- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 6, 2005

Liberals look back on the 1950s and ‘60s as a golden age of journalism. This is no doubt because there was a lot less journalism.

“Good Night, and Good Luck,” George Clooney’s earnest new movie about CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow’s clash with red-baiting Sen. Joseph McCarthy, oozes nostalgia for a simpler time, when there was no cable television, when Walter Cronkite was the “Most Trusted Man in America,” when everyone agreed about what was and was not news.

Everyone, that is, except those who were outside the coterie of progressive elites who ran the major newspapers, gave out all the important foundation grants and pretty much operated a monopoly on the country’s information flow.

The movie is bound to do well with critics, as it’s about the media’s favorite subject — itself.

Mr. Clooney, liberal and proud of it, inherited his nostalgia honestly.

The Murrow-McCarthy confrontation of 1954, which led to the senator’s censure, “is a famous story in our family,” says the 44-year-old son of journalist Nick Clooney.

“I grew up on the floor of WKRC in Cincinnati from the time I was 6 years old,” the actor, the picture of self-assurance, recalls in a recent interview. “That was our baby sitter. I spent every single day of my life in the summers there. I was a cue card boy at 7 years old. I ran a teleprompter for my dad’s news when I was 11.

“Murrow taking on McCarthy and Cronkite taking on Vietnam were the two great moments in broadcast journalism that you could actually point to a specific change in policy.”

What with Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News Channel, the popularity of junk treatises by the likes of Ann Coulter and conservative fat cats such as Richard Mellon Scaife spreading money around, things have gone downhill, right?

“I don’t know that journalism has declined, but there’s never going to be a guy who gets 40 million viewers as a newsman,” he hedges. “The media’s just too fractured for that. So there’s never going to be the ‘Most Trusted Man in America’ again.”

There is more to it than nostalgia for bygone days, of course. Mr. Clooney and Grant Heslov, with whom he co-wrote the “Good Night” script, are comfortable with viewers drawing the conclusion that the movie is an oblique commentary on the current state of journalism. Implicit in Mr. Clooney’s portrayal of Mr. Murrow’s tete-a-tete with Mr. McCarthy is that today too many journalists are too credulous, if not outright shills for politicians with an agenda.

“There’s a responsibility of the Fourth Estate, which is to constantly, always, forever check and balance power — no matter who’s in power,” Mr. Clooney contends. “My father, who was an anchorman, went directly at Jimmy Carter when the OPEC nations raised the price of oil. He went directly at Gerald Ford about pardoning Nixon. Whoever was in power, the job of the newsman was to question authority. We’ve shirked that responsibility out of fear being called unpatriotic.”

Maybe. But if it is journalists’ responsibility to hold government accountable, who, in turn, holds the journalists accountable?

And here we come to the characteristic of new media that Mr. Clooney doesn’t appreciate. Aren’t Internet blogs, to take one example, also a check on power? Blogs cut both ways: Conservatives value them for their use in deconstructing the inbred biases in mainstream news reports, while liberals see them as a way to cut through the haze of government spin.

Either way, hasn’t the new media’s shattering of the old monopoly increased the vitality of our democracy?

Mr. Heslov disagrees. He sees an innate conservatism in the way Americans approach news. “To me, it feels that people want somebody they can trust.”

Mr. Clooney argues that even during the supposed golden age there was a diversity of voices — the radio program hosted by McCarthy supporter Walter Winchell, for example.

The difference then, he says, was that people started with the same foundation of news. “Nowadays, you go to the place that best reflects your personal opinions and reinforces your beliefs,” he says. “The fact bases that we’re starting with are so different that it’s polarizing.”

(The Clooneys of Kentucky are apparently polarized too. The actor says: “I was home two weeks ago, and my aunt and uncle are still saying ‘We’ve got to get that Saddam Hussein because he bombed us on 9/11.’ They got that from Fox News because they’re conservative and religious and believe that.”)

Given that Mr. Murrow was himself a pioneer of new media — he became famous during World War II with his radio broadcasts from Europe and embraced television in its nonage — what might he have thought of, say, the Internet?

“I think he would have loved it,” says David Strathairn, who plays Mr. Murrow in “Good Night.”

Still, he says, Mr. Murrow would have seen the need for an Edward R. Murrow to play referee: “You’ve got to have a certain amount of integrity to tell the truth and select what is news and what is just some kind of prurient indulgence of a hot topic, which seems to be the inclination of a lot of networks.”

Are things as sensationalistic and partisan as “Good Night, Good Luck” implies? Have the barbarians sacked civilization as liberals once knew it?

Probably not.

As Mr. Clooney says, “I can still read the New York Times or listen to NPR or watch ‘Frontline’ and get what I need.”

To which an advocate of new media would say, “Our point, exactly.”

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