Murrow’s words echo in age of pundits

MOVIES CAN BE AWKWARD, heavy-handed tools to deliver civics lessons. Yet after watching “Good Night, and Good Luck.” director and co-star George Clooney’s strikingly timely chronicle of Edward R. Murrow’s broadcasts combating Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the impulse is to grab every half-cocked pundit cavalierly throwing around words like “treason” — as well as each executive grappling with how to reinvent news — and drag them to see it.

“Good Night” just premiered on the festival circuit and is due for release later this fall. Buoyed by David Strathairn’s spare but pitch-perfect portrayal of Murrow (Clooney plays his producer, Fred Friendly), the pic’s re-creation of the famed newsman’s “See It Now” program that helped deflate McCarthy underscores just how prescient Murrow was. In fact, his counsel is sadly more applicable today than when first issued in the 1950s.

The movie is coming out as Murrow’s old network, CBS, contemplates how to revamp its flagship newscast. In Sunday’s highly flattering New York Times magazine profile, CBS chairman Leslie Moonves — who is understandably motivated to “fix” the cellar-dwelling “CBS Evening News” — discussed the possibility of reinvigorating nightly news by transforming it into a lighter, brighter vehicle. Moonves subsequently tempered those remarks, but the message has been sent.

THE DANGER, as Murrow cautioned, is in shunning darker news merely because it is inconvenient. Indeed, we’ve seen the bitter crop that can yield, beginning with the horrifying footage from New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, despite dire warnings in recent years about the threat a major hurricane posed to the region.

Forecasts about flu pandemics, terrorism and disasters are not pleasant dinnertime viewing, fostering a powerful urge to turn away. There’s always a game or “Law & Order” rerun on somewhere.

The same goes for troubling pictures from Iraq. Hearing that Americans might be fighting and dying in a mismanaged foreign campaign offers no solace, even when the charge comes from a slain soldier’s mother, Cindy Sheehan, who briefly supplanted a mother whose child is missing in Aruba in the media’s summer doldrums of woe.

Sheehan’s politics and rhetorical excesses are certainly open to debate and refutation. It benefits no one, however, when commentators equate such criticism with treason.

That’s precisely what Bill O’Reilly did, despite his huffy protestations that he “never said or implied” any such thing. The Fox News Channel host operates in a near-constant snit over press mistreatment, sometimes with justification, but his remarks pertaining to Sheehan — that unspecified families of war dead “feel that this kind of behavior borders on treasonous” — expose any indignation over ensuing newspaper accounts as word-parsing balderdash.

AS THE LIBERAL hosts on Air America have demonstrated, purveyors of conservative talk hardly hold a monopoly on shrillness and hyperbole. The loudest voices in both ideological camps are too quick to resort to petty name-calling, question patriotism and “confuse dissent with disloyalty,” as Murrow stated, before properly observing, “We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.”

Nor can we hope to nurture an informed citizenry if leading media institutions bow to the least demanding palates by lobotomizing news, seeking to expunge darker images and mute alarms out of fear that they might make people uncomfortable.

If news is considered “only acceptable when saleable,” Murrow said in his famous 1958 speech to the Radio & Television News Directors Assn., “then I don’t care what you call it. I say it isn’t news.”

THE NEED for real news was painfully clear last week, witnessing “Nightline’s” Hurricane Katrina coverage, as Ted Koppel lacerated FEMA chief Michael Brown with tough, laser-precision questions, making Brown look like a human pinata. Perhaps that’s why Koppel’s pending departure from ABC News is so unnerving, because in these cacophonous times, with apologies to Aaron Sorkin, deep down I want his voice of sobriety on that wall, I need him on that wall.

In his RTNDA address, Murrow memorably spoke of television’s grand potential as well as its limits when stripped of service considerations to be viewed solely as a means of commerce. “This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire,” he said. “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 to us all.

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