No journalistic age was ever given a weapon for truth with quite the same scope as this fledgling television.
– Edward R. Murrow, on the first See it Now broadcast (1)
We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.
– Richard Hofstader, The Paranoid Style in American Politics (2)
I hold here in my hands, stunning and unanswerable evidence, incontrovertible proof, that George Clooney, glib and apparently superficial movie star, ironic yet unapologetic post-Vietnam liberal, denizen of glittery Lake Como and nephew of the great Rosemary, has the smuggler’s instinct for film.
Who’da thunk it?
Viewers casually expecting a nice, harmlessly ricocheting civics lesson in the Murrow style about how Edward R. Murrow (David Straithairn) and his boys struck low the mighty Joseph McCarthy (playing himself) were never disappointed. They got out of it exactly what they put in: nothing – or, more precisely, a sober version of the standard mythology about the infant medium’s legendary first intoxicating whiff of its own power. But what happened back in 1953-4 really deserves more than the collective yawn that greeted this movie. After years of absurdist narratives about the McCarthy Era, the first post-VENONA movie has arrived. And it lives both on an exoteric level, for the politically innocent, and for the initiated, on at least two esoteric ones, to use the language of the sinister Leo Strauss.
Good Night, and Good Luck (dig the comma, cats!) is certainly the exoteric David-and-Goliath film described above. Its makers, George Clooney and Grant Heslov, somewhat disingenuously describe it as an occasion for debate, democratically offering, like Murrow, the subterfuge of equal time for supposedly equal ideas. They have strategically and dutifully scattered throughout the period film Easter Eggs that promise earnest parallels to our own confounding situation: sealed envelopes, kangaroo courts, paranoia, informants, the rhetoric of Terror. The last thing we should expect, then, is a Godardian Supercollider of Text and Image in Cold War media.
Those staying a while longer to scratch under the surface should find a rather disturbing attack, McCarthyesque in its ferocity, on an entire generation of toothless Cold War liberals. Those hapless men, the American Mensheviks like Murrow and John F. Kennedy, who had the misfortune to be born under the sign of Marx moving through the house of Stalin, have been routed by history. They are rather dimly regarded by the triumphant soixante-huitard wing, the Bolsheviks who myopically and self-servingly came to see Anti-Communism, rather than Stalinism or Maoism, as the great debacle of the left in the 20th Century. But Clooney will not go that far. He sees Murrow basically as a tragic-comic figure. He is too much the ironist to take the myth of Murrow at face value, so he dismantles it before our eyes, doing to Murrow what Murrow did to McCarthy: showing indeed how easy it is to do “violence” to the master’s “own words and images”.
Just as McCarthy attacked George Marshall, Dean Acheson and President Truman for being soft, even collusive on communism, Clooney casts Murrow and the corporate culture of CBS in a richly ironic frame, showcasing each excruciating timidity (and even a few betrayals) in dealing with the events of the hour. The basic narrative (Murrow as hero, McCarthy as Monster) is continually troubled by a relentless stream of ironies, visual juxtapositions and accusations. One might be tempted to forgive and dismiss this as a garden-variety type of Hollywood ahistoricism, or the harsh judgment of children for their grandparents, or, more kindly still, the eternal evidence of the incommensurability of historical epochs. But the strange thing about GN, AGL is that a great deal of care has been taken in getting most of the details correct, even though the epistemological question of the validity of anti-communism is scrupulously dodged. Clooney is certainly agnostic on the issue, this being, after all, a question for historians not entertainers, but this omission pays an interesting dividend for the film.
What indicates immediately that Good Night, and Good Luck is a revisionist work is that it begins with a ceremony inscribing the grand triumph supposedly portrayed in the film, his “historic fight with Senator McCarthy” as his mild nemesis (everyone, except for McCarthy, is mild in this movie) TV News pioneer Sig Mickelson (Jeff Daniels) intones. The Brechtian endpapers of the film show us a pageant of bourgeois respectability: the scrappy TV kids are now the Media Establishment. We know this, because we see one of the elect burp discretely in confirmation of Murrow’s self-loathing accusation of decadence. For the first and last time, the film shows us Murrow, as always uneasy as a performer with a body rather than as the acousmetric voice of authority, onstage before a local audience of his peers – the National one, we guess, occupied with the entertainments and amusements that he sanctimoniously condemns.
And we are immediately struck by the Lincolnian, neurotic severity of our hero. The real Murrow, who was often caught smiling, is here transformed into a brooding, lonely figure. We can almost hear, in this prelude, the marbled voice of Nancy Hanks, “What’s happened to Abe? What’s he done?” The long-embered cigarette trailing ghost thermals of smoke replaces the stovepipe hat in the iconography. Here is a man, it seems, who can’t stop twitching with integrity and fervour. Clooney’s Murrow, of course, is identified as a hybrid of teacher, priest and a warrior. Mickelson reminds us that he has “lectured and taught” thousands, both on the Radio and TV. The real life Murrow thought of TV in martial terms: it was the ultimate weapon in the battle against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. He really believed this! To our ears, this crusade to de-commodify mass media sounds naïve, perhaps mad. Murrow sounds like Don Quixote – or Joe McCarthy. And that is exactly the point of the framing story.
Good Night, and Good Luck belongs to one of my favourite genres, before which I am periodically helpless: the doppelgänger picture. Murrow and McCarthy are doubles. The camera, the cycloptic CBS eye, that faces them is a mirror. McCarthy is the “hot” buffoon, Murrow quite literally the “cool” straight man. Each man requires the other in a perverse symbiosis. They are performing TV democracy. We know it’s a performance, because the five-episode showdown is closely watched by a Greek chorus of the Murrow Boys, who cheer and applaud as Murrow tilts at the greatest windmill of them all, securing our FREEDOM from the spectre of crypto-fascist demagoguery – or at least its mythic simulacrum. But following the narrative pattern set forth by Don Quixote, each “victory” is followed by a defeat, deferral or mockery, or undercut by a nagging profound doubt.
On his journey to commitment, Murrow is shadowed by a series of “consciences”. First, Sig Mickelson accuses him of betraying the pseudo-ideal of objectivity, of editorialising. Murrow responds that he has searched his conscience and that he cannot find a legitimate other side to this story. Then his protégé, Don Hollenbeck (Ray Wise), who is the most terrified of the in-house purges, asks him, “If this is the start, are you taking sides?” Then his boss, the panoptic Zeus of the network, whose emblem is the unblinking eye, Bill Paley (Frank Langella), points up uncomfortable parallels between Murrow’s witchhunt and McCarthy’s. He sardonically throws up Murrow’s now hollow-sounding civic rhetoric in his face: “You’re trying him in the press […] doesn’t he have a right to face his accusers […]?” And then Paley reminds him that he’s crossing the line from covering the story, to becoming the story. TV was the crack cocaine of the 1950s and Murrow, no less than McCarthy, was not immune to its intoxication. The TV man doesn’t just report, he must perform the news. It is forgivably human that finding himself so certified on the small screen, Murrow thought he was a agent of history. “We don’t make the news, we report the news”, Paley reminds Murrow, but the appeal is futile. We already hear this through the prism of irony, because we’ve already heard Fred Friendly (George Clooney) exhorting his foot soldiers in the news-huddle to “get out there and make some news […] mug an old lady!” Après Murrow et Friendly, the deluge.
Soon afterward, we hear Murrow’s image double on the kinescope lamenting his own travails on the bitter path for truth. The junior senator from Wisconsin has also heard the calls for moderation, but he, like Murrow, will not heed them.
And wait till you hear the bleeding hearts scream and cry about our methods of trying to drag the truth from those who know, or should know, who covered up a Fifth Amendment Communist Major. But they say, “Oh, it’s all right to uncover them but don’t get rough doing it, McCarthy.”
What really irks Clooney is that Murrow keeps insisting that it is the Senator’s “methods” that need to be questioned, rather than the whole ideological ball of wax of anti-communism. After all, Murrow’s heavy-handed methods are not substantially different than the Senator’s. And Clooney no doubt sincerely feels that the “war on terror” is a similarly epic Damoclean blade hanging over civil liberties, government and the media. So the first time Murrow watches McCarthy’s image in the film, his face is opaque, dark. We do not know what he can be thinking. It’s as if he is watching himself on the kinescopes, preparing a grand summation from one grand inquisitor to another. As Murrow says about McCarthy, “The line between investigating and persecuting is a very fine one.” He, of all people, should know.
This schizophrenia is formalized with visual cues about the bizarre Caligari’s cabinet that is TV space. Murrow’s psyche is shattered on the various monitors of CBS’ studio 41. Sometimes he appears next to McCarthy on the monitors, and at the same time down in “real space” below them, disconcertingly gazing off-screen, with a sick feeling we realize he is watching himself and McCarthy – the space of television makes no sense at all. It would drive anyone crazy. Murrow was the voice of authority; CBS used some deft visual strategies used to transfer the acousmetric power of the voice to the presentation of its image. Murrow directs our gaze in the studio with his glances: where he looks, we must look; where he looks away, we can safely ignore. The Brechtian device of Murrow in the studio, before a bank of monitors, is not Clooney’s invention or distortion; this was the central rhetorical strategy of See it Now. In the first episode, Murrow magisterially had Don Hewitt dial up The Brooklyn Bridge on a monitor and then the Golden Gates on the one next to it, essentially creating a stereoscopic image of the power of television. With its crude, masterful rhetorical images, See it Now went further than most to teach Americans the new language of Television.
The opening sequence introduces the chief stylistic device of Good Night, and Good Luck: the slow, frame-altering, televisual zoom toward or away from the camera subject. This zoom which hunts or flees action, compressing or expanding space with concentric distortions, and these distortions mimic the actual drift of the camera as it moves from Murrow to the monitors and then widens to include him or goes tight for emphasis. This piercing gaze of Murrow’s was CBS’ secret weapon. By the time we have arrived at the climactic confrontation, the famous A Report on Senator Joseph McCarthy, Clooney and Heslov have repeatedly insinuated that Murrow’s brave stand against McCarthy is more a matter of personal survival than democratic principle. When Murrow finds the Radulovich story, Friendly asks him if he’s being brought before “the committee”. Murrow says, “No.” Looking puzzled, Friendly says, “Then it’s not McCarthy …” And Murrow fixes him with his intense gaze and asks “Isn’t it?” All crimes are laid at the Senator’s wide and obliging door, the fate of a man who becomes a symbol.
[A small Point of Order: The film makes the usual concession to the hysterically inflated myth of McCarthy by blurring the activities of HCUA (The House Committee on Un-American Activities), more familiarly known as HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee), which ran almost uninterrupted with the tacit blessing of everybody and his mother from1938 to 1975 with the Senator’s brief tenure as chairman of Senate Committee on Government Operations and its Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. HUAC was always the elephant in the living room. For his partly self-appointed role as lightning rod, McCarthy has been surgically removed from the elements that made him a complex and endlessly fascinating figure. He was a New Deal Democrat who opportunistically switched sides to ride into Congress with the class of 1946. He was a born liar, charming, likable and personally gregarious, loyal beyond all rationality. Among his close personal advisers and most fervent contributors was Joseph Kennedy. They shared a profound Irish-Catholic atavism. Joe McCarthy was actually more popular than the Kennedys in working-class Massachusetts. As a favour, McCarthy hired his son, Robert, the future Great White Hope, as an associate counsel for his witchhunt. The twin scourges of communists on McCarthy’s committee were Roy Cohn and Kennedy, who hated each other. Bobby can be seen in at least one of the clips during the Annie Lee Moss session. (He was Senator McClennan’s counsel at this point.) And JFK was notoriously touchy about McCarthy. He never could never bring himself to actually condemn him. As late as 1954, Kennedy exploded at someone who was glad that Harvard could never produce an Alger Hiss or a McCarthy. How dare this person, raged Kennedy, compare the name of an infamous traitor and a great patriot!]
The See it Now McCarthy series seems on the surface conceived to reassure the fearful among the media that McCarthy was not as powerful as he seemed, that he had no legions at his back ready to call down hellfire on press outlets that defied him. Murrow’s approach was to prescribe a generous homeopathic dose of McCarthy to cure the body politic’s and the media’s McCarthy addiction. And so it happened. Prompted by Murrow’s concentrated focus on the Annie Lee Moss “debacle”, ABC took the idea to C-SPAN absurdity offering the entire Army-McCarthy Hearings for the toxins to flush out of the system through overexposure. Wounded (the networks financially, the Senate in matters of prestige), both sides learned their lessons; cameras were not allowed into Congressional hearings (with telegenic exceptions for colourful gangsters from the Kefauver Committee) until the next tele-convulsive democratic crisis: Watergate, starring, of course, the canny destroyer of Alger Hiss, Richard Nixon. For the left, anti-communism really was the gift that kept on giving. We know the stone-chiselled myth of McCarthy. Much of that myth comes from Murrow and Friendly. But who was he really?
McCarthy was a Pirandellian figure. The Republican Party was happy to use him as an attack dog upon the stage of the 1952 elections, which apparently ended, as McCarthy infamously said, “twenty years of treason”. McCarthy was exactly the sort of fun, personable scrapper that would drive the Democrats insane. And the guy had a genius for staying on the front page and on the TV. But they soon discovered that McCarthy didn’t want to stop. It’s as if an actor had gone mad on stage. Nothing could convince him that circumstances had changed fundamentally. He kept attacking phantom (and it turns out, not-so-phantom) communists to the growing fury of President Eisenhower. One can easily imagine his colleagues in the Senate taking him aside and whispering: “Joe, the show’s over. We won the election.” And McCarthy would take these attempts to moderate and silence him as further confirmation of his importance. A very bad feedback loop ensued. Traditional safeguards to ensure collective compliance in the gentlemen’s club of the Senate just didn’t work with McCarthy. He was a virtuoso of political suicide, a punk and a natural anarchist.
In Good Night, and Good Luck, he remains finally, radically unassimilable to the texture of the film. By unhitching him from Murrow and Friendly’s original scheme, re-mixing the images and forcing them both to share a single narrative frame which explicitly compares them, Clooney gives McCarthy a pathos and dignity, a tragic sympathy that few have ever granted him. Just who is attacking who is a central question of the film. As Thomas Doherty puts it in his study of the McCarthy Era and Television, Cold War, Cool Medium:
Thus, from McCarthy’s vantage, even paranoids have real enemies. By mid 1953, Friendly and Murrow were orchestrating a strategic campaign against the Senator: reconnoitering his flank and probing for weak points before launching a full throated attack. With intensifying force and cresting momentum, a series of five See it Now episodes dissected McCarthyism, the second most urgent civil rights issue of the day. (3)
See it Now’s cameras – they prided themselves in using original footage – had been trailing McCarthy for more than a year, waiting for the right moment to strike.
RADULOVICH: an Air Force witchhunt, an innocent, average man trapped in a web of guilt by association; the moving democratic pageant of the man defended by his fellow citizens.
INDIANAPOLIS: the ACLU battles the American Legion; an impressionist view of the struggle for the nation’s soul.
GEORGE MARSHALL: a ringing defence of McCarthy’s State Department nemesis; ex-President Truman attacks McCarthy, but not by name.
MURROW’S REPORT: head-on clash, the Senator directly exposed and confronted, the public roused to action.
McCARTHY’S RESPONSE: the homeopathic dose of McCarthy, continued.
MURROW’S REPLY: short and sweet, shored up by corporate testimonials from CBS and positive response from the press and the viewers.
ANNIE LEE MOSS: a closing symmetry, another little person caught in the anti-communist madness; more evidence of McCarthy’s dangerous incompetence.
The shows do build a powerful rhetorical argument: they move from the personal trials of common individuals, the wider battle for the nation’s soul and the idea that even the celebrated (General George Marshall!!) are not immune from vilification to the implication that we are all to blame in some measure for the situation. The inevitable attack comes for Murrow himself: the Gotcha, Q.E.D., proof and confirmation of the Senator’s vile methods, which in turn confirms the validity of the rhetorical structure of the whole series, and also reinforces the idea that yet another great man has been attacked, followed by Murrow’s sober, humble and dignified defence of his “record”. What Murrow is doing is the liberal version of wrapping himself up in the flag is suggesting rather crassly and cynically that a personal attack on him is a wide-spread and wide-ranging attack on civil liberties. If Murrow is not safe, then no one is safe. This is, the film suggests, the flip side of McCarthy’s politics of paranoia. McCarthy often said that attacks on him were attempts to destroy and discredit the politically unacceptable idea of communist subversion, a ludicrous idea that in retrospect looks pretty much right on, comrade!
Though he righteously and coolly maintains that he is a victim of a smear, Murrow is shown nervous as a cat about his confrontation with McCarthy. The film paradoxically suggests that there is something in Murrow’s past that can hurt him. Joe Wershba (Robert Downey, Jr), another member of Murrow’s chorus, explains to wife Shirley (Patricia Clarkson) why they have to move against McCarthy, now. It’s because of Ed. Minor members of the CBS team with dubious backgrounds can be easily purged, but Murrow is CBS news. Herblock and the Alsops can attack freely because they were never members of some communist front organization, and so they are not vulnerable.
And what makes Murrow even more nervous is the disquieting presence of Don Hollenbeck, who is reckless in flaunting his political sympathies on the air. He is the Banquo’s ghost of Popular Front liberalism in the Stalinist period. Hollenbeck slowly becomes an anguished pariah among his “colleagues” who never want to be seen travelling with the likes of him. Ed treats him with a mix of disdain, fear and revulsion. And cruelty, too. When Hollenbeck asks if he can be of any help in the fight, Murrow lances him with a brutally dismissive joke, “But you’re a pinko, Don.” Hollenbeck’s painful grin at this attack is unforgettable. Clooney squarely lays the blame for Hollenbeck’s eventual suicide on Murrow’s acts of moral cowardice. In fact, when the brave boys are whooping it up over the Army’s decision to investigate McCarthy, Clooney immediately flattens the mood of victory by stunning Friendly and Murrow with the news of Hollenbeck’s suicide.
Nothing certifies the mastery of television over reality more than the section dealing with Annie Lee Moss, the black clerk who lost her Pentagon job having come to McCarthy’s and the FBI’s attention. Clooney plays this whole sequence out at great length. But he does not use one of the oddest points of the exchange. Moss, looking like a deer in the headlights, is asked: “Did you ever hear of Karl Marx?” Moss asks: “Who’s that?” as the gallery erupts in gales of presumably racist laughter. “For a moment, the two great civil rights issues confronting Cold War America intermingle”, says Doherty.(4) This moment leads us to the ironically loaded drama of John McClennan, a staunch segregationist from Arkansas, a state that will be desegregated by force and the courts that very same year, defending Moss from the terror not-in-the-room. Clooney specifically emphasizes the irreversibility of certain wild accusations broadcast to millions of people through the press as pseudo-fact:
McClennan: You can’t strike these statements made by counsel here as to evidence that we’re having and withholding. You cannot strike that from the press or the public mind. That’s the … that is the, uh … EVIL of it. It is not sworn testimony. It is convicting people by rumour and hearsay and innuendo.
Is not McClennan’s description apt for the deadly chaos of a corporate mass media accountable to no one, not even to itself? I suppose that this is Clooney’s rather daring suggestion in this scene. Even that old dinosaur, The New York Times, publishes corrections on its second page. TV has no such rationality. There is no such thing as a correction in the electronic media. Its force is unstoppable. Stories have two modes of existence: they are either “developing” or they are dead. TV, radio and the internet are present-tense media. Electronic media are so present tense that they have the capacity to destroy both past and future.
The implication of the Murrow piece on Annie Lee Moss is that this is yet another hapless victim of the terror, a mistaken identity. But in this case, McCarthy and Cohn were right. Moss really was most likely a CPUSA (Communist Party of the United States of America) member who cleverly played to racial stereotypes to save herself.
As a confidential FBI reports made clear several years later, Annie Lee Moss was almost certainly a communist party member since 1940, and thus knew the name of Karl Marx. Like so many African-Americans of her day, she had simply played the fool and smiled to herself as the McCarthy committee, the gallery, Edward R. Murrow, and the television audience chuckled at the harmless mammy, shilly-shallying before the gentlemen of the big house. (5)
Murrow, always careful not to appear to be defending a communist, takes the middle road. His great rhetorical point was the right of the accused to face their accusers. But the empty chair could not be confronted. The audience gets the point. Where is McCarthy? What an outrage! But here it is Murrow who is being disingenuous, not telling us that McCarthy left the hearing to appear on Lewis Fulton’s radio show – to respond to Murrow’s attack of the previous week! This is Friendly’s policy of “making the news” in action.
Filmmaker Peter Watkins (6) is among the few media critics to quixotically ask what a genuinely democratic, interactive TV or Future Mass Medium would look like. It is Watkins’ contention that the peculiar nature of mass media tends to distort and destroy the victim’s (i.e., viewer’s) private, personal experience of time. He speaks of mass media’s hold over people as a kind of neo-colonial tutelage. We have been trained to think of the time-feeling contained in the image as an accident, or something disposable. The drunkenness of atemporality, that dubious idea that we can somehow “experience” something without some cost or suffering to ourselves, gives birth to the society of the spectacle. It is the Orwellian present tense. And why shouldn’t a politician arise who reflects and adjusts himself to this new circumstance …
In short range terms, McCarthy’s approach was, of course, highly rational. What was the point, after all, of losing the press and the public in the complexities of any one case when fresh ones were all around, waiting to be exploited for their publicity value and then forgotten? McCarthy’s impulsive style, never hampered by conventional notions of right and wrong, never squeamish about harm done to a reputation, was a perfect one for the unsettled political climate of the 1950’s. (7)
This quote is obviously relevant for the 24/7 media cycles we live in today. What came first? Electronic Media, or the Wisconsin caveman who first learned to feed its cruel, voracious, never sated maw? As Murrow predicted, we are in the grip of an unusual situation: the “people’s airwaves” are monopolized by anti-democratic, monopolistic, for-profit corporations that no longer make any pretence of civic activity to justify their “welfare ranching” of the airwaves.
It is the heretical, esoteric suggestion of Good Night, and Good Luck that the Media created McCarthy and then destroyed him to show both its fealty to power and its own peculiar brand of power at the same time. McCarthy used the media as his mirror. Murrow used McCarthy to establish the authority of his medium. We can make you and we can break you.
In 1965, hot after the Goldwater moment, Richard Hofstader introduced the idea of Paranoid Style as an occasional component of American political life. He traced the roots of this phenomenon in anti-Masonic and anti-Catholic movements quite early in the country’s history. But Hofstader sees paranoid style as an aberration, the mostly harmless effluence of a lunatic fringe. Hofstader strangely passes over the foundational theoretical document of paranoid style, which would suggest that this style is not only more deeply lodged in the American Psyche than suspected, it is perhaps essential to America: George Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address. In this amazing document, Washington warns American citizens, with a certain conservative horror, of a series of prospective calamities on the horizon. These calamities are due to the four horsemen of any Republic: Strife, Party, Faction, and Regional and Foreign Influence. In what looks like bizarre cosmic marching orders for the next two hundred years of American History, Washington warns against regional strife (the Civil War), abandoning neutrality (WWI and WWII), Foreign Subversion (Anti-Anarchism and Anti-Communism), Imperial adventures (The Philippines and Vietnam) and compromising alliances with Europe (NATO), and argues for the necessity of a wily and inconstant foreign policy.
Washington’s paranoid insistence on unity at any cost, which has been echoed countless times throughout America’s history, is rooted in a central reality of American life. The nation is not constituted not as an extended racial or religious family. The national feeling, such as it is, is utterly abstract: Americans are bound to each other and committed solely by an ideology which is represented by the compact of the Constitution. This requires a national myth of homogeneity: “We, the people” means “We, the same people”. And Washington bluntly says as much:
The name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation derived from local discriminations. With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion, manners, habits, and political principles. You have in a common cause fought and triumphed together; the independence and liberty you possess are the work of joint counsels, and joint efforts of common dangers, sufferings, and successes. (8)
In this light, it is possible to look at American history thus far as a series of attempts, for the greater good, to either deny or paper over the extent to which we are not homogenous – either by genocidal means, segregation or persecution and assimilation of the “other”.
The McCarthy era was one of those periodic eruptions of the chaos of heterogeneity. Americans tend to admire the restorers and upholders of homogeneity: Lincoln, who insisted that the south and the north, the slavers and the black man, were indeed one country. The Lincolnian principle of gentle inclusion, even by force, is always applauded. Americans rarely want to gaze or examine the opposing principle. McCarthy represents the chaos, the anti-Lincoln. The demon McCarthy says, “Look here, we are not the same. And we never have been.” That person, who is your neighbour, might be a secret communist agent, a jihadist, an illegal immigrant, a savage murderer, a Christian fundamentalist, a deviant, a child molester, or even a Bush supporter.
The collective act of mortification … and absolution
And, of course, Murrow takes on the homogenizing, Lincolnian role in the drama. Here is the whole of Murrow’s Sermon on the Mount:
No one familiar with the history of this country can deny that congressional committees are useful. It is necessary to investigate before legislating, but the line between investigating and persecuting is a very fine one and the junior Senator from Wisconsin has stepped over it repeatedly. His primary achievement has been in confusing the public mind, as between internal and the external threats of Communism. We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men — not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular.
This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent, or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities. As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age. We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.
The actions of the junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn’t create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it — and rather successfully. Cassius was right. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” (9)
In this See it Now text McCarthyism comes to have less to do with Joseph McCarthy than with our own culpability. Since we have rejected our past, we stand responsible for McCarthy’s potency in our present. And so the final move in this increasingly complex text is an invitation to participate in an act of mortification…In Burke’s view the ritual cycle strives for completion. Mortification or Guilt demands purification to rid ourselves of the pollution that prompts the guilt. […] From this perspective, the textual appeal of mortification is a masterstroke. By seeing the guilt as ours and by participating in a shared mortification, we also share in the need to purge ourselves of our failings. (10)
Pioneered by Murrow, this invitation to mortification is a perpetual technique in TV’s arsenal of manipulations. Since Murrow himself is not clean in the ritual, who better than he to lead us in the exorcism of the demon who is haunting us all. Earlier in the film, we’re presented with the sight of Friendly and Murrow enforcing CBS corporate conformity by cleaning house of anybody who has any “taint”, while Murrow gives yet another unintentionally hilarious speech about everyone being different and that, if we all hadn’t read a banned book or attended a meeting, “We’d all be the kind of people Joe McCarthy wants.” It is a perfect example of how well-articulated and expressive the film’s irony is. Too bad this stuff is wasted on the children of sincerity.
Tipping his hand at last, Clooney gives us the film’s most-explicit comparison between Murrow and McCarthy nearly at the end. Friendly and Murrow mull over McCarthy’s fate. He’ll be censured, made to sit in the back row. Murrow wryly sees this as his own fate. The catspaw of Media Power will suffer the same fate as the Prince of Chaos. The great Emancipator-Educator is put out to pasture as the host of the trivial Person-to-Person.
The end of the film for me is unclear, the wall of ironies failing to resolve itself into anything definite. I find it hard to believe that, after tearing the guy apart so thoroughly, Clooney has the cojones to try even an ironic endorsement of Murrow’s critique of television, or particularly his ludicrously out-of-touch solution: that television should educate. In the end, McCarthy’s discredited paranoia about communism becomes Murrow’s discredited paranoia about the mass media. For the first time, his media-worker audiences abandon him, they do not clap, they do not hiss, they just stare (even Fred Friendly …) in glassy-eyed puzzlement. In any case, it is a chilling scene.
The scene gives us the Ellulian paradox: the educated, the literate, the workers in Media and those fluent in images are all the more vulnerable to propaganda. We are too far past the age of media mandarinism. Murrow has given way to Katie “Colonoscopy” Couric. She is our friend, not our better.
There is one man, I think, who has found the solution to Murrow’s problem. He understands that, to communicate effectively in the modern world, you must combine the demagogic brilliance of Joseph McCarthy, with the cool edutainment persona of Ed Murrow. His name is Hugo Chavez. He is the entertainer-in-chief of the Bolivarian Revolutionary Republic of Venezuela. He understands that to rule effectively you need a five-year plan, an army and a daily talk show. Already, leaders and TV personalities around the world are copping his style.
- Thomas Rosteck, See It Now Confronts McCarthyism: Television Documentary and the Politics of Representation (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1994), p. 20.
- Richard Hofstader, The Paranoid Style in American Politics and other essays (New York: Knopf, 1965), p. 40.
- Thomas Doherty, Cold War, Cool Medium: television, McCarthyism, and American Culture (New York: Chichester: Columbia University Press, 2003), p. 169.
- Doherty, pp. 181-182.
- Doherty, p. 184.
- Was Peter Watkins aware when he made films like Culloden (1964) and The War Game (1965) that CBS News had beat him to the punch? Walter Cronkite hosted a docu-drama show called You Are There, which ran from 1953-8, and put news crews on the site of historical events like the Salem Witch Trials, interviewing participants and capturing “candid” moments. What a treat it would be to catch Don Hollenbeck interviewing Cotton Mather, who is speaking lines ghosted for him by Walt Bernstein and Abe Polonsky, two of Hollywood’s most celebrated radical witches.
- Mark Landis, Joseph McCarthy: the Politics of Chaos (Selinsgrove, PA: Susquehanna University Press, 1987), p. 138.
- George Washington, Farewell Address, accessed at http://usinfo.state.gov/usa/infousa/facts/democrac/49.htm.
- Transcript of the See It Now episode of 9 March 1954, “A Report on Senator Joseph R. McCarthy”, accessed at http://www.honors.umd.edu/HONR269J/archive/Murrow540309.html.
- Rosteck, p. 133.