Edward R. Murrow, the broadcast giant who took on Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1954, is back in the news thanks to George Clooney's new film, Good Night, and Good Luck. That film focuses on Murrow's famous series of broadcasts in March/April of 1954 where he took on (and some say, ended) Senator Joseph McCarthy and his campaign to rid the government of Communists.
At the time of this cover article, TV's most explosive telecast was 3 1/2 years past. It was in that broadcast that Murrow indicted Joe McCarthy out of his own mouth by using film clips of McCarthy in action. Here's how Time referred to the 1954 show in 1957:
"He did not bother to clear the show in advance with CBS, and in turn CBS decided retroactively that it had lent Murrow the network's right to editorialize. The network lists him only as one of its hired hands, but Murrow is something of a power unto himself, with his own generously financed domain and the strong personal loyalty of key CBS News staffers. His unique status stems from 1) his close friendship with Board Chairman William S. Paley, with whom he deals directly, 2) his onetime role as a major architect of its news staff and policy, and 3) the hard fact that if CBS ever loses him, it will be NBC's gain."
Notice that today's hard-charging ABC was not even a network at the time this article was written. Murrow, by the way, was making over $300,000 a year which was a lot of coin back in 1957 dollars.
If you've seen Good Night, and Good Luck, you know that the 1954 heart of the film is book-ended by a speech that Murrow gave in 1958 about the state of TV journalism. That topic is exactly how Time chose to end its article about Murrow a year earlier.
"The fact that nothing new or exciting is in view to take Murrow's place is explained in great part by the nature of television. It is primarily an adman's medium conceived in escapism and dedicated to the proposition. Its role in communicating information plays second fiddle to the canned comedies, saddle-soap operas and variety shows. In its daily efforts to cover the news, television has not really made up its mind what it is trying to do. TV men are exhilirated by their technological power to reach at one instant into almost every living room in the U.S., yet timid about using it to edify. So far, for all the earnest thought and energy that is devoted to it, electronic journalism has illuminated with bright flashes but few steady beams of light. Perhaps that is the best it is destined to do."
A year later, in his famous speech, Murrow would say that if TV didn't attempt to do more with its power it would only be "wires and light in a box." To which, of course, he could have added, "Good night, and good luck."