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Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Musing Pictures: Good Night and Good Luck

Early in the film "Good Night and Good Luck", I was struck by a line of Edward R. Murrow's. It was something like "there aren't always two equally valid sides to every story", and it set the tone for the questions of journalistic responsibility that the film, and the history it depicted, expressed.

Over the past four years or so, I have developed an interest in what it means for something to be "pure news". Much of this began with a recognition of strong anti-Israel biases in the media when things got excessively violent there around early 2002, and continued to develop as I began to watch Fox News, taking note of a different flavor to their reporting, which they label "fair and balanced".

"Good Night and Good Luck" really satisfied me, in that it was impartial without being wimpy. Was Murrow right to use his position as a "newsman" (he calls himself that, and indeed, he absolutely was one) to actively attack a politician and his actions? Or, as Murrow himself claimed, is it authentically non-biased "news" to report when a person does wrong? Or, as others point out in the film and beyond it, is the press overstepping its boundaries when it puts people on "trial"? Is pure impartiality dishonest reporting?

This last question strikes me as particularly interesting, because there is such a strong sense these days that an ideal news broadcast is a purely impartial -- that is, a noncommittal -- statement on stuff that has happened. This became particularly tricky whith reports on the Middle East in early 2002, when some press, in an effort to be "impartial", referred to murderers as "freedom fighters" on a regular basis, even though I'm sure the journalists themselves would have condemned murder-by-bus-bomb fervently. It all goes back to that early question in the film -- when the two sides of a story aren't equally valid, at what point can a reporter, or a news organization, depict one side as being "right" and the other side as being "wrong"?

I couldn't help thinking to myself, while watching the film, that Murrow's character reminded me a lot of Bill O'Reilley, of Fox News. I would be deeply shocked if O'Reilley didn't study Murrow's philosophies and techniques at some point in his early career. They both strike me as the sort of deeply patriotic men who editorialize out of obligation to the ideals they see their nation standing for.

And for a black and white film to gross more than its budget in wide release in only about five weeks is a good sign for filmmakers, too. It means some people are still willing to take serious film seriously -- even if it's not in color.