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Last Updated: Monday, 17 October 2005, 11:27 GMT 12:27 UK
Good night, and good luck

A POINT OF VIEW
By Harold Evans

In his weekly opinion column, Harold Evans looks at the state of television in the US, and doesn't like what he sees.

"This... is London".

Clooney and Strathairn
George Clooney and David Strathairn, director and star of Good Night, and Good Luck
Ed Murrow of America's CBS Network Radio always opened his World War II broadcasts with that purposeful hesitation. There was nothing hesitant though about his journalism though as movie audiences will see this season in the forthcoming George Clooney movie, Good Night and Good Luck.

At one level, the film is a melodrama about Murrow's use of the new medium of television against Senator Joe McCarthy's anti-Communist witch hunts in the 50s.

At another, it's an indictment of what network television in America has become, since it uses Murrow's own words to accuse the country's TV networks of deserting the civic values of its greatest broadcaster. The spectacle of Hollywood pummelling the commercial networks for becoming merely a money machine is richly ironic, even hypocritical if you like, but Good Night, and Good Luck is a movie made for only $8m, nothing by Hollywood standards.

The first question of many this movie raises is how Murrow the journalist became powerful enough to help bring down the most feared man in America at a time when all other broadcasters and most of the newspapers, were hiding under the bed - just as they were unquestioning, unsceptical, indeed gullible, in the run-up to our invasion of Iraq.

The answer begins in another war - the London blitz. As the resident correspondent for CBS Radio, Murrow was determined to report live on Britain's ordeal.

It was a critical moment in history. France had fallen. Britain stood alone. America was still neutral, locked in argument about how far to help Britain. Thanks to Murrow's enterprise and empathy, standing on a rooftop as the bombs fell, the war entered the homes of millions of Americans in the sound of sirens, the drone of aircraft, the footfalls of people hurrying for shelter, the crack of anti-aircraft fire, the thunder of bomb bursts. He evoked admiration for Britain among millions of Americans.

Nothing in radio journalism ever before had had the same effect. At war's end, Murrow was a hero to both Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt. He had also dazzled his friend Bill Paley, the founding boss of CBS .

It is Paley, a one-time cigar manufacturer, who after the war valiantly absorbs the initial financial losses when Murrow decides to try the new medium of television that he has affected to despise. Yet TV came of age with a Murrow show, a documentary series called See It Now. It made its debut in November 1951.

It was the product of a partnership of paradoxes. The tightly controlled sardonic Murrow, of Savile row suits and patrician style, paired himself with a street-style producer whom I knew well. This was Fred Friendly, a huge whirling creative cyclone of a man who alas is played in Clooney's movie as a bit of a 30-watt bulb.

Paley gave Murrow and Friendly pretty much of a free hand. Murrow insisted that no sponsor could interfere in any way with his programming and Paley backed him. And Paley kept his nerve even when Murrow unmasked the, by then, notoriously lethal Republican Senator Joe McCarthy.

Murrow did it by juxtaposing images proving McCarthy's uncertain grasp of truth. Murrow added only the fewest words of commentary, coolly appealing at the end to America's better self: "Cassius was right," he said, gravely voiced and sternly, and straight to camera. "The fault, dear Brutus is not in our stars, but ourselves".

Ed Murrow and colleagues talking in 1940

There was a chorus of critical acclaim, yet a few years later, in the spirit of Monty Python, Paley and his CBS Network opted for something completely different: the $64,000 quiz . Its immediate success produced a tectonic shift in America's TV culture as commercial rivals copied. Paley first shunted See It Now to an unfavourable time slot, and then killed it altogether. The golden era of documentary television was over.

I remember years later asking Fred Friendly about. "Here's the answer," he roared, his big hand gripping my shoulder: "Television makes so much money doing its worst it can't afford to do its best."

Tyranny of numbers

Murrow nursed his wounds at CBS until a memorable banquet in Chicago in the spring of 1958. The film pointedly opens not with a McCarthy scene but Murrow on stage telling television's merchant princes that they had they had given over their medium to "decadence, escapism and insulation".

Today in America newspaper television critics regularly take up Murrow's theme of collapsing standards, adopting his mordant style, but most of television reporters, like the TV bosses themselves, succumb to the tyranny of numbers. Murrow would find it depressing and incomprehensible the way they have come to cover TV like accountants, ever obsessed by ratings and profits rather than content. .

The CBS boss Paley in his earlier more reflective days, told Friendly that much would be lost if news ever became a profit centre in network television. He was right. News did become a profit centre with particularly bad consequences for America's understanding of the world.

The eye on the short-run bottom line led to the closing of foreign bureaus, a decline of investigation, the rise of infotainment. The American public, getting most of its news from network television, came to have little sustained quality reporting to feed on. So by 2001, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, the consequences of the Taleban's capture of Afghanistan, the insidious growth of global anti-Americanism, came as terrible shock to its insulated world. Murrow had warned it would happen: "If we go on as we are then history will take its revenge and retribution will not be limp in catching up with us."

Infotainment

Today four multi-billion dollar entertainment conglomerates control network television in America. It is open to doubt whether Ed Murrow could long survive in the blandness that has enveloped so much of the country's programming.

In my view, the safe "he-said, she-said, on-the-one-hand, on-the-other " style of journalism is an abdication of the journalist's responsibility to pin down the truth.

More concerned with advertising demographics than a functioning democracy, the networks blur the line between news and entertainment. Any time there's a celebrity crime or a missing blonde in California, the rest of America - the rest of the world - vanishes from the screens. Les Moonves, the current head of Murrow's old network, CBS, has let it be known that he hankers to do the news "MTV-style".

Ruminating on how he might revamp the main CBS evening bulletin he refers to a cable news program: "I saw a clip of Naked News", he told the New York Times, "where a woman gives the news as she is getting undressed." Alternatively, he went on, "you could have two boring people behind a desk. Our newscast has to be somewhere in between."

On the other hand, Mr Moonves, you could have television on television. One of the extraordinary things about network TV is how little news video they show, cutting back to cotton wool commentary.

Of course, real news is expensive, but the consequences of letting this country, any country, fly blind are even more expensive - for the public. Let Murrow himself have the last word: "The instrument can teach, it can illuminate, yes and it can even inspire. But it can only do so to the extent that humans are determined to use it those ends. Otherwise, it is merely wires and lights in a box."

Good night - and good luck.


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