
"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," Murrow concluded in 1958. "Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful."
These are prophetic words. And ones that, I fear, will never be completely realized as long as the television medium, in the main, is owned and operated by our society’s richest and most powerful players.