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"Good Night and Good Luck," recently released on DVD, has a timeless message that speaks to generations before and after the Cold War period described in the movie. As the movie's tag line states, "In a nation terrorized by its own government, one man dared to tell the truth," it is about the conflict between a crusading journalist (Ed Murrow) and an egotistical, anal-retentive politician (Senator Joseph McCarthy) corrupted by the power he wields and backed by the influence of the nation's military-industrial complex. It exemplifies the tension between individual and state that has existed throughout history.
The beginning starts with an interesting case that could easily come from today's news stories about the "War on Terror." An Air Force officer named Milo Radulovich was dismissed from the service for refusing to denounce his father as a communist after the latter was accused by a military tribunal based on secret evidence with no opportunity to confront or rebut witnesses. Murrow picked up the story from a Detroit newspaper and expressed a desire to report on it. His corporate superiors at CBS resisted because they were fearful that the show's sponsor, with lucrative military contracts, would withdraw support. The story aired only after Murrow and his producer, Fred Friendly, agreed to pay for the show themselves.
After summarizing the Air Force's case (or lack thereof) against Lieutenant Radulovich, Murrow acknowledged the need to balance the security needs of the state against the rights of the individual. However, he also issued a prophetic warning, "Whatever happens in the whole area of the relationship between the individual and the state, we will do it ourselves." He then made clear that the consequences could not be blamed on other countries and their leaders.
Emboldened by the favorable reception the Air Force story received, Murrow decided to go after McCarthy directly, especially after a staff member on McCarthy's committee threatened to expose his previous connection to "communist" front organizations. Murrow and his associates carefully researched McCarthy's own speeches and statements to use his own words against him. At the end of the report, Murrow abandoned any pretense of "objective" journalism and made clear to the audience his opposition to McCarthy's tactics. As in the previous story about Milo Radulovich, he also stated his belief that the American people were ultimately responsible for the consequences of McCarthy's behavior. In a quote from Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," a story about political tyranny two thousand years before, Murrow asserted, "The fault . . . lies not in our stars but in ourselves." Though Murrow did not have a crystal ball to foresee passage of the Patriot Act and subsequent invasion of Iraq, his admonition "We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home," has a very contemporary appeal.
Several weeks after Murrow's program on McCarthy, the latter responds in a rebuttal appearance. He accuses Murrow of belonging to several pro-Communist organizations, including the International Workers of the World (IWW). In a scene reminiscent of recent accusations against Islamic groups, McCarthy states the IWW is a "terrorist organization" included on a list of subversive groups compiled by the Attorney General. The tactic of guilt by association with a group labeled as "terrorist" was no less effective fifty years ago than it is today.
Murrow's program on McCarthy received general praise from the public and critics. Milo Radulovich was eventually reinstated by the Air Force, and McCarthy himself was investigated and censured by the Senate for his extreme tactics. Nevertheless, political leaders and their associates in the nation's military-industrial complex were concerned about Murrow's influence and editorializing. They brought pressure to bear on CBS Chairman William Paley which culminated in a meeting where he explained to Murrow, "I fight to keep our license with the same politicians you are trying to bring down." Subsequently, Murrow's program is shortened and put into a less desirable time slot. Ironically, at the end of the movie when Murrow and his producer are walking out of Paley's office, there is a television monitor showing a speech by President Dwight Eisenhower extolling the virtues of constitutional guarantees against unlawful imprisonment, searches, and seizures without due process.
If there is an overriding theme to Murrow's commentary on McCarthyism and anti-Communist hysteria, it would be his admonition to the audience that ultimately all Americans are responsible for the conduct of their elected leaders and the inevitable consequences which must follow. This is as much true today as it was 50 years ago. As the writer Norman Mailer asserted, "There are no innocent civilians in a democracy."