The journalists look over footage of McCarthy in trials against alleged Communists. In one clip, McCarthy accuses a man who was provided with an attorney by the American Civil Liberties Union in 1932 of being a communist. “Mr. Chairman, this was 1932,” says the accused man. Murrow orders someone to turn off the footage, and as the other journalists argue about whether they have a story, Murrow remains silent, then sits down at a typewriter and begins to write. Time passes and we see Murrow still writing, even though everyone but Fred is gone. Murrow is writing his closing piece, cigarette hanging out of his mouth.
We see Shirley putting on lipstick, as Joe tells her that he thinks the piece will not have any effect on McCarthy’s reputation, because if people already like McCarthy, they’ll hate the piece, and if they don’t, they’ll love it. Furthermore, he says, it’s imperative that they strike out against McCarthy before McCarthy starts going after Murrow. When Shirley points out that McCarthy hasn’t come after anyone else at the network, Joe points out that Murrow worked for the Institute of International Education in 1934, a fact that could be used against him. As Joe leaves for the office, Shirley reminds him to take off his wedding ring. “Name me another wife who has to remind her husband to take off his wedding ring before he goes to the office,” she says, smirking about their secret marriage. “Ava Gardner,” Joe replies.
March 9, 1954. Natalie approaches Fred and Murrow to let them know that Paley wants to talk to them on the phone. On the line, Paley offers Murrow some basketball tickets, but Murrow tells him, “I’m a little busy bringing down the network tonight, Bill.” Paley responds, “I’m with you today, Ed. And I’m with you tomorrow.” Murrow thanks him and hangs up. The journalists prepare for the broadcast.
Murrow introduces the clips of McCarthy in court, then makes a statement, “If the Senator feels that we have done violence to his words or pictures and so desires to speak, to answer himself, an opportunity will be afforded him on this program. Our working thesis tonight is this quotation: “If this fight against Communism is made a fight between America's two great political parties, the American people know that one of these parties will be destroyed, and the Republic cannot endure very long as a one-party system.” We applaud that statement, and we think Senator McCarthy ought to. He said it 17 months ago in Milwaukee.” They broadcast McCarthy saying these exact words, as well as several other clips of McCarthy in court.
As the story continues, Murrow points out McCarthy’s techniques for questioning, and the fallacies he espouses in his questioning. Murrow notes that the ACLU is not on the lists that McCarthy says it is, and that it has been commended by numerous presidents. He goes on to say, “It is necessary to investigate before legislating, but the line between investigating and persecuting is a very fine one and the junior Senator from Wisconsin has stepped over it repeatedly. We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men—not from men who feared to write, to associate, to speak, and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular.” Murrow goes on to explain that McCarthy is a symptom of a fear of Communism, rather than the originator of that fear, before ending the segment with his catchphrase, “Good night, and good luck.”
The segment ends. Fred and Murrow look at the telephone nearby, but it doesn’t ring. “Nothing? Well, maybe nobody watched,” Murrow says. Suddenly they realize that the assistant who turned off the phones before the segment never turned them back on. When they do so, the telephones immediately begin ringing off the hook. On a television screen, we see Don Hollenbeck endorsing Murrow’s segment, saying, “I have never been prouder of CBS.” The show was evidently a success, and Joe and Shirley make eye contact across the room. The shot shifts to show Paley in his office watching the fallout.
The journalists go out for drinks at a jazz club. Fred turns to Shirley and asks her to go pick up the early editions. She does, and the journalists sit in silence for a moment. Eventually, Shirley and Joe come back in with the papers. Shirley opens The New York Times and reads an article which calls the program “crusading journalism of high responsibility and courage for TV so often plagued by timidity and hesitation, the program was a milestone that reflected enlightened citizenship.” The journalists applaud and Murrow looks pleased. Someone asks Shirley to read a conservative paper’s coverage of the story, by a journalist named Jack O’Brian and she does. Unsurprisingly, it is negative. As Shirley stops reading towards the end, Don Hollenbeck—who has already been accused of being a pinko—encourages her to keep reading. The article goes on to attack Hollenbeck more directly, and everyone tries to make Hollenbeck feel better about it. Hollenbeck looks distressed as the rest of the journalists cheers to their good reviews.
The next day we see Fred getting on an elevator where a coworker tells him that the story did very well with viewers across the country. The elevator stops and Paley gets on. The men make some pleasantries, and when Fred gets off the elevator on his floor, Paley informs him that “McCarthy wants William Buckley to do his rebuttal. I said no.” The men part ways. In the newsroom, Jesse lets people know that they got a special announcement from the secretary of the Air Force that Milo Radulovich was reinstated. He reads the statement aloud to the newsroom, and the men cheer and smile.
In this section, a great deal of the emotional punch of the narrative is conveyed through the cinematography. One shot that is particularly indicative of Murrow’s position is the one of him at his typewriter, writing the next story. After everyone has filed out of the newsroom, making jokes and leaving their jobs as journalists behind for the night, Murrow sits alone in the office (save for Fred, who is asleep nearby), his desk now lit by a lamp. The camera slowly zooms out as Murrow sits at his desk stoically, trying to find the angle for his next piece. This image not only shows us Murrow’s dedication to his job, it also presents the image of a man alone, fighting against the odds with only himself and his ability to write on his side. The shot communicates not only his position in the newsroom, but also his position in the world, a loner who fights for what is right.
Meanwhile, Shirley and Joe’s secret marriage makes up the only subplot in the film. While the bulk of the narrative is devoted to Murrow’s mission to clap back against McCarthyism, Joe and Shirley’s marriage creates some extra dramatic tension. Joe and Shirley are the perfect team, both professionally and romantically, yet because of the dynamics of television at this time, they have to keep their relationship a secret. This creates a striking parallel. Murrow is fighting McCarthyism because he sees it as wrongfully condemning people for their private relations (e.g. relatives who are associated with communists). Meanwhile, Shirley and Joe keep their marriage a secret because they worry about what will happen if their private lives intersect with their working lives and whether it will have repercussions. Good Night, and Good Luck explores the ways that politics, professionalism, and personal affiliations bred fear during the mid-1950s. In the film, trust is something earned, not given.
Murrow is markedly articulate about this climate of fear that surrounds the nation in the age of McCarthyism. In his second story, he lucidly outlines the ways that the post-war generation is afflicted with paranoid delusions. In looking at the historical moment from a broader standpoint, he comes across as exceedingly reasonable and trustworthy in his report. Additionally, he accounts for the subtleties of the situation, particularly the fact that McCarthy himself is not the reason for the fear that pervades, but a symptom of that fear. In not pointing fingers at McCarthy, in offering him a chance to defend himself, and in accounting for the ways that McCarthy’s bigotry fits into a broader atmosphere of paranoia, Murrow speaks truth to power and gives context to his accusations.
Murrow’s bravery, clarity, and straightforwardness pay off, and the story is generally met with praise. The network is taking a huge risk by even airing the story, but Murrow delivers courageous journalism in an otherwise spineless and fearful media climate. Again, following Murrow’s story, a silence hangs over the newsroom as the journalists wait to get feedback from the story. Ironically enough, a young assistant has forgotten to turn the telephones back on, so at first Murrow and the others mistake the technical difficulty for evidence of their failure. When the phones come back on, however, ringing off the hook, the journalists know that they have made a splash, and that they can finally kick back and have a scotch.
After so much tension and hard work, we see the journalists enjoying themselves for the first time in the film. They kick back at a jazz club, where that same jazz singer who has soundtracked the film hitherto is serenading them. Jazz becomes something of a motif in the film, a sign of good feeling and progress in a world that is so stilted by trepidation. The journalists drink cocktails and smoke, and we see the perpetually stone-faced Murrow cracking wide smiles with his associates for the first time. The risk has paid off and journalism has triumphed. Not only that, but television journalism has triumphed, a medium which, as The New York Times points out in its review, often falls prey to popular pressures. Indeed, Murrow and Fred’s autonomy and desire to deliver tough journalism without the full support of their network is largely lauded by fellow journalists.