Thursday, June 01, 2006

Conversations on Good Night, and Good Luck

I nobly attack into the breach! on Lance Mannion's commentary upon Good Night, and Good Luck (

Here are some of my jousting highlights:

Lance: "At any rate if you sit down to watch it, accepting the idea that a free, energetic, and courageous Press is a good thing in a democracy and you hold no brief for Joe McCarthy and his methods"

Me: That's precisely what the movie is actually questioning:

Good Night's entire mise-en-scene points to how rare and unusual Murrow is. The "bookends" of the movie are perhaps the most important clue to the movie's deciphering.

It's several years after the events of the plot, McCarthy has fallen and Murrow is the greatest lion of the press. Yet, at a celebratory dinner, Murrow excoriates the press for being courtiers - what we now call "press whores". That is, the press' celebration of Murrow is fatuous - Murrow's victory over McCarthy has not led overall to the media actually speaking truth to power, but continuing to suckle up to power. The press seemingly cannot follow Murrow's example.

Though Murrow succeeded in fighting McCarthy, he failed in the greater sense, which is why he is a tragic figure in the movie.

The general ideology in democracies is that the media will compete vigorously to inform the public. The vision is that the media will often speak truth to power to sell newspapers (i.e. as a newspaper owner, to line my pockets, I'd want to reveal various scandals and corruptions). This was, in fact, true of early print journalism (in the eigthteenth and early nineteenth centuries).
What Good Night shows is that:

1. this ideology of an active press does not seem to hold for modern journalism, especially that of broadcast journalism

2. broadcast journalism, it's ownership concentrated in a few private hands, is produced within a much more corporate structure than print journalism.

This is why the "method of production" is so emphasized in Good Night. It is actually quite important that CBS does not allow it's employees to marry (and both work at CBS). The needs of CBS internally as a large organization are more important that CBS' role as part of the press, or informing the public, or so on. Therefore, CBS has the same rules as any other major corporation of the period.

This is also why the role of Paley is so mysteriously prominent: Paley is not a muckracker, but an elegant aristocrat, who must however exist within a network of power. It is not that he is (or isn't) a conservative - it is that he is forced to heed Washington's opinion constantly and ensure that Washington looks favorably upon CBS, lest CBS' broadcast licenses are impaired. Paley must heed those who rule - and if McCarthy rules, then even the powerful Paley must ensure his organization takes that rule into account. Paley can oppose McCarthy, but only carefully and with a high care for tactics and timing. Again, in dramatic opposition to print journalism."


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