George Clooney’s new film Good Night, and Good Luck recounts CBS newscaster Edward R. Murrow’s televised condemnation of Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy (see Richard Alleva’s review, page 20). Murrow is portrayed as uncommonly brave for putting aside his profession’s commitment to political neutrality and directly challenging the veracity of the bullying McCarthy, who infamously sought to root out Communists from the U.S. government. In the film, Murrow is roundly praised by the press for his pointed critique, which appeared on the newsman’s show See It Now. His only critic is a McCarthy apologist-referred to only as “O’Brien”-who takes Murrow to task for what he saw as an unbalanced report.
In fact, “O’Brien” wasn’t Murrow’s only critic. As Jack Shafer (on Slate.com) and others have pointed out, longtime Commonweal columnist John Cogley also faulted Murrow for “illustrating a thesis” by using “selected film clips” (“The Murrow Show,” March 26, 1954). Unlike “O’Brien,” Cogley was no fan of McCarthy’s: he referred to him as the “Wisconsin bully.”
Yet Cogley worried that the tactics used by Murrow, an influential newsman with the huge financial resources of the CBS network behind him, would “set a bad precedent.” “If the See It Now experiment gets by without comment on its potential danger, it will be that much more difficult to point out its hazards later when it is being used by demagogic commentators,” Cogley wrote. Looking at what passes for objective reporting or political debate on many of today’s cable channels and on the Internet, it is sadly apparent that Cogley was all too prescient.