The Gold Standard, Long Ago

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The Gold Standard, Long Ago

For KCRW, I'm Nick Madigan of the Baltimore Sun with Minding the Media.

Anyone eager for a glimpse of when journalism really mattered should take a look at George Clooney's new film, Good Night, and Good Luck. It explores a time in the mid-1950's when the country, prodded by the rabid junior senator from Wisconsin, Joe McCarthy, was deep into Communist paranoia.

Edward R. Murrow, who had already established himself as a dramatically effective radio correspondent in Europe during World War II, took on McCarthy and his hapless crusade. What made Murrow's outrage stand out was his ability to convey his belief that the innocent were being harmed.

Murrow's most vivid challenge to McCarthy came in a March 1954 broadcast of CBS's See It Now. Serving notice that it was the country's ignorance and complacency that had allowed such persecutions, Murrow invoked Shakespeare and said, "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves."

Prompted by Clooney's new film, critics in the last few days have been debating the role of journalism in an age when Murrow's legacy has been overtaken by forces that have very little to do with integrity and personal conviction.

Thomas Doherty, in today's Boston Globe, said it seems more than happenstance that Clooney's movie "arrives at a humbling moment for the brand of broadcast journalism to which Murrow dedicated his life."

All three major networks have recently lost their chief news anchors, one to cancer, another to retirement, and the third to a stash of unproven documents.

Doherty, a professor of film studies at Brandeis University, wrote that the passing of the classical era of the network anchor "has left broadcast news without its center of gravity."

"It isn't that Murrow now has no heir apparent," he said. "It's that there's no place to claim the inheritance."

Neal Gabler, in today's New York Times, wrote that even now, 40 years after Murrow's death, he "remains the gold standard of American journalism."

"Such is Murrow's legacy that his name is often invoked to demonstrate the shortcomings of contemporary journalism, where it is almost inconceivable to imagine any TV reporter directly challenging the powers that be," Gabler wrote.

There are those who would argue, of course, that the work of journalists in the wake of the recent hurricanes, and their calls on the Bush administration to do its job properly, are shining examples of that very same advocacy. But such views are tempered by the knowledge that, in other instances, the White House has gotten off easy.

Gabler recalls that when Walter Cronkite announced in 1968 that the United States was mired in a stalemate in Vietnam, "he was clearly following the Murrow tradition."

In Saturday's San Francisco Chronicle, Jessica Werner reminded us that in 1958, Murrow said television "is being used to distract, delude, amuse and insulate us," whereas he believed it could teach, illuminate even inspire. Otherwise, Murrow said, "it is merely wires and lights in a box."

Clooney, speaking with Werner by phone, said that when he was a child his father, a TV anchorman, would often recite that speech about "wires and lights."

"By the time I was a teenager," Clooney said, "I was aware of two great high-water marks in American reporting: Murrow taking on McCarthy and Cronkite's report after coming back from Vietnam."

"My father always argued that it is not just the right, but the duty, of the fourth estate to constantly question authority," Clooney said. "That's what we've learned over the course of our history, and it's what this movie is about -- the idea that it is our duty in a democracy to always ask questions."

This is Nick Madigan of the Baltimore Sun, Minding the Media on KCRW.



Nick Madigan