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October 23, 2005

Good Night and Good Grief

George Clooney’s biopic Good Night and Good Luck is every bit as good as it’s cracked up to be. It’s good enough to make Ann Coulter, perhaps the last living defender of J. Edgar Hoover, Joe McCarthy, and the utterly despicable Roy Cohn, bulimic. Much has been made of the parallels between the Right’s response to the anti-McCarthy forces a half century ago and the Right’s response to the anti-Iraq War forces today. That’s appropriate; the similarities in technique and mannerism are staggering. But that’s only part of the story.

Good Night and Good Luck serves as a damning indictment of today’s press, one rarely seen or heard from the modern American liberal. And it’s damn well about time.

Edward R. Morrow was a man of courage. Anybody who heard his “This Is London” broadcasts from the roof of the BBC studios during the Nazi blitzkrieg understands this. He risked his career and that of his willing staff in order to report the truth about McCarthy and Cohn. He broke many stories that brought heat to his employers and sponsors; ultimately, his exposé of the tobacco industry led (as one of the last straws) to his separation from CBS News – which, by the way, had the guts to air the documentary. It’s hard to imagine the present CBS News airing a similar documentary about, say, the pharmaceutical business that pours so much money in their corporate till.

Whereas Morrow might have been the first to do this in a big way, he was by no means alone in his courage and professionalism. I could cite many others, but of course the most outstanding was Walter Cronkite, who brought down the vile presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson and did much to turn the tide of public opinion against the Vietnam war.

In those days the television network news divisions were expected to be loss leaders. They weren’t supposed to operate in the black for the simple reason that the network news would never generate ratings as high as the sitcoms and game shows and celebrity news programs that are up against them.

In the 1970s after the networks were sold to the conglomerates – Loews and then Viacom, GE and Capital City and then Disney – the ground shifted and the news divisions were told they, too, had to be profit centers. The argument had been that the news provided the major part of the broadcasters’ fulfillment of their FCC-required commitment to the public in exchange for their use of the public airwaves. These requirements were largely eliminated as the Nixonites wanted revenge upon the media and the Reaganites promoted their profit uber alles philosophy.

Just as Edward R. Morrow warned, the television industry whored itself to the great god dollar. Thoughtful, diligent reportage gave way to mindless pieces about shark attacks and inevitably routine local violence. It has become so overwhelming that most people today actually believe we live in a more dangerous, a more violent society than we ever did before. This flies in the face of the plummeting crime figures.

Stung by criticism that they were too liberal, the news media eviscerated Bill Clinton for his oval office blowjob and gave George Bush’s naked warmongering a pass.

And the news shows still come in behind the sitcoms and game shows and celebrity news programs.

Good Night and Good Luck made me feel nostalgic not for the 1950s, which was by and large an era that was dangerously unAmerican. No, I miss the time when newspeople were allowed to do their jobs with courage, with conviction, and with class.

Good night and good luck, indeed.

Posted by Mike Gold at October 23, 2005 06:15 PM

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Comments

Damn, you really did write a movie review! And a good one. You forget that Bush did not just get a pass on Iraq; they rolled out the red carpet for him. Imagine the ratings! I remember in the first day of the war, The Today Show inadvertently asked a peacenik on the show. He criticized the network for creating attractive graphics that made the war seem like an award show. He was never heard from again.

Posted by: Marilyn Ferdinand at October 23, 2005 08:46 PM

We saw this movie last night, and when we left, my first comment was, "I wonder what Ann Coulter had to say about it?" My husband, John, said, "Who cares?" Which is, of course, the right answer. You're entirely right about how great the movie is about the media, the power structure, yada yada yada, but what really impressed me about the film was that it showed actual middle-aged people with wrinkles, just like they were in the 1950s. It's been a very long time since we've seen women and men with some honest sag.

Posted by: Martha Thomases at October 24, 2005 10:26 AM

That's a very good point, Martha. When Patricia Clarkson first appeared on screen I was a bit taken aback at first, until I saw what Clooney was doing. Quite remarkable for the pretty boy actor in the director's chair.

Posted by: Mike Gold at October 24, 2005 12:32 PM

I'm familiar with the material, thought I haven't seen the movie, and while I agree on elements of todays press (I get most of my news from bbc.co.uk/news, the San Jose Mercury and other online news sources, I used to watch a lot of the PBS newshour and went to npr.org, but I just found the bbc to be better) I want to stop just kvetching about the sorry state of the world/leadership/the press and start discussing solutions. Anyone have any?

I hate to be lazy about this kind of thing, but I seem to be reading a great deal about conservatives that are finally fed up with this president. Then again, I thought the same thing before the 2004 election. I'd love to see a Democratic congressional victory in 2006 followed by an impeachment followed by a conviction, but I know that's just pie-in-the-sky daydreaming.

Posted by: Jon at October 24, 2005 07:13 PM

Mike wrote: "Good Night and Good Luck made me feel nostalgic not for the 1950s, which was by and large an era that was dangerously unAmerican. No, I miss the time when newspeople were allowed to do their jobs with courage, with conviction, and with class."

"Allowed" to do their jobs? Newspeople are still "allowed" to do their jobs. Some do. Some don't. The "almighty dollar" -- i.e., sponsorship approval -- was as much a factor in the 1950s as it is now. If you believe otherwise, you're kidding yourself.

If Murrow was a working journalist today, possessing the exact same convictions and skills set he was famous for, he would still be successful and respected.

Posted by: R. Maheras at October 24, 2005 07:47 PM

We all pine for the good old days when men were men, women were women, and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri wer small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri. But as Greg Palast reminds us in the introduction to his book "The Best Democracy Money Can Buy," the Watergate investigation by Woodward and Bernstein 30 years ago was so unusual that they made a movie out of it.

What was "unusual" from Palast's perspective was that a couple of American journalists bothered to do any kind of investigating at all. And that was three decades ago. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Posted by: Rick Oliver at October 25, 2005 07:56 AM

I do think that news coverage has deteriorated, based simply on the paucity of public affair programming on network television. I remember when CBS White Papers were frequent and in-depth and when the Sunday morning shows weren't love-ins between the press and politicians. Liars have always existed in the press, but I'd be hard-pressed to find an example of one that won the Pulitzer Prize, as has happened in recent years. Conservative pundits outnumber liberal or even middle-of-the-roaders in the media. There isn't even a semblance of balance. And news programs are blood fests and happy talk. And were is the labor beat? It has vanished at a time when it is more needed than ever. These are real, not perceived losses.

Posted by: Marilyn Ferdinand at October 25, 2005 10:33 AM

The press has always been biased. Back when the founders wrote the constitution, it was taken as a given that the press was biased, and the first amendment was partly intended to protect their right to be biased in any direction they chose.

Nowadays, the press is basically biased in one direction: the direction of money. Blood fests and happy talk are cheap to produce and generate revenue. Same for right-wing talk radio, which appeals to people who can't figure out how to uses those pesky "internets" and don't like to read.

As Mike pointed out, virtually all the major television and radio networks are owned by large conglomerates, and the goals of those conglomerates are right in line with the neocon agenda: Maximize profit and minimize corporate taxes.

Posted by: Rick Oliver at October 25, 2005 10:56 AM

Rick, I understand your cynicism about the press, but it is a bit misplaced. Mike is exactly right in saying the reporters used to be allowed to do their jobs, and in this country, that meant objective reporting (as much is humanly possible). Now they're being asked to be shills, not reporters.

Posted by: Marilyn Ferdinand at October 25, 2005 11:07 AM

Actually, back in the 18th and early 19th centuries, most newspapers were owned by people advocating a specific point of view -- not unlike today's blogs. Even up until a couple decades ago, most newspapers were identified as "democrat" or "republican." Then Hearst's New York Journal -American and Pulitzer's World Telegram and Sun merged with the Herald Tribune and a black hole was created, sucking all journalistic reality inwards and leaving only the dreaded Joint Operating Agreement in its wake.

I think it's important to distinguish between the owners of newspapers and the reporting staff. The former set policy and write the editorial pages, the latter tilt at windmills.

Some newspapers restrict their most blatent editorializing to their editorial pages -- the Wall Street Journal is a perfect example of this. But there's an underlying philosophy that seems out from management.

However, it is the sales department that has the greatest influence over editorial content. For all his work as the Republican's La Cheffre, Rupert Murdoch rarely lets politics stand in the way of his making a buck. I admire CBS News running Murrow's anti-tobacco documentary almost 50 years ago, back when cigarette advertising paid the bills. Today the prescription drug companies pay the bills and I doubt Edward R. Murrow -- or anybody else -- could get a one hour expose about their practices on the air.

Why do I feel this way? Because it hasn't happened.

Posted by: Mike Gold at October 25, 2005 11:08 AM

Take heart, Mike. The press has been covering rather extensively Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich's attempts to buy drugs from Canada instead of paying the hefty mark-up in this country. The senior lobby (of which I am now a part) is an important one in this country, and the shell game that HMOs have been playing with drug companies (fewer procedures, more drugs = cheaper health care) is starting to be exposed.

Posted by: Marilyn Ferdinand at October 25, 2005 11:27 AM

It's time to watch Network again. Ned Beatty's classic screed from the film:

You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale, and I won't have it!! Is that clear?! You think you've merely stopped a business deal. That is not the case. The Arabs have taken billions of dollars out of this country, and now they must put it back! It is ebb and flow, tidal gravity! It is ecological balance!

You are an old man who thinks in terms of nations and peoples. There are no nations. There are no peoples. There are no Russians. There are no Arabs. There are no third worlds. There is no West. There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast and immane, interwoven, interacting, multivariate, multi-national dominion of dollars. Petro-dollars, electro-dollars, multi-dollars, Reichmarks, rins, rubles, pounds, and shekels.

It is the international system of currency which determines the totality of life on this planet. That is the natural order of things today. That is the atomic and subatomic and galactic structure of things today! And YOU have meddled with the primal forces of nature, and YOU WILL ATONE!

Am I getting through to you, Mr. Beale?

You get up on your little twenty-one inch screen and howl about America and democracy. There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM and ITT and AT&T and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today.

What do you think the Russians talk about in their councils of state -- Karl Marx? They get out their linear programming charts, statistical decision theories, minimax solutions, and compute the price-cost probabilities of their transactions and investments, just like we do.

We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale. The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable bylaws of business. The world is a business, Mr. Beale. It has been since man crawled out of the slime. And our children will live, Mr. Beale, to see that perfect world in which there's no war or famine, oppression or brutality -- one vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock, all necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused.

And I have chosen you, Mr. Beale, to preach this evangel.

Posted by: Rick Oliver at October 25, 2005 01:11 PM

Glib. And wrong.

Posted by: Marilyn Ferdinand at October 25, 2005 01:21 PM

Well, Geroge Clooney was on the Tonight Show last night, and he basically said the same thing I did in my previous post here -- that there were financially-motivated pressures on journalists in Murrow's day, just as there are now. It's just that it takes a special and talented journalist to dig for the truth despite all the deadline, political, financial, and even safety of life-and-limb pressures that have always been inherent in his/her field.

Posted by: R. Maheras at October 25, 2005 01:45 PM

Marilyn:

It's called humor. The movie was a comedy/satire about the broadcast news business. It is in the nature of satire to be "glib" -- but assuming you don't find even a grain of truth in the general sentiment expressed in the film, perhaps you could educate us on how it is "wrong".

Posted by: Rick Oliver at October 25, 2005 04:50 PM

Network is a savage film, a comedy only in the loosest sense of satire. The speech takes a truth and makes it THE truth. It is wrong by hyperbole. We most certainly do live in a world of nations and ideologies (capitalism being prominent among them), and we will not find world peace through the application of corporate SOMA. Corporations are too stupid and dysfunctional to take over the world once and for all.

Posted by: Marilyn Ferdinand at October 25, 2005 05:13 PM

Unless I'm missing the point, I think Marilyn misses the point. The problem with corporations today is that they aren't creatures of any particular nation. Put too much pressure on any of them and they can move their operations outside of the United States while continuing to sell here (thereby not only paying wages and taxes elsewhere, but sucking revenue from here). A corporation's alliance to this nation (or any other) becomes irrelevant. Assets can be moved from one place to another.

One day Microsoft will be headquartered in Mumbai. And, perhaps, so will CBS.

Posted by: Mike Flynn at October 26, 2005 04:34 PM

I'm not sure what a corporation's "allegiance" has to do with nations anyway. I know the common assumption that the fountain of life is money and that corporations make or break our way of life, but that is only one perspective. Do suicide bombers do what they do for money? Obviously, corporations can't run the whole world, nor do they, nor do they push everyone around. They are not all-powerful and can be made to bend. Don't give up your power to them.

Posted by: Marilyn Ferdinand at October 26, 2005 04:50 PM

Corporations may not currently run the whole world, but it doesn't logically follow that they cannot do so, given half a chance. NAFTA and CAFTA regulations already trump national laws. IMHO, this is the true heart of the neocon agenda. Free markets for everyone!

Posted by: Rick Oliver at October 26, 2005 05:22 PM

Just a quick look at the list of corporations mentioned in the Network speech you quoted shows that they are vulnerable. DuPont no longer exists, Exxon and Union Carbide are merged into other corporations, AT&T is a shadow of itself, and IBM is struggling.

I agree that the neocons would like to put an end to what Bill Gates calls "finite greed". They won't get their wish.

Posted by: Marilyn Ferdinand at October 26, 2005 05:34 PM

"Dupont no longer exists. Exxon and Union Carbide are merged into other corporations. AT&T is a shadow of itself..."

AFAIK, DuPont is very much alive and well, recently announced a fourth quarter dividend, and apparently has enough cash to launch an initiative to buy back stock.

Exxon-Mobil is one of the largest and most profitable oil companies in the world.

Union Carbide is now a wholly owned subsidiary of Dow Chemical, one of the largest chemical companies in the world.

AT&T was broken up by federal government...only to give rise to SBC, which may today be larger than AT&T was at its peak, but without all that pesky government regulation.

Bill Gates is one of the richest people in the world, and Microsoft is outsourcing to India and China in a big way.

Just because the names change, doesn't mean the basic trend has changed. IMHO, it's gotten much worse.

Posted by: Rick Oliver at October 27, 2005 09:53 AM

Welcome to the United Subsidiaries of Halliburton. Only shareholders may vote.

My how bleak the world is.

Posted by: Marilyn Ferdinand at October 27, 2005 10:06 AM

Minor clarification:

Dow is the largest chemical company in the world. ExxonMobil is the second largest oil company in the world, second only to Saudi Arabia's Aramco.

The world is, indeed, bleak. To think otherwise is your privilege, and optimism is always admirable -- but you tried to make a case based on facts not in evidence. I'm all for putting up the good fight, but I plan to do so with accurate intel about the enemy.

Posted by: Rick Oliver at October 27, 2005 10:23 AM

I will bow to your superior grasp of certain facts, though it makes more sense to know about the links between these corporations and regulators. It is essential to reinvigorate the body politic to elect representatives who will reattach the leash to these corporate entities. I know it won't be easy, but we CAN make a dent, make life just a little bit fairer for everyone. Starting with a freer press, which is how this thread began, would not be a bad beginning.

Posted by: Marilyn Ferdinand at October 27, 2005 10:28 AM

Marilyn:

We basically agree on what's needed. We disagree somewhat on the root cause. Our press is no less free than it was 200 years ago; it's just motivated by different factors (or more highly motivated by one particular factor than it was in the past).

A "free" press doesn't mean people who agree with me should have free access to the resources owned by those with more money who choose to support a view that disagrees with mine. There's nothing "unfree" about Fox News. The people that own the Fox network are free to spout their brand of political rhetoric, just as the commentators on AirAmerica are free to spout theirs.

A free press means one free of government censorship, not one free of editorial censorship by the folks who own the presses. Luckily, we now have the internet to provide an outlet for effective distribution of relatively inexpensive "free" speech; so money is not a primary motivator for many internet-based news outlets.

Posted by: Rick Oliver at October 27, 2005 02:49 PM

I think it is a very fine line indeed between the business enterprise of news reporting and the power brokers in DC. The entire Judith Miller/Valerie Plame debacle shows how very much meddling goes on in our supposedly free press. We have to consider that news tampering, which the Plame incident was, is as bad as censorship. Once we have editors who can't be cowed into retracting good stories, calling elections results before they can statistically be called, or regurgitating bad information--all under pressure from the hand-in-hand relationship of their owners and the government--then we will have a freer press.

Posted by: Marilyn Ferdinand at October 27, 2005 03:53 PM

Thought you might like to see this, Rick:

http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/05/37/network.html

Posted by: Marilyn Ferdinand at October 27, 2005 04:29 PM

Regarding Network. Stop me if you've heard this one before.

I first saw Network at the Warner Bros. screening room in Manhattan. I was in their employ at the time, as I was (foolishly) considered an "executive" and, ergo, got invited to the screenings. Me and my friends were up front, the WB suits were in the back. My boss, DC Comics’ then-publisher Jenette Kahn, was sitting with the suits. My friends and I loved the movie and were deeply moved by damn near every element.

When I saw Jenette the next day, she asked me what I thought. I emoted enthusiasm the way 27 year old fanboys usually do. She was shocked. Stunned. Amazed. And she gave me that look that one reserves for cretins to whom one need not be polite. "Well, WE thought it was horrible. Completely stupid. They obviously had an axe to grind due to their failed careers (referring to the writer and the director) and they'll be completely unemployable from now on!"

I paraphrase, but only slightly. As usual, Jenette was opining from the voice of her friends and benefactors: the Warner Bros. New York suits. She thought Network was a completely unfunny comedy, and one that was in bad taste at that.

I asked her if her friends felt the same way. The said they all concurred. I suggested teevee was only a couple inches away from Sybil The Soothsayer, and moved on.

Posted by: Mike Gold at October 27, 2005 04:43 PM

There's an incident described in David Halberstam's history of the media, "The Powers That Be", when Bill Moyers was about to leave CBS, and William Paley asked him what it would take to make him stay. Moyers said that he wanted a regular time slot, once a week, like Murrow used to have, and Paley told him, with genuine regret, "I'm sorry, Bill. but the minute's just worth too much money now." (you can check my memory against the actual quote, but I'm pretty darn close.)
When criticizing "the press" or "the culture" or "corporations" in general terms-- and I do it all the time-- there's the risk of forgetting that global problems can be tracked back to specific bad decisions made by specific people, like Paley. Hannah Arendt says somewhere "where all are responsible, no one is responsible," meaning that individuals evade their own culpability by blaming "the system" or saying "sorry, I'd help you if only I could, but that's just the way things are."

Posted by: Mike Fountain at October 28, 2005 02:17 AM

There's an incident described in David Halberstam's history of the media, "The Powers That Be", when Bill Moyers was about to leave CBS, and William Paley asked him what it would take to make him stay. Moyers said that he wanted a regular time slot, once a week, like Murrow used to have, and Paley told him, with genuine regret, "I'm sorry, Bill. but the minute's just worth too much money now." (you can check my memory against the actual quote, but I'm pretty darn close.)
When criticizing "the press" or "the culture" or "corporations" in general terms-- and I do it all the time-- there's the risk of forgetting that global problems can be tracked back to specific bad decisions made by specific people, like Paley. Hannah Arendt says somewhere "where all are responsible, no one is responsible," and individuals evade their own culpability by blaming everyone, saying "sorry, I'd help you if only I could, but that's just the way things are."

Posted by: Mike Fountain at October 28, 2005 02:21 AM

In describing Herman Goering's statements at the Nuremberg trials, one historian said: "He took full responsibility, but no specific blame."

I was reminded of these words when President Bush, in a tone just short of petulance, took "responsibility" for federal failures in the wake of Katrina.

IMHO, Bush is merely a mirror of modern corporate America. CEOs constantly defend their actions based on their fiduciary "responsibility" to the shareholders, failing to mention the fact that the major shareholders are, in fact, the CEO and the other senior managers who make the decisions -- decisions often made primarily to increase their own net worth, often at the expense of their employees and the long-term future of the corporation.

Hey, it's not their fault they had to outsource your job to China. They have a fiduciary responsibility to the shareholders.

It's not their fault they didn't recall those cars with defective tires. Cost-benefit analysis showed that the recall would cost more than the wrongful death lawsuits. They have a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders.

And it's not their fault that people would rather watch shows like "Trading Spouses" instead of shows like Frontline. They have a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders.

And here's a fascinating little tidbit for you: Guess who's reaping a huge windfall from the sudden surge in oil prices? The federal government, because oil leases on federal land are royalty-based. I'm still waiting for Bush to tell us how they plan to use that windfall. I won't hold my breath waiting for him to announce a break in home heating bills for the poor. I expect he'll use it to prop up more tax cuts for the wealthy -- because, hey, he has a fiduciary responsibility to the folks that got him elected.

Posted by: Rick Oliver at October 28, 2005 02:02 PM

You mean Ann Coulter's not already bulimic? I just assumed that anyone filled with that much bile had to be bulimic as a matter of course.

(And yeah, it's a cheap shot, but then, so's Coulter.)

Posted by: Julio Diaz at November 1, 2005 03:18 PM

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