“Good Night, and Good Luck” is a 2005 film directed by George Clooney about the experience of Edward R. Murrow (David Straithern) at CBS News during the McCarthy era. The movie is fact-based; the title is the regular signoff Murrow used at the end of his weekly interview program “See It Now”. It is filmed in black and white; the script is in conversational style, using inserted historic film clips, showing background decision making at CBS and the social, political and corporate pressure brought to bear on the independence of television journalism at this time.
The decade following World War Two presented a new challenge to American policymakers – the rise of global Communism. Fears of Russia were based on events, including mass atrocities toward German civilians and POW’s in the closing months of the war (1945); construction of the Berlin Wall (1946); interference in post-war Western European elections; detonation of an atomic bomb (1949); conviction of spies Ager Hiss in the United States and Klaus Fuchs in Britain (1951); fortification of the entire border between East and West Germany (1952); and detonation of a hydrogen bomb (1955). Events in Asia included Mao’s Communist victory in the Chinese civil war (1949); and North Korea’s invasion of South Korea (1950).
To American policymakers, following experience with Germany in the 1930’s, this course of events, combined with Russian belligerence toward the western democracies, required a response. Led by the United States, the Western Alliance would undertake a “Containment” strategy, set forth by George Kennan and Dean Acheson at the State Department under President Truman and Secretary of State and later Secretary of Defense George Marshall. The United States, the largest, wealthiest and militarily strongest western democracy would aid, reconstruct, strengthen and expand a defensive alliance of democracies in Western Europe, first with the Marshall Plan for aid and reconstruction; then with the NATO defensive military alliance; and along with reorganization of western trade and financial systems.
To address concerns about potential Russian infiltration of the American government, in 1950, Congress passed the McCarran Internal Security Act, which required that all “subversives” in the United States submit to government supervision. President Truman saw the bill as overreach, and vetoed it, stating it “would make a mockery of our Bill of Rights”; Congress overrode the veto and McCarren became law; its provisions were later declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in separate cases in 1964; 1965 and finally 1967.
Joseph McCarthy (1908-57) graduated from Marquette College and Law School; worked as an attorney; then served three years as a circuit judge. McCarthy served in a non-combat role in the Marines during World War II, where he exaggerated and falsified his heroics in order to receive awards and medals, once manning a machine gun in a small combat plane and emptying a box of ammunition into a vacant jungle, earning him the nickname “Tail Gunner Joe”. In 1946, McCarthy won an upset primary victory over Republican Senator Robert LaFollette, a leading national progressive, and was elected to the Senate in 1946, then re-elected in 1952.
McCarthy rose to prominence in 1950 with a public charge that 205 Communists had infiltrated the State Department, waiving a purported list of their names in the air, who he claimed were “working and shaping policy” to undermine America’s national security for the benefit of the Soviet Union. The speech created a furor and catapulted him into national headlines. In his subsequent testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, McCarthy could not produce the name of a single Communist in the government, but he continued gaining popular support with his campaign of accusations due to public fear of Communism. McCarthy turned his accusations into a nationwide anticommunist “crusade”, making spectacular accusations against increasingly prominent government officials, destroying careers of many good public officials and undermining the country’s traditions of civil liberties.
McCarthy’s increasingly irresponsible attacks came to include Secretary of State Dean Acheson, Head of Policy Planning George Kennan, Secretary of State and later Defense Secretary George Marshall, General Eisenhower, and even President Truman – the people who had planned and won World War Two, and then crafted the “containment” strategy with its defensive alliance to protect the western democracies from Soviet aggression. Truman summed up his view of McCarthy as early as 1950, calling him “the Kremlin’s greatest asset” and his investigations “a fiasco” that was sabotaging bipartisan foreign policy, critical to addressing the real Soviet threat.. When asked if he was libeling McCarthy, Truman responded “Do you think that’s possible?”.
But public fear, once stoked, would not subside easily, and prominent Democratic Senators were defeated in California and Maryland based on charges of softness on Communism, including Richard Nixon’s “red-baiting” Senate campaign in California. After his reelection in 1952, with Republicans controlling the Senate, McCarthy chaired the Senate’s Government Operations Committee, and for two years continued investigating government departments and innumerable witnesses about suspected communist affiliations. At the same time, the Republican-led House Un-American Activities Committee, “HUAC”, began a campaign of hearings against communist subversion in Hollywood and in the State Department, spreading near-hysteria nationally. Although McCarthy failed to make a plausible case against anyone, his colourful and cleverly presented accusations against government “elitists” drove over 2,000 public officials out of their jobs and brought popular condemnation to others. Particularly hard hit was the State Department, where three prominent Foreign Service officers, the “China Hands”, were fired for suspected Communist sympathies after predicting the eventual success of the Communist insurgency under Mao Zedong over the corrupt and militarily ineffective Chinese Nationalists under Chiang Kai-Shek; this would have a generational impact on policy advice from the State Department.
The movie begins in 1958, at a dinner tribute to Murrow, introduced as a hero who fought against McCarthyism, who proceeds to make a speech about journalism becoming occupied with good news and escapism, and losing touch with the real world; his comments making the audience uncomfortable, except Fred Friendly (George Clooney), head of CBS News, who seems to enjoy it.
The movie then flashes back to 1953, when two CBS News reporters are discussing the loyalty oath they are required to sign, or risk being fired. Then, the newsmen are in a conference room, deciding subjects for Murrow’s next “See It Now” program. McCarthy related topics are at first rejected as controversial, but then someone brings up the air force officer in Chicago, who was dismissed from service due to his father’s suspected communist ties. At the officer’s trial, the charges and evidence were both sealed, and the officer was convicted without seeing the charges or evidence. The newsmen are reluctant to pursue the story, afraid of a backlash from McCarthy, but then send two people to Chicago to get some footage and decide then. Murrow, Friendly and a third man try to decide whether to run the piece; Murrow is supportive; the third man is opposed, mentioning their sponsorship from Alcoa, a government contractor; Friendly is ambivalent, but decides to rely on Murrow to run it as a piece against the infringement of civil liberties, but not mentioning McCarthy. Friendly is then met in his office by two Army Colonels, who berate him about jeopardizing national security, interfering with government business, etc.; Friendly asks the Colonels about the contents of the sealed evidence and they do not know. The story runs; the phones start ringing off the hook; and the story gets mixed reviews in the morning paper.
William Paley, head of CBS, lectures Friendly for the piece, mentioning their sponsorship from Alcoa, but doesn’t actually ask him to stop reporting on McCarthy, trusting Friendly’s judgement. Later, a CBS News reporter is approached by a government official, who warns him against running future McCarthy pieces, telling him “Murrow was on the Soviet payroll in 1932”. The crew decides to challenge McCarthy directly, then holding a Senate hearing on a woman who he reports works in the Pentagon Code Room and is a Communist spy. Neither charge is true, but the woman is fired from her job after her name was seen on a Communist Party mailing list, except it is the same name as three others in the local phone book. All of these facts are brought to light during the show, and Murrow offers McCarthy the opportunity to defend himself on his program.
McCarthy appears on the show and responds with accusations against Murray, reporting his ties to Communism – that a Communist writer dedicated a book to Murrow; that Murrow was on Russia’s payroll in 1932; and that Murrow was a member of the International Industrial Workers, a Communist oriented union. Murrow rebutted the charges on his next program. The author, a British professor, was a friend from his time in London, despite their different beliefs. Russia partly funded his employer, a nonprofit international student exchange program, when he worked there. The third charge was untrue, Murrow had never belonged to the IIW union. Murrow also stated that since McCarthy didn’t refute any facts reported about his own conduct, the world could assume they were true. Despite the factual nature of Murrow’s response, Paley then informs Friendly and Murrow that CBS has lost Alcoa’s sponsorship; cuts the program from 1 hour to 30 minutes on Sunday afternoon; and informs them Murrow there will only be five more shows.
The movie then cuts back to the honorary dinner for Murrow in 1958; Murrow finishes his speech saying that journalists are the ones with the responsibility to keep the public informed of the real world, regardless of its unpleasantness. “Good Night, and Good Luck” was nominated for six Academy Awards in 2006 Academy, and for six BAFTA awards in 2005 BAFTA Awards, and four Golden Globes in 2006.
McCarthy’s “Army Hearings” were broadcast for 36 days on national television, as McCarthy intimidated witnesses but showed no evidence for his charges, leading the Army’s chief counsel to famously demand “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” The hearing, following Murrow’s widely broadcast expose, greatly discredited McCarthy and helped turn the public opinion against him. The Republicans lost the Senate in the 1954 election, McCarthy lost his committee chairmanship, and the Senate condemned him with a formal censure vote for his “inexcusable, reprehensible, vulgar and insulting conduct unbecoming a senator”, thus ending the era of McCarthyism. McCarthy was largely ignored by his colleagues and by the media thereafter and died before completing his second term in office.
Murrow received four Emmy Awards for his “See It Now” program, including Best News Commentator, with the last coming in 1958, when he excoriated the broadcasting industry in a speech before the Radio and Television News Directors Association for being “fat, comfortable, and complacent” and television for “being used to detract, delude, amuse and insulate us”.
As Donald Trump retires to his Florida estate, I am left thinking he will pass from the political scene, pulled in several different directions with civil litigation, criminal investigations, shrinking business profits, growing overdue debt, and increasingly unwilling investors. But Trump may gain an extended political life, as he desperately works to resurrect his MAGA political poison, driving a political chasm through the Republican Party, and using his position with his White, Christian, Nationalist, internet conspiracy base to return from political exile, in an effort to recover the political position that protected him from his financial and legal problems. As with McCarthy, Trump will ultimately fail based on his own utter lack of substance; the question is how much damage he will have done to our system of government before that happens.
The impeachment provided the Republicans an opportunity to ban Donald Trump from public office, avoiding the risk of his re-emergence in the White House. Adapting Churchill’s adage, the Republicans were given a choice between conflict and dishonor; they chose dishonor, and they will have conflict, as Trump’s attempted political resurrection divides their party. Perhaps we have already seen the worst of this problem, but, if functioning democracy requires a well informed public, then the current state of misinformation and disinformation broadcast through radio, television and the internet are cause for concern for that democracy. Commercial sponsors, driven by revenue from hyperactive advertising without quality control, have become, in Murrow’s terms, “fat, comfortable, and complacent” with the technology “being used to detract, delude, amuse and insulate us”.