Politics & Policy

The Big Picture

Clooney's myopic Good Night, and Good Luck misrepresents Murrow.

George Clooney, who wrote, directed, and stars in the Oscar-nominated film Good Night, and Good Luck, about the legendary CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow and his 1953 broadcasts criticizing Senator Joseph McCarthy for witchhunting and red-baiting, has repeatedly insisted that his film was rigorously factchecked. “I just started double-sourcing everything,” he said in an interview. “You’ve got to have two reliable sources.” Or, as Clooney artfully remarked to England’s Guardian newspaper, “I don’t Michael Moore this s***.”

Well, or does he? As it happens, less than a decade after Murrow’s broadcasts on McCarthy, the newsman admitted that the most important story of his time was Communism, not the senator from Wisconsin; or that Murrow teamed up with no less an anti-Communist than John Wayne to make a film about the Cold War, accused Fidel Castro of adopting Nazi-like techniques in Cuba, and renounced one of his most famous CBS reports after he learned that the Soviets were using it for anti-American propaganda.

Perhaps Clooney simply overlooked inconvenient facts when he was lost in his sea of research. The fuller record tells a radically different story from Good Night, and Good Luck, which implies that everyone who mounted a spirited public defense against Communism was a demagogue, and that fear of Communism was irrational.

Murrow always maintained that McCarthy was unethical, but he eventually came to see that, in the larger perspective of the Cold War, McCarthy was insignificant. Nevertheless, in Clooney’s picture, McCarthy holds sway over the entire country. No one who can be destroyed in one fell swoop by the amiable, bowtie-wearing Joseph Welch–”Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?”–is a formidable political force.

The most important leaders of the anti-Communist movement, such as J. Edgar Hoover, regarded McCarthy as detrimental to their cause. “Smears, character assassination, and the scattering of irresponsible charges have no place in this nation,” Hoover said. “They create division, suspicion, and distrust among loyal Americans–just what the communists want–and hinder rather than aid the fight against communism.” Courtney Owens, a staff investigator on the House Committee on Un-American Activities during the ’50s, recently told me that many of his colleagues believed McCarthy was the best thing the Communist party had going for it.

Murrow tried to set the record straight in 1961 when he made a documentary-style film about the Cold War called The Challenge of Ideas. Intended to help broaden understanding of the Cold War, the film generated national attention and was praised by the New York Times and other publications for its sobering account of Soviet goals. While certain scenes are similar to the production style of Good Night, and Good Luck–Murrow and John Wayne are smoking cigarettes as they deliver their on-camera commentaries–the substance is markedly different.

“The Communists would like to see the entire world under Communist domination,” says Murrow. “Confidence by itself without effort does not win contests–victory in the conflict depends on much, much more than confidence. It is a contest unlike any we have faced in our history as a nation. It is total competition with an antagonist who is putting into it everything within its capability.”

That included using Murrow’s work as a weapon. When he found that the Soviets were exploiting a controversial 1960 CBS News documentary, Harvest of Shame, about the horrible conditions of migrant farm workers in the U.S., using it to portray America, he was outraged. Murrow, who narrated the film, said he wished he’d never been involved with the production (it was also discovered to have numerous factual inaccuracies) and actively tried to stop its overseas distribution.

Murrow’s repudiation of the the Soviet Union didn’t end there. Murrow was incensed over Communist dictator Fidel Castro’s treatment of Cubans, which he compared to Nazi Germany. “Castro has demonstrated that the line between philosophy and practice of Communism and fascism is such a narrow one as to be almost nonexistent.”

Clooney will probably argue that when Murrow made The Challenge of Ideas and other denunciations of Communism while he was working for the U.S. Information Agency and thus was a cog in the wheel of the “military industrial complex.” However, such a charge undermines what Good Night, and Good Luck supposedly celebrates: journalism guided by truth and facts, no matter who pays your salary. Either Murrow was a man of principle, or he wasn’t.

“Maybe they’ll show it in schools,” Clooney says of his picture. If he wins on Sunday night, Clooney should start the history lesson with a word about the estimated 20 million people murdered by Stalin. He also ought to consider including Murrow’s own film as a special feature on the DVD release of Good Night, and Good Luck.

Audiences deserve to see the story that Edward R. Murrow came to believe was far more important than the pathetic spectacle of Joe McCarthy.

John Meroney is at work on a book about Ronald Reagan’s life in Hollywood.

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