The film, Good Night and Good Luck takes place in the 1950’s. It was a time when Americans feared the threat of Communism and Senator McCarthy took advantage of those fears. Edward Murrow and his team at CBS Broadcasting worked to bring attention to McCarthy’s misuse of power and shed light on his deliberate methods of causing fear among the public. The film begins with a formal dinner honoring the work of Edward Murrow. He takes the stage and addresses the audience with a speech that is a bit unexpected and uncomfortable for the audience. He goes on the talk about how journalism has become occupied with reporting only good news and is a means of entertainment and escape from reality.
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As the movie continues, Ed Murrow and the CBS team are discussing the shows next topics, someone brings attention to a former air force officer that was released because his father apparently has communist connections. This was contained in a sealed envelope that no one had access to, raising the question of what the actual charges were, what evidence was there to support the accusation, and ultimately, why should he be punished for the actions of his father to begin with. There is hesitation by some of the staff, but Ed Murrow takes the story and exposes McCarthy and his agenda to promote fear. Following, the team go out for drinks and read the newspaper reviews. Some reviews are good and others are not.
Another important topic addressed is the hearing of a woman who worked at the Pentagon. She was accused of having communist ties. There was no evidence that she was a communist or had any ties, it was all hearsay. It was another attempt by McCarthy to spot light his views and use this woman as leverage for his own gain.
Moreover, Edward Murrow gives McCarthy the opportunity to appear on the show to defend himself, McCarthy accepts the offer. He takes the opportunity to accuse Murrow of having communist ties and a book dedicated to him by a communist. Murrow uses his next show to repudiate the some of the claims, while affirming the fact that a book was dedicated to him by a friend, although they had different views and beliefs.
Furthermore, the CBS team gets word that the air force officer has been allowed back into the army. This brings satisfaction and excitement to the team as their risk of taking on the Senator was successful. However, it was not without consequences. As a result, the Alcoa sponsorship ended and CBS had to lay off some of their employees, including Murrow.
Finally, the movie ends with Murrow giving his speech at the dinner. He goes on to talk about social responsibility, the commitment of not only reporters, but society as a whole to use television as an instrument of knowledge about content that really matters and could determine the future of the country. As Murrow states, “this instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box” (good night and good luck, 2015).
Murrow was an advocate for the notion that the media and the public have a responsibility to seek knowledge, even if it’s controversial. To bring to light injustice and expose corruption, not stay silent. “Social responsibility theory is a normative theory that substitutes media industry and public responsibility for total media freedom on the one hand and for external control on the other” (Baran and Davis 61). This theory values the ideals of both the media and the public. This theory has been the primary guide for the U.S. However, media continues to change over time and this theory will need to evolve with it.
Overall, social responsibility theory is beneficial, that is, to focus on the public good and reporting events that are broader and affect society as a whole. It is important to have regulations in place for the well-being of society. For example, laws and regulations are currently in place to protect against false advertising, violence, and offensive language to name a few. These regulations help to keep society in order, to determine right from wrong, and acts as a control system to prevent collective chaos and disorder.
Moreover, Murrow warned the public about the risk of journalists and the media only reporting on positive information, causing a false sense of reality and inability to advocate for justice and change. This is can also be defined as white propaganda, that is, to purposely keep out harmful information and intentionally promote positive information in order to divert attention from challenging information.
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Additionally, Murrow stated, “We are currently wealthy, fat, comfortable, and complacent. We currently have a built in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information. Our mass media reflect this. But unless we get up off our fat surpluses and recognize that television in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse, and insulate us, then television and those who finance it, those who look at it, and those who work at it, may see a totally different picture too late” (Good Night and Good Luck, 2005).
Mass society theory “views media as having the power to profoundly shape our perceptions of the social world and to manipulate our actions, often without our conscious awareness. This theory argues that media influence must be controlled. The strategies for control, however, are as varied as the theorists who offer them” (Baran and Davis 31). Senator McCarthy used his elite power and position of authority to instill fear in people. As the article from Murrow verses McCarthy states, “McCarthy had little trouble convincing a scared public that the media needed to be rid of subversives and brought under stricter control. After all, traditional American values were under assault” (Murrow vs McCarthy).
Similarly, critics have argued that the Bush administration also exploited the fears of Americans for their own gain after 9/11. President Bush passed the Patriot Act while he was in office, which violates the constitution by allowing the government to search and surveillance individuals without a warrant and without credible cause. All in the interest of safety and security, while violating individual rights. Moreover, the administration used language that instilled fear in American citizens, including the “war on terror” and “weapons of mass destruction.” In the same manner, McCarthy accused people of having communist ties without factual evidence to back up his claims.
Moreover, just as Senator McCarthy used his power to control and manipulate American citizens, so did President Bush in some instances. Both leaders fed off of the fears and paranoia that people had after two different, but major events. They both justified their actions in the interest of providing safety and security for the country. While also using patriotism as leverage to keep people silent. Because if individuals spoke out, they would risk being labeled as unpatriotic.
In conclusion, the film brings to light methods used by the media and by individuals in power to promote their own agendas, whether good or bad. It pushes the audience to stand up for what is right, even when there is great opposition. To fight for justice in the face of injustice. The price to be paid is worth the impending consequences. Media such as news, radio, television, and the internet are all tools that can provide factual information and personal opinion. It is up to the individual to decide whether or not to believe what they see and hear, to search for the facts or take it a face value. Murrow urged his viewers to use television to gain knowledge and illuminate, rather than viewing carelessly and without purpose.
- Baran, S. and Davis, D. (2014). Mass Communication Theory: 7th Revised edition. Belmont, CA: WADSWORTH Publishing CO INC.
- --- Murrow vs McCarthy. Mass Communication Theory: 7th Revised edition.
- Belmont, CA, 2014.
- Good Night and Good Luck. (2015). [DVD] Directed by G. Clooney.
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