“No government ought to be without censors; and where the press is free, no one ever will. If virtuous, it need not fear the fair operation of attack and defense. Nature has given to man no other means of sifting out the truth, either in religion, law, or politics.” – The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 24: 1 June-31 December 1792.
This quote from our third President is just as relevant today, maybe even more so than 200 years ago. When it came to holding the Government accountable Jefferson believed in the right to investigate our government, and its leaders as fundamental to a free democracy. Journalism is our watchdog, our guard against out of control officials. It’s the complete opposite with our 45th President whose almost daily attacks and rants on the news media is unprecedented. Fake news, liars, dishonest and much more. No one should fear the press unless they got something to hide.
Edward R. Murrow was one of the most notable and respected of broadcast journalists. In the early days of his hournalism career, Murrow was stationed in London working for CBS. His first touch of fame came in 1938 when he reported on Adolph Hitler’s annexation of Austria. However, it was in World War II during the Blitz when he genuinely became a journalist to be reckoned with. With England under siege, Murrow’s sturdy voice reported back to the States with what became his signature opening, “This…is London.”
Murrow quickly became known and well respected for his integrity, his high standards, and his courage. He became a hero to a generation of broadcasters and journalists. Today, Edward R. Murrow is best remembered for his heroic reporting, along with his producer Fred Friendly, when they took on and helped with the downfall of the witch-hunting Senator Joe McCarthy.
It was the early 1950’s, Senator Joe McCarthy was on a rampage ruining peoples’ lives and careers with accusations of Commies infiltrating everywhere, accusations many times made with little or no proof. In 1950, McCarthy presented a speech in West Virginia where he made claims 205 card-carrying Communists were working for the state department. From that point on, McCarthy had everyone shaking in their shoes, even the President. However, it wasn’t until the discharge of army officer Lt. Milo Radulovich who was considered a security risk because a family member was suspected of being a communist, no proof offered, just accusations, that Murrow (David Strathairn) and Friendly (George Clooney) went after McCarthy on their show See it Now.
William Paley (Frank Langella), CBS president was leery of not just the political implications, but losing sponsors, audiences, disaffecting affiliated stations, and Federal Communications Commission regulations. The internal struggles are at the center of the film. Despite the concerns, Paley backs Murrow and Friendly, reluctantly. There is one scene where Paley confronts Murrow about losing his objectively, he is not telling both sides of the story. Murrow contends he is reporting the facts, and if the facts do not coincide with McCarthy’s lies, they are still objective.
The film was photographed in sharply toned black and white; it’s claustrophobic, mainly set inside the CBS studios, and captures the studio ambiance perfectly. If I remember correctly the only scene or scenes shot outside the CBS studio concern a married couple by the names of Joe and Shirley Wershba (Robert Downy Jr. and Patricia Clarkson). They had to keep their marriage a secret because at the time it was the policy of the studio that co-workers could not be married. Wedding rings were kept hidden. In a way, it was the company’s own form of censorship.
George Clooney who directed and co-wrote the script knew the period; his father Nick Clooney was a broadcaster and journalist. George was well aware of what TV studios of the day looked like and put that knowledge to good use. All of McCarthy’s scenes are actual news footage. It’s both alarming and pitiful to see the out of control Senator as he rants on during the Army-McCarthy hearings when the Chief Counsel for the Army, Joseph Welch, finally asked the Senator, “Have you no decency?”
Clooney nicely intersperses many scenes atmospherically with a series of 1950’s standards (Who’s Minding the Store, You’re Driving Me Crazy, One For The Road among others) ideally performed by jazz singer Dianne Reeves.
David Strathairn captures Murrow’s speech pattern and appearance accurately down to how he holds his cigarette. He’s expresses a man of morals and deep convictions who feels threatened that television will force him and journalism, in general, to compromise its integrity if it wants to survive. His fears over the years have proven to have come true. Most news shows today are greased with a lot of soft news: interviews with celebrities, chefs, and feel good stories. Murrow’s show See it Now would be regulated to Sunday afternoons in the coming years no longer on a weekly basis. With the advent of quiz shows as big audience-grabbers, his show was down in the ratings and canceled in 1958. See it Now, and Murrow’s influence did not entirely go by the wayside. Don Hewitt, portrayed by Grant Heslov (co-screenwriter), a producer on See it Now would go on to produce 60 Minutes and CBS Reports.