Sunday, April 23, 2017

Don't Make a Scene: Good Night and Good Luck

The Story:  Lots of back-story here, a lot of prologue, especially for younger readers for whom this era is to them like the Revolutionary War is to me. "Can't relate."

During the 1950's, the so-called "golden age" of television, America was tarnished by "The Red Scare"—a combination of fall-out from the alliance with Communist Russia during World War II, Russia's aggressive annexation of victory spoils in the aftermath of that war, their acquisition of nuclear technology by hook or by crook, and the flirtation of liberals and free-thinkers with Communism during the collapse of our economy during The Great Depression. The '50's turned into "the perfect storm" of societal paranoia and political opportunism, the chief perpetrator being Senator Joseph McCarthy, who used the House Unamerican Activities Committee as a personal day-care to conduct hearings on anyone who might be intimidated enough to validate his constantly changing claims of communist infiltration (a small percentage of which might have been true). Intimidation and implication were  the chief weapons of mass distraction from the concerns of the Nation, and how many lives were ground up in the gears of the investigation no one can say with any real certainty.

But, it was a tightrope-walk that couldn't be sustained without the craven caving-in of witnesses with the intimidation of government penalties. Things came to a head when McCarthy took on the U.S. Army—a sort of reverse military coup—and TV journalist Edward R. Murrow devoted a half-hour of CBS prime-time to call the Senator out on his tactics. George Clooney's film,   Good Night, and Good Luck was the backstage story of that broadcast—and provided the previous information in a far more entertaining and concise manner.

This scene comes towards the end, after the broadcast and the fallout of the event has hit the network; political pressure on the reporters and CBS President William S. Paley (played by Frank Langella) is extreme, and so the chief instigators of the program, producer Fred Friendly (played by co-writer and director George Clooney) and Murrow (David Straithairn) are called before Paley to pay the piper. The meeting between the three is formal, tense, but all parties have moments of muted emotion. And afterward, Friendly and Murrow compare notes, ironically (and ruefully) seeing their fates similar to the Senator's they have called out.

It's a great scene, cagily written and cannily played, and Clooney chooses to end it on a speech by then-President Eisenhower, which comments on the McCarthy situation, as well as (since it was released in 2004) events perpetrated as a result of the Iraq War with its military tribunals, and indefinite detentions at Guantanamo Bay without specific accusations. It is now 2017, and both are still a part of the landscape. Business can cloud the clear eyes of journalism still, certainly, but also have its effect on the obfuscation machine. It cuts both ways, regardless of political stripe down the back, and recent failings in both the machine and the press hark back to the same lines Murrow borrowed in his McCarthy broadcast..."the fault is not in our stars, but our selves." 3, 2..*

EDWARD R. MURROW: Natalie, did he say what it was about? 

NATALIE: No. Just that he wanted to talk to you in his office. 

MURROW: Uh-oh! 

CBS CEO WILLIAM PALEY: The problem isn't simply that you've lost your sponsor.  

PALEY: With Alcoa, "See It Now" still loses money. 
FRED FRIENDLY: Mr. Paley, the fee is $50,000 dollars.  Last week's episode we did... 

FRIENDLY: ...for less than 50,000 dollars. 

PALEY: Fred, you're speakng beyond your competence. 

MURROW: We'll certainly find another sponsor. (We can certainly find someone who wants to...)
PALEY: "Sixty-Four... 

PALEY:...Thousand Dollar Question"** brings in over eighty thousand in sponsors and it costs one-third of what you do. 

PALEY: Ed, I've got Tuesday night programming that's number one. 

PALEY: People want to enjoy themselves. They don't want a civics lesson. 

MURROW: What do you want, Bill? 
PALEY: I don't want to get a stomachache every time you take on a controversial subject. 

MURROW: I'm afraid that's the price you have to be willing to pay. 

PALEY: Let's walk very carefully through these next few moments. 

MURROW: The content of what we're doing is more important than what some guy in Cincinnati...

PALEY: - what you're doing, Ed. Not me. Not Frank Stanton. You. 

MURROW: "CBS News", "See It Now" all belong to you, Bill.

PALEY:  You wouldn't know it.

MURROW: What is it you want? Credit?

PALEY: I never censored a single program. I hold on to affiliates who wanted entertainment from us. I fight to keep the license with the very same politicians that you are bringing down...

PALEY:...and I never, never said no to you. Never.

MURROW: I would argue that we have done very well by one another. I would argue that this network... 

MURROW: defined by what the news department has accomplished. And I would also argue that never saying no is not the same as not censoring. 

PALEY:  Really? You should teach journalism. You and Mr. Friendly.

PALEY: Let me ask you this: 

PALEY: ...why didn't you correct McCarthy when he said that Alger Hiss was convicted of treason? 

PALEY: He was only convicted of perjury. You corrected everything else. Did you not want the appearance of defending... 

PALEY: ...a known Communist? I would argue that everyone censors, including you. 

MURROW: What do you want to do, Bill?

PALEY: I'm takng your program from a half an hour to an hour. 

PALEY: And it wont be a weekly program and it won't be Tuesday nights. 

MURROW: When would it be? 

PALEY:  Sunday afternoons. 

MURROW: How many episodes? 

PALEY:  Five. 

MURROW: Why don't you just fire me, Bill? 

PALEY: I don't think it's what either of us wants. 

PALEY: You owe me five shows.

MURROW: You won't like the subject matter. 
PALEY: Probably not. 

PALEY: Fred,...

PALEY: ...I'll need you for a moment.  

FRIENDLY: - Thank you, Mary. 
MARY: - Goodbye, Mr. Friendly. 

FRIENDLY: He wants me to lay a few people off. 
MURROW: I'm sure he does. 

FRIENDLY: Let's do our first show about the downfall of television. 

MURROW: Senate's gonna vote to censure McCarthy tomorrow.
FRIENDLY: Probably. 

MURROW: And then what happens? 
FRIENDLY: He sits in the back row. 
MURROW: Right. 
FRIENDLY: They keep him in the Senate. 
MURROW: They don't kick him out. 

FRIENDLY: No, he stays. 

FRIENDLY: Well, we might as well go down swinging. 

MURROW: Did you know the most trusted man in America is Milton Berle?
FRIENDLY: See, you should have worn a dress! 
EISENHOWER (OVER TV)-...or their culture is older, or they are more sophisticated.

MURROW: How does a Scotch sound? 
FRIENDLY: Scotch sounds good. 
EISENHOWER (OVER TV)-We love America. Why are we proud?

FRIENDLY: Did you know Joe and Shirley were married? 
MURROW: Sure. 
EISENHOWER (OVER TV)-We are proud, first of all...

FRIENDLY: - Did everyone know? 
MURROW: - Pretty much.
EISENHOWER (OVER TV) ...because from the beginning of this Nation, a man can walk upright, no matter who he is, or who she is. He can walk upright and meet his friend--or his enemy; 

EISENHOWER (OVER TV) ...and he does not fear that because that enemy may be in a position of great power...


EISENHOWER (OVER TV) ...that he can be suddenly thrown in jail to rot there without charges and with no recourse to justice. We have the habeas corpus act, and we respect it. 

Words by Grant Heslov and George Clooney (and Dwight Eisenhower)

Pictures by Robert Elswit and George Clooney

Good Night, and Good Luck is available on DVD from Warner Home Entertainment.

William Paley (top), Fred Friendly, and Edward R. Murrow (below)

* After the countdown broadcast floor managers use to cue an on-camera person that they are about to go "live." 

** Funny that Paley brings up "The $64,000 Question." It was a big hit at the time for CBS. It was also about to be yanked for its part in the 1950's game-show scandals ("brought to you by your sponsor").  The rigging wasn't as baldly obvious as the more famous "21" scandal (see Robert Redford's Quiz Show), but some coaching was done and questions were not nearly as random as the TV public was led to believe.