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Monday, August 31, 2009

Good Night, and Good Luck

Last night I viewed the 2005 film Good Night, and Good Luck. The movie was directed and co-written by George Clooney and was nominated for six Academy Awards. Remarkably, it was made on a budget of only 7.5 million dollars.

It tells the true story of a pivotal incident that occurred during the McCarthy era, and how journalist Edward R. Murrow took the bold step to directly expose U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy and the rogue activities of his anti-Communist subcommittee investigations. The movie is seamlessly integrated with archival news footage of Joe McCarthy and his public interrogation techniques. Subsequently, his actions have been revealed as one of the low points in American history. The movie is about the era of the Communist "witch hunt" and in particular about the chilling impact it had on the lives of people working in news industry at the time.

Good Night, and Good Luck begins and ends with a reenactment of Murrow's important 1958 speech before the Radio and Television News Directors Association. In it, he challenges broadcasters to invest more heavily in public service and hard programming, even if it is not as profitable as game shows, soap operas, and light variety show entertainment. Murrow, a veteran radio journalist who reported from London in WW II, saw great potential in the new medium of television, but felt that it was headed in the wrong direction.

In the end, Murrow's dire warning was not heeded. American broadcast television evolved into a wasteland of cheesy commercials, mindless light entertainment, and a never-ending sea of superficial fluff.

It was interesting to view the movie from the perspective of someone who was born right around the time that it transpires (early 1954). The watershed events of the McCarthy era would mark American history and the public consciousness for decades to come.

It was also interesting to take in the details of the background context of the film: notably the music, culture, and ambiance of life in NY city at that time. Good Night, Good Luck was released in black and white, and this effect reinforces the look and feel of the 1950s. Everybody chain-smoked in those days - both on the air and in front the television camera. The decorum of the 50's modern NY office building in the set design was right on the mark.

In 1954 CBS (which derives from Columbia Broadcasting System) had their radio, recording, television studios and administrative offices in New York. A replica of CBS's Production Center was the primary set for the movie. The iconic CBS logo at the time was an abstracted "eye."

In the movie, William S. Paley (Chief Executive of CBS) is played by actor Frank Langella. There is an interesting scene where Murrow (played by David Strathairn) is riding on the elevator. The door opens, and his boss William Paley enters into the elevator from another floor. You can see in the background behind Paley that he is entering from the Columbia Records floor of the building.

In reality, Paley must of had to walk a difficult line of supporting projects underway by his senior staff while at the same time finding the funding for them. Murrow and his news division were losing money, since one of his key advertisers (Alcoa Aluminium) had threatened to pull out. In fact in 1955 Alcoa did sever its sponsorship of Murrow's show, but continued to sponsor a more patriotic program called "Modern Farmer" which I clearly remember seeing as a child early in the morning. Similar financial pressures must have existed in the Columbia Records division too.

The brief incidental scene in the movie where CBS Chief Executive Paley departed the floor where the offices of Columbia Records resided perked my interest. In reality, he surely had "budget" and "strategy" meetings with Goddard Lieberson who was appointed as President of Columbia Records in 1956. Lieberson (father of composer Peter Lieberson) was married to Vera Zorina, the well-known ballerina and movie actress (I've met her). Lieberson was a composer himself and a strong supporter of classical and modern music at Columbia. He supported large-scale projects, such as the recording of the complete works by Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, and Igor Stravinsky. He also created the genre of the Broadway cast album.

Lieberson was a technical innovator too. Working with CBS Labs, he introduced the 33-1/3 rpm Long Play (LP) vinyl disk format, which competed directly with RCA Victor's 45-rpm standard. In later years Lieberson would introduce Stereophonic recordings to the consumer market. I can imagine Lieberson trying to walk the tightrope between his boss (William S. Paley) who was concerned about the bottom line, while keeping his "prima donna" classical recording artists (e.g. Igor Stravinsky, Glenn Gould, and Lenny Bernstein) in check.

The CBS logo was integrated into the Columbia Records icon by art director and designer Neil Fujita. He created a logo for the record company that became known as the "Walking Eye" (shown on the right).

Although none of this history regarding Columbia Records is in the movie, it was part of William Paley's legacy at CBS, and hard for a musician to ignore or disregard. Paley was also an advocate for modern painting, and contributed financially to New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

Perhaps the most powerful part of the film Good Night and Good Luck is documentary footage of Annie Lee Moss. She was was a low-level communications clerk working for the U.S. Army at the Pentagon. She was an average person who started working for the government in the cafeteria kitchen, but was singled out and accused by Joe McCarthy for being a Communist. An FBI agent had infiltrated the American Communist Party and saw her name on a list. Up to this point, the public had not fully witnessed McCarthy's harsh methods of interrogation, but Murrow used his television program to expose McCarthy for what he was: a big bully circumventing the normal process of law.

The late 1950s were probably the best years at CBS, but their quality of product and moral integrity gradually rolled down hill from there. The slippery slope of mindless fantasy TV began in 1954 with new TV series such as "Father Knows Best" and "Lassie." The public wanted the easy comfort of the Ed Sullivan variety show rather than hard-hitting news or avant garde music. This numbing form of escape broadcast into our homes helped us to forget the Cold War and the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation associated with it. Unfortunately, the trend of "dumming down" continues today with game shows, reality TV, and "American Idol." Columbia Records was sold off by CBS, and is now a subsidiary label of Sony Music Entertainment.

Both thoughtful journalism and the arts are difficult products to sell. They don't make a lot of money, are generally expensive to produce. More often than not, they require the an infusion of cash or subsidy from a not-for-profit organization. CBS under Paley's leadership provided support and vision to his friends and senior executives. Both Murrow and Lieberson had some leeway to explore - at least for a time - what was worthwhile and noteworthy. But ultimately the financial axe fell on both divisions at CBS and elsewhere in corporate America. Money, I'm afraid, is more powerful than ethics.

Good Night, and Good Luck.

See the movie.