Rob Edelman: Manipulation

Sep 10, 2012

As this political season and the race for the U.S. presidency in particular barrel toward Election Day, it seems that the real issues facing average, middle and working-class Americans are being obscured by innuendo and accusation. The goal here apparently is winning at all costs and amassing power, rather than practical problem-solving and serving the U.S. citizenry.

This sorry state reminds me of a much-heralded film from 2005 that offers keen insight into the mindset of manipulative politicians and the role that journalism should play in exposing the truth about such politicians. That film is GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK, which is directed by George Clooney.

GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK is not only an outstanding movie. It also is an important one. As he recounts the manner in which CBS news legend Edward R. Murrow challenged the power of Senator Joseph McCarthy almost 60 years ago, Clooney-- who also co-scripted and co-stars-- emphasizes the importance of a free press, and the responsibilities of a free press. 

As you watch GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK, you really need to be aware of the politics of the time in which the film is set. You really need to know who Joseph McCarthy is, and the impact the junior senator from Wisconsin had on American culture during the early 1950s. Even more to the point, you may recognize Clooney, David Strathairn, Robert Downey, Jr., Patricia Clarkson, and the other actors in the cast. But will you know that the Joseph McCarthy character you see on screen is not played by an actor? Will you know that the Joseph McCarthy we see in GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK is the real McCoy? McCarthy frequently is on-screen, in footage culled from newsreels and kinescopes. So in essence, Joseph McCarthy plays himself in GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK.

All of these points may seem silly to those who know their history. But they are not silly, if you grasp the fact that too many people today seem to be uninformed about American history, and world history. Too many people are unaware of the events that culminated in the Second World War, or are unable to define McCarthyism. 

So my question here is: Are these the same citizens who will watch a campaign ad in which a politician is depicted as little more than a sniveling, unpatriotic turncoat and come away believing what they are seeing, without questioning the content of the ad? Is it easy to embrace the mudslinging in a slickly-produced negative campaign ad that plays to one’s emotions, even though the current political debate really should involve practical approaches to problem-solving?

For anyone wishing further insight into the character of Joseph McCarthy, and the importance of journalism in a free society, I would highly recommend, in addition to re-viewing GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK, a DVD titled THE MCCARTHY YEARS, which is one of four programs in a DVD set titled “The Edward R. Murrow Television Collection.”

The bulk of the program consists of several Murrow SEE IT NOW television programs from 1953 and 1954 which spotlight the tactics of McCarthy and his impact on the lives of those he accused. And there is McCarthy-- the same Joseph McCarthy we see in GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK-- describing those in the media who question his methods as “the extreme left-wing elements of the press and radio.”

Now does this sound familiar, or what?

THE MCCARTHY YEARS is hosted by Walter Cronkite, another CBS icon, whose description of the era just as well may be a description of the present day. Cronkite notes that, in 1954, “an epidemic of sorts was sweeping across the United States. It was an epidemic of fear, of accusations, of ruined reputations and ruined lives. An era of blacklists, of loyalty oaths, of guilt by association...”

In this regard, the parallels between GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK and THE MCCARTHY YEARS and our present-day political culture are unmistakable-- and downright depressing.

Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.

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