One of the film's main themes is dissent. Edward Murrow is using his platform as a newsman on national television to oppose the actions of Senator Joseph McCarthy who makes false accusations of Communist influence in order to give himself power. Murrow opposes the Senator's often corrupt and unconstitutional methods. As a result, he uses his influence as a newsman to sway the American public's opinion by airing stories that expose McCarthy's corruption. In so doing, Murrow is putting his job in jeopardy, as McCarthy has a lot of power. However, Murrow believes strongly in his mission and his ability to influence people's opinions in the direction of justice. McCarthy is stripping away American independence and Murrow knows it, so he uses his news program to publicly challenge McCarthy and ask the American people to think for themselves and see the truth in what the junior Senator is doing, rather than allow fear to dictate how the story is received.
The whole era of the the "red scare" and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was pushed by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Very few actual sentences were handed down to anyone, but McCarthy created a culture of fear across the nation by drumming up fear of Communism to such a degree that individuals started to mistrust and judge any person thought to be a Communist. These are now considered akin to modern-day witch hunts. The playwright Arthur Miller even wrote The Crucible, about the Salem Witch Trials, because of HUAC.
McCarthy's sensationalism divided the country as many began to fight back for their right to speak and believe what they chose to believe without being threatened by the government of the United States for these beliefs. The circus McCarthy created soon ended, but it left deep scars in the American political system.
Media responsibility is the theme that opens and closes the film, as we see Murrow speaking before a group of television and radio executives who are honoring him at a dinner. Murrow saw television for what it could be, a device used to educate the American people and provide tools that would benefit them in their everyday lives. Instead, television is used in order to make money, divert, entertain, and delude. In Murrow's eyes, the programs that thrive on television are those that make people feel good and allow them to escape from the pain of their day to day lives.
We see Murrow participating in this more diversional programming when he interviews the rich and famous on his show. He does so in order to have the opportunity to do real journalism in his other episodes. He's struck a deal with the CBS head that he will get to do real news if he agrees to do fluff pieces that advertisers will pay big bucks to sponsor. Murrow does not mince his words; he believes the mishandling of the power of television is a grave threat to intellectual freedom and the education of citizens. Thus, a huge theme of the film is Murrow's conviction that new journalism has a responsibility to its viewers, both political and intellectual, to transmit the truth and inform viewers, rather than just keep them complacent and entertained.
What makes Murrow so dogged in his desire to take on McCarthy on his show is his firm belief in McCarthy's corrupt and unjust approaches to his work. McCarthy has sown an atmosphere of fear and paranoia across the country, and those who disagree with his methods are automatically assumed to be Communists. Indeed, when Murrow begins to go after McCarthy, McCarthy tries to besmirch Murrow's reputation by suggesting that he himself is a Communist sympathizer. This is not the case, but McCarthy has created enough fear about Communism that any invocation or suggestion of a person being aligned with this maligned political ideology is enough. This culture of hearsay without a fair trial shows that McCarthy's methods are corrupt, and corruption has a lot of thematic importance in the film.
A major theme of the film is the fact that under the thumb of McCarthyism, people are compelled to keep a low profile and to keep many secrets that might be used against them. Secrecy and fear of exposure are major side effects of this fearful time. This theme is explored through Murrow's examination of McCarthy's methods, as well as in the smaller subplot about Joe and Shirley Wershba. While they do not fear being exposed as Communists, their marriage is frowned upon at CBS, and puts their jobs in jeopardy. Thus, they must keep secret about their union at work, pretending to be merely close professional associates rather than spouses. Secrecy is a major theme in Good Night, and Good Luck.
Television and Entertainment
As well-respected as Murrow is, and as successful as his programs exposing the crookedness of McCarthyism are, many of the people working around him in television wish that he would stick to lighter fare. In exchange for allowing Murrow to report on the issues he wants to report on, chief executive of CBS William Paley makes Murrow also interview celebrities for more entertaining segments. These entertaining television programs are more popular with viewers and sponsors alike. Indeed, this escapist entertainment value is the exact kind of television against which Murrow rails in his speech, but even he must participate in it in order to maintain his position at the network.
Murrow is an individual and is certainly the motor behind the reports on McCarthy, but he does so with the help of a loyal and responsible team. A great deal of the film is devoted to showing Murrow surrounded by his fellow journalists as they put together the news segments. Oftentimes, the atmosphere is tense, as they don't know how the segment is going to go. When they begin to see that the news that Murrow is reporting is doing well with viewers, they can start to enjoy the rewards of their efforts. The team is like a unique kind of family, staying up late, getting the story, working towards a common goal.
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