Last night I watched Good Night and Good Luck, George Clooney’s movie about the attempt of CBS reporter Edward Murrow and his producer Fred Friendly to employ television as a means of communicating with the American public on the basis of intelligent inquiry and discussion.
Quite aside from the political aspects of Murrow’s conflict with Senator Joe McCarthy, the film is one that ought to be required viewing in 2011 because of what it demonstrates about the development of American television and American English.
The movie makes use of black and white film footage of the Fifties. Everyone interviewed–from enlisted men to restaurant workers to senators–speaks unobjectionable standard English. McCarthy quotes from Shakespeare and Murrow expands on the quotation. McCarthy uses the correct form of the verb with a “neither…nor” construction. Murrow treats the noun “media” as a plural.
Listen to a comparable collection of video clips from the past ten years and correct usage and literary allusions will not be so well represented.
Just this past week I heard a U. S. senator use “me” as the subject of a verb when being interviewed for national television. I hear news announcers, reporters, and weathermen misusing pronouns, verbs, and vocabulary every evening.
In the Fifties, television was still new. Its social potential was as yet unexplored. Murrow and Friendly thought that a large segment of the American public was intelligent enough to want to see programs that dealt with serious issues.
Murrow complained at the way television was being used merely to convey entertainment and pleasant, non-controversial “news”:
We have currently a built-in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information. Our mass media reflect this. But unless we get up off our fat surpluses and recognize that television in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse, and insulate us, then television and those who finance it, those who look at it, and those who work at it, may see a totally different picture too late.
The movie concludes with these lines spoken by Murrow:
To those who say people wouldn’t look [at serious programming]; they wouldn’t be interested; they’re too complacent, indifferent and insulated, I can only reply: There is, in one reporter’s opinion, considerable evidence against that contention. But even if they are right, what have they got to lose? Because if they are right, and this instrument is good for nothing but to entertain, amuse and insulate, then the tube is flickering now and we will soon see that the whole struggle is lost. This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box. Good night, and good luck.
Ironically, when I switched off the DVD player, the channel that came up was CBS. The show playing was Rules of Engagement. Wouldn’t Ed and Fred be proud.