Good night, and Good Ratings

Posted by Mike Hudson

George Clooney's big-screen retelling of broadcast journalism's finest moment got me thinking. Sure, things were bad back in the 1950s. U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy's anti-communist crusade spread fear across the land. Network bigwigs fretted about antagonizing both advertisers and McCarthy's admirers.

But as Clooney's new movie, "Good Night, and Good Luck," reminds us, Ed Murrow and CBS's "See It Now" crew found a way to get a serious piece of muckraking on the air.

Still, I wonder: What if Murrow had been working under a different, more up-to-date set of rules? What if today's TV programmers were calling the shots? I imagine things might have unfolded a bit like this. . . .

Edward R. Murrow took a weary drag on an unfiltered Camel cigarette.

"I'm not sure what we're doing here," he said. "We've got Joe McCarthy nailed. He's changed his numbers and his facts time and again. He's ruined innocent people's reputations and lied to the American public. And he hasn't caught a single solitary Communist."

Around the conference table sat a dozen young producers, all of them about half Murrow's age, sipping unusually tall cups of coffee topped by dollops of whipped cream.

"We know all that, Ed," a young producer broke in. "But hear us out. These meetings are about empowering the staff. You saw the memo from Bill Paley: CBS is committed to team management. We want a bottom-up, think-outside-the-box organization that's
innovative, proactive, customer-driven. We love the story. We're just trying to help you tell it in the best way possible."

"I know how to tell story," Murrow said. "We've got footage detailing McCarthy's public statements. We've documented every misstatement and falsehood. We've double- and triple-checked everything. It's a matter of getting out of the way and letting the facts speak for themselves, then adding some context to help our viewers make sense of it."

"Ed, Ed. That's sooo 1952," the young producer said. "This is 1954. Viewers have three networks to choose from now, and your Nielsens on 'See It Now' are down a quarter of a point. We need to think about re-branding the product. We need a hook, a
vehicle that speaks to our target demographic and then keeps viewers coming back week after week."

"In a democratic society, citizens don't need hooks -- they need to know what's going on in their government," Murrow said, angrily stubbing out his cigarette. "This is a story about an assault on the Constitution, about the undermining of basic liberties
people have fought and died for."

"Nevertheless, we've decided to go in a different direction," the young producer said with a wave of his hand. "We did a little 'pre-meeting' and sketched out some 'what-if' scenarios. Chad, did you do Flip Charts or a Power Point on this concept? Never mind, just give Ed the gist."

"No problem, Jason," piped up another producer who, despite his Harvard MBA, looked as if he were still a teen-ager. "Here's the plan: We move McCarthy into a beach house in Malibu. We bring in a wacky bunch of housemates: Hollywood screenwriters,
Foreign Service officers, a liberal Democratic Congresswoman, a B-movie starlet, even a Negro nightclub singer."

Murrow's jaw tightened. His dark eyes blazed with fury.

"Until this moment, I never really gauged the level of your recklessness," he growled. "Have you no sense of decency?"

"Stay with us, Ed," Chad continued. "We lock them in for 12 weeks. One of them is a Fellow Traveler, or at least attended a couple of Young Socialist Club meetings back in college. We've got hidden cameras all over the place. They live and eat and sleep together and McCarthy has to finger one as a Soviet agent before the end of the season. Then the pinko gets led away in handcuffs. The public will eat it up. And we've already got a great name for it."

"Absolutely, Chad," Jason chimed in excitedly. "We're gonna call it 'Big Brother.'"

Mike Hudson, a free-lance reporter based in Roanoke, Va., is investigative editor to Southern Exposure