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Lights in a Box

Stephen King on ''Good Night, and Good Luck.'' The Pop of King takes a look at George Clooney's new film

Ray Wise, Good Night, and Good Luck | A 'GOOD' MAN Ray Wise playing Don Hollenbeck
A 'GOOD' MAN Ray Wise playing Don Hollenbeck

Stephen King on ''Good Night, and Good Luck''

George Clooney's film about Edward R. Murrow and the early days of TV news is probably sending many audience members on extra trips to the snack bar and bathrooms out of sheer claustrophobia. It almost never leaves the stark confines of the CBS newsroom and editorial offices. This will come as a shock to 21st-century viewers accustomed to seeing Anderson Cooper (CNN) and Brian Williams (NBC) being blown around by hurricanes, and Katie Couric wearing a pair of cute goggles, working on Habitat for Humanity houses in Rockefeller Plaza.

That isn't the only contrast between news then and news now, in the land of 500 channels. The difference everyone will notice is the cigarettes; almost everyone in Good Night, and Good Luck smokes like a chimney. That includes Murrow, who died from lung cancer. (Mike Wallace, also never without a cigarette in the '50s, apparently has the lungs of an alligator...or Keith Richards.) And then there are the news clips — film reels that get rushed to the projection room at the last moment, often just in time for the commentator to do a live voice-over narration.

There are similarities, too — celebrity interviews, for instance. The conflict between Murrow (beautifully played by David Strathairn) and the Commie-hunting senator Joe McCarthy (played by himself, in old kinescopes) is at the movie's center, but we also see Murrow conversing with Liberace, who explains that of course he wants to be married. Just as soon as he meets a nice girl like Princess Margaret. Save for the black-and-white photography and Murrow's cigarette, it could be Larry King talking with Janet Jackson. Of course it was a wardrobe malfunction, Larry.

The major similarity — and the reason I suppose Clooney wanted to tell this story — is that the struggle for the soul of TV news continues unabated. Nobody really likes watching the news, since so little worth reporting is good news — thus the tendency is still to kill the messenger for the message. Lefties today think the news media have gotten soft and scared; they point to the gloves-on way TV handled the Bush administration's run-up to the war in Iraq as an example. The righties think the media are just a tool of the left wing (of guys like Clooney...and let's throw in Alec Baldwin for good measure), and that anchors won't be happy until anarchy rules Iraq and abortion clinics are as common as ATMs.

As in the day of Murrow, the job of today's newscasters is to be heard in spite of these conflicting voices. The danger is that in trying to please everyone, they'll provide no real coverage at all. In its most disturbing scene, GN&GL suggests that network topsiders wouldn't mind that. When Murrow is called on the carpet by CBS head honcho William Paley (played to lizardlike perfection by Frank Langella), Paley says: ''People want to enjoy themselves, they don't want a civics lesson.'' Later, Murrow points out to his pal Fred Friendly (Clooney) that the most trusted man in America is Milton Berle. ''You should have worn a dress,'' Friendly responds.

Today the dress is worn by Oprah, of course. I have no doubt she's the most trusted person in America, but that doesn't mean she should be doing the evening news. What would come next — Jerry Springer as Nightline host? Why not? Then we could get Howard Dean and Karl Rove throwing chairs at each other, or Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice pulling hair. It wouldn't be discourse, but it would be entertaining: reality TV news.

It's maybe not quite as ridiculous as it sounds. With the advent of more and more cable info-channels, the not-quite-blind urge to mate news and entertainment seems to be growing ever stronger. Murrow's decision to go after McCarthy was an act of amazing bravery in 1954, and controversial enough to cause his See It Now sponsor (Alcoa) to drop the show. But such talking-heads stuff probably wouldn't play today, when viewers watch car chases in high-def and ''If it bleeds, it leads'' has become the battle cry.

Even more dismaying is the last decade's ''news-flation,'' with its unforgivable shoot-from-the-lip scare journalism. Thus, we are told that there may be 10,000 dead in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, that doctors euthanized patients at the height of the chaos (allegations that are still unproven), and that bird flu may soon depopulate the earth. Not to mention nightly updates on the Natalee Holloway ''story'' — BREAKING NEWS! — while Africa starves and the Mideast burns.

The best moment in GN&GL? Easy. When Murrow finishes his Liberace interview (with a promise to visit Mickey Rooney and his lovely new wife the following week), he signs off and the harsh studio lights go out. As they do, an expression crosses his face, as fleeting as a brief muscle cramp. It is weary distaste. Speaking to an industry audience some four years after the McCarthy debacle, Murrow says: ''[Television] can illuminate and yes, it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are willing to use it to those ends. Otherwise, it is merely wires and lights in a box.'' It's something to think about the next time you sit down in front of news that may be more flash than fact: It's merely lights in a box.

Originally posted Nov 11, 2005 Published in issue #850 Nov 18, 2005 Order article reprints