Other Matters: Good Night, and Good Luck

A career in print and broadcast journalism may have hardened my conviction about the importance of a free press in a democracy, but it seems to me that every American should see the motion picture Good Night, and Good Luck. George Clooney, the film’s guiding spirit, the son of a television journalist, understands why Edward R. Murrow’s exposure of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunt in the 1950s was a courageous and patriotic act. Murrow’s and Fred Friendly’s pursuit of McCarthy inspired the Senate investigation that brought McCarthy down. It also cost Murrow his authority at CBS News and ultimately drove him out of the news division that he largely created and that he inspired for twenty-eight years. During that time he became a symbol of excellence in broadcast news.
CBS head William S. Paley’s demotion of Murrow established the primacy of network profit over news integrity. It set up conditions for the MBA mentality that meshed with technology and the rise of cable networks to produce the broadcast and cable news we have today in which, with few exceptions, the line between information and entertainment has been blurred beyond distinction. The other day, I tuned in to the last half hour of the Today Show to get the latest on Iraq, the White House investigation and the peril facing earthquake survivors in the Himalayas as winter moves in. I was treated to the spectacle of the Today Show principals, including the newscaster, cavorting and joking in Halloween costumes. They broke for a clownish weather report, but they scrubbed the newscast. Why distract viewers from Halloween hilarity and depress them with the state of the world?
Paley cannot be blamed directly for the deterioration of the Today Show or of NBC News. He did not run NBC or ABC, he competed with them. But when he neutralized Murrow, he helped to create the atmosphere that brought about this Today Show debacle. Over on ABC the next day, Good Morning America presented news, but before and after her reports the news anchor, Robin Roberts, diluted her credibility by joining in fun and games with hosts Charles Gibson and Diane Sawyer, journalists who now spend much of their air time as entertainers. Roberts crossed, and stomped on, that fine line. I wonder if she knew it. Harry Smith seems to have maintained his dignity, or most of it, on the CBS Early Show. Could that be why viewers have relegated him to third place among the network morning programs? Can the democracy survive if the flow of information is choked with trivia? See Good Night, and Good Luck and think about that question.

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