Monday, December 12, 2005

May The Lord Have Mercy On Us All

My Mom was quite supportive of my precocious interest in journalism. When I was in grade school I started reading the St. Paul Pioneer Press and Dispatch cover to cover. Mom made sure that she read all my favorite columnists from Don Riley to Oliver Towne, from Patrick Reusse to Bill Farmer so that she could share in my delight in what they had written. She too shared in my love of comics like Buzz Sawyer and Bloom County and Rooftop O'Toole (drawn and written by the great local editorial cartoonist Jerry Fearing).

When I was in the 7th grade Mom gave me a copy of David Halberstam's book The Powers That Be. The book was thick- thicker than the lenses of my glasses, and it seemed a rather daunting challenge to a guy who was working his way through the Hardy Boys series. But I learned early on not to take Mom's recommendations lightly (she proved her critical eye to me by recommending movies like Friendly Persuasion and Spirit of St. Louis) and she never ever had given me a book I didn't end up liking so I wrestled hard with the dilemma of reading this Moby Dick thick book that appeared to be about big things, and having better other things to do like improve my hopscotch abilities.

Thus I didn't begin reading The Powers that Be until one year later and once I started I found it hard to put the book down. The book is about the rise of power of some of America's biggest media moguls from Time Magazine's Henry Luce, to the Washington Post's Philip and Katherine Graham, and most interesting to me, CBS' William Paley.

The section about Paley more than anything else, whetted my appetite in wanting to become a journalist. It touched on how in TV's infancy the network's news division was an after thought to the entertainment ability of the medium. That was until Paley made the fateful but thankful decision to try and make CBS a major player in the news reporting business.

Mom always told me that it was too bad that I couldn't have seen the work of the most prestigious CBS newsman, Edward R. Murrow- that I would have admired and loved his work. I've since read plenty about Murrow, seen clips of his shows See it Now and Person to Person. I've always been struck by this dark figure who seems a tad uncomfortable in front of the camera whether covering World War II in London, or interviewing Liberace. He's one of these guys you can't take your eyes off of- that seems to know more than he's willing to reveal- yet it's in the mystery that we are glad to be a part of the story unfolding.

Watching George Clooney's wonderful faux film noir, Good Night, and Good Luck that captures the period where Murrow took on Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, one can't help but draw some parallels with our current national situation. McCarthy used the culture of fear to go after what he perceived was the greatest threat to this nation, the Communists. He didn't care who he ruined in the process, he only wanted to rid the United States of all things red.

Reading about McCarthyism in my history textbooks I always wondered how people of the time could have taken him seriously, how they let his obvious paranoia let respectable people be ruined. What Good Night, and Good Luck makes abundantly clear with its beautiful black and white shots filled with swirling cigarette smoke, is when our government can get the media to go along with scaring the masses to believe there is an imminent threat to our freedom, we are more than willing to give up some of that freedom to protect ourselves.

It's hard to imagine that there's been a better performance this year than David Strathairn's Murrow. Strathairn doesn't really look like the newscaster but he has all his subtle mannerisms down to a T. There's a scene where Murrow skewers McCarthy and looks away from the camera and lets out a subtle smirk/smile. This is an actor who knows what he is doing.

The sad current disarray of CBS News is all about a news organization that wants to rock the boat only not that hard. I don't watch any of their newscasts much but still make it a point to catch the last five minutes of 60 Minutes to see what Andy Rooney has to say only because that part of the show reminds me of the last page of the Cheapo newsletter- the latest whining from a thick browed cranky old man.

I've never been one to buy into the company line that the "Golden Age" of television was back in the 1950's and we haven't been able to live up to that since. As long as there are such creative and insightful shows like Arrested Development and The Office on the airways one can't completely turn one's back on the medium. But what Good Night, and Good Luck thankfully demonstrates, is that TV news once mattered. Maybe it was only because TV journalism was willing to once uncomfortably challenge what many of us now probably don't want to challenge for fear of realizing we can all do much better.

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