The Media Will Serve Us -- If We Make It . . .

by Tony Palmeri

“Good Night, and Good Luck” begins and ends with legendary CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow (played brilliantly by David Strathairn) delivering his powerful October 15, 1958 keynote speech before the Radio-Television News Directors Association. Speaking of television, he says:

“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. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful.”

The core of the film features a reenactment of Ed Murrow’s illuminating use of the television medium to combat the menace of McCarthyism. On the evening of March 9th, 1954 Murrow’s See it Now program exposed for all to see Wisconsin Junior Senator Joe McCarthy’s malicious anti-Communist witch hunt tactics.

Murrow wasn't the first to lay bare McCarthy’s bullying and duplicity. George Seldes’ newsletter In Fact and Bill Evjue’s Madison Capitol Times earlier revealed McCarthy’s falsification of his own military record, character assassination techniques, and suspect income tax reporting.

Evjue and Seldes’ small circulation publications could not compete with larger media that gave McCarthy a free pass. Fulton Lewis, Jr. and Walter Winchell, the 1950s equivalents of Rush Limbaugh and Matt Drudge, enthusiastically promoted the McCarthy message to an audience of millions. Mainstream newspapers and television practiced fearful self-censorship to avoid the glare of redbaiting politicians and government committees.

Murrow understood that McCarthy did not create the fear, but “merely exploited it and rather successfully.” As a mainstream journalist operating in a debilitating “Red Scare” environment, Murrow’s See It Now McCarthy reporting stands as a rare and great act of journalistic courage. His powerful words of March 9th, 1954 still resonate:

“We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men, not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes that were for the moment unpopular.”

Murrow’s broadcasts helped the United States Senate find the mettle to censure McCarthy in December of 1954. Today Wisconsin Senator Feingold is calling for the censure of George W. Bush. Maybe “Good Night, and Good Luck” might help the Murrow-less modern mainstream media find the mettle necessary to take such calls seriously.