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October 21, 2005

“Good Night, and Good Luck”

Roy Meachum

In his film, “Good Night, and Good Luck,” George Clooney means to refurbish their place in history for Edward R. Murrow, Fred Friendly and their “boys” (and girls). The title comes, by the way, from Mr. Murrow’s standard sign-off, on all his evening programs.

Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to be able to report I believe the movie succeeds in its purpose.

But while television junkies and idealists, particularly the young, might be willing to render tribute to the news pioneers’ accomplishments, too many changes have occurred in the media and the nation for even their memory to linger on. The movie helps.

Subsequent generations simply have no way of grasping life at that time, and no screenplay can hope to pass along how it was. Only dazed looks result from reciting the suspicion, fear and despair that accompanied the various probes in pursuit of the communists in our midst. There are no modern counterparts.

We live in an age when there is little awareness of objectivity or balance, when everyone, including reporters, is assumed to be motivated by personal agendas, especially when they don’t openly proclaim their biases.

It’s perfectly alright, for example, for radio and television news programs to advocate points of view, as long as they are known. Newspapers, generally speaking, enjoy no such dispensation. Every story in print comes under suspicion from both left and right, and all the shades in between. Their “slant,” – editorial policy – quite aside.

In the atmosphere that provides the background for “Good Night, and Good Luck,” the opposite circumstances existed. Led by Bertie McCormack’s Chicago Tribune and William Randolph Hearst’s publishing empire, every reader knew exactly where his favorite paper was “coming from.”

Broadcast media, especially television, were considered so much pap, an extension of a spectrum that included Milton Berle dropping his pants: anything for laughs, but virtually nothing for serious thought.

The Ford Foundation-underwritten “Omnibus” was relegated to the Sunday afternoon “cultural ghetto.” Talk shows still lay over the horizon. And, of course, there were no news magazines until Don Hewitt’s “60 Minutes.”

Jostling the agricultural industry for treating migratory workers as disposable commodities, less than human beings, was quite different from challenging the man responsible for the “reign of terror” that was McCarthyism.

After all, few of his peers, from either party, sought to place safeguards in the way of his terrorist tactics. Maryland Sen. Millard Tydings, a Democrat, tried and for his principled position failed in his 1950 reelection campaign. His defeat was apparently engineered by a doctored photo that placed him next to a known communist.

Tasting a whiff of the White House in the next presidential race, members of his own party were very circumspect, when they did not cheer the Wisconsin senator on. More than several did, seeking to rub off some of his “glory.”

Retired General of the Army Dwight David Eisenhower gave the GOP the Oval Office for the first time in 20 years. But he disappointed many by declining to criticize Joe McCarthy, even after the senator’s searing attack on Secretary of State George Preston Marshall.

As America’s “supreme military commander” in World War II, former General Marshall had mentored the younger Eisenhower and advanced his career. Nonetheless, the new president found no words to call down Senator McCarthy.

With his peers and the broadcast media out of the way, newspapers generally speaking declined to get involved. And when major publishers, notably Mr. McCormack and Mr. Hearst, spoke out it was to praise and support the so-called hunt for Reds. I worked for the exception.

While The Washington Post was not completely alone, my first post-Army employer consistently fought McCarthyism’s general assault on human dignity and rights. The senator’s followers retaliated.

As a copyboy, I picked up the desk phone for snarling “Is this the Washington daily worker?” Then the sound of a disconnect. In the spring of 1953, scarcely a day passed without some form of harassment directed at the paper’s stand against the man and his tactics. The Post paid a price.

At that time The Evening Star dominated the city’s media, picking up the bulk of advertising dollars and reaching more homes than all the other papers combined. In fact, The Times-Herald, which echoed the Chicago Tribune, left The Post back in second morning dust. The tabloid Daily News was scarcely a factor.

That balance didn’t change until Post broadcast President John S. Hayes toted a certified check to Chicago, on March 17, 1954. But attaining exclusivity to the morning field scarcely left The Post in any position to celebrate.

Heartily cheered on by his father-in-law, Eugene Meyer, who had rescued the paper from bankruptcy, Post publisher Phil Graham encouraged and protected reporters Murray Marder, Bud Nossiter, Chalmers Roberts and Eddie Folliard, who covered the White House. Mr. Folliard had brought home the Post’s first ever Pulitzer Prize by reporting on a Southern neo-fascist, white supremacy organization.

By the time I left the Army and joined the paper’s staff, Alfred Friendly (no kin to CBS’ Fred) was managing editor, regarding the world over Ben Franklin half-glasses from a corner office.

But cutting his teeth on the House Un-American Activities Committee, which set the pattern McCarthyism followed, Mr. Friendly had provided Post readers with daily accounts of the acts being committed against the Constitution. The pressures were so intense that the Dartmouth intellectual took up woodworking, turning out tables and such in his Georgetown basement. His promotion to the corner office ensued.

The CBS Washington bureau was in Broadcast House when the senator found himself the subject of “See It Now.” I rubbed shoulders with “Murrow’s boys” who dropped in from New York with increasing frequency as the broadcast date approached.

As the movie shows, the program’s approach consisted of letting the man speak for himself; it employed movie clips of Mr. McCarthy’s speeches, including during committee hearings.

Neither the Edward R. Murrow/Fred Friendly duo nor my old paper could claim, in the final analysis, credit for administering the coup de grace to one of the nation’s darkest episodes. They helped to weaken the senator’s façade of invulnerability. That is the media’s job.

Attorney Joseph Welch makes a brief appearance in “Good Night, and Good Luck,” in a film clip from the congressional hearings to examine charges that the Army had given communists a haven. When it became obvious, even to Joseph R. McCarthy, that he was losing on every count, the senator launched an attempted character assassination on one of Mr. Welch’s young associates.

With tears in his eyes and his voice, the Boston attorney put up a defense that obviously flustered the senator who usually maintained a public picture of eminent self-confidence. Mr. Welch destroyed the allegation and its progenitor by pleading “Have you no shame?”

Repudiation by the U.S. Senate, urged on by the Eisenhower White House, soon followed. Robbed of his bully pulpit, the gentleman from Wisconsin took to corralling journalists on the Hill, trying to spark again their interest. Rumor had him drinking heavily.

Largely ignored by then, Joseph R. McCarthy breathed his last at Bethesda’s Navy Medical Center on the first May Saturday, 1957. I was both astonished and honored when Managing Editor Friendly selected me to be The Post reporter to make record and relate the last days in Washington of a man who had once reigned.

From early mass at St. Mathew’s Cathedral until an afternoon departure from Andrews Air Force base, Senator McCarthy’s exit was generally uneventful. In a last stab, his adherents attempted to destroy me with completely fabricated accounts of my supposed rowdy, raucous behavior. They failed because Al Friendly and executive editor Russ Wiggins refused to play their game.

But the real credit for keeping journalism’s backbone intact during McCarthyism’s terrible reign belongs to Post publisher Philip Graham. No single figure in my long career has every presented a better model of what the person who runs a news organization should be. He had grace, guts and sharp intellectual grasp. He had a creative soul harnessed to an attorney’s machinery.

Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly staged significant battles against McCarthyism’s terrible reign, but my newspaper fought the war for human dignity and rights, day after day.

More than anything else, The Washington Post in the McCarthy era shaped and molded my life, for the rest of my life.

In other words, “Good Night, and Good Luck” is more than a movie to me, as I will attempt to explain in Sunday’s Frederick News-Post.





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