Thanks to George Clooney’s docudrama Good Night, and Good Luck, future generations will believe that CBS Inc. Chairman William Paley yanked Edward R. Murrow’s program See It Now from its weekly slot in prime time because the company wouldn’t take the political heat that followed Murrow’s video fanny-whacking Sen. Joseph McCarthy in March 1954.
In my two-parter about Good Night, and Good Luck (one, two), I conceded that a movie based on historical events must compress action in order to tell a story. Many of the shortcuts taken by Clooney and his co-writer, Grant Heslov, are defensible on dramatic grounds, although I questioned their treatment of See It Now’stransfer out of weekly prime time. In fact, the program remained in prime time for another year after the McCarthy coverage.
But a biography cannot avail itself of shortcut excuses, even if it’s only 174 pages, such as former NPR broadcaster Bob Edwards’ worshipful 2004 biography, Edward R. Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism. The book’s ninth chapter, “See It Not,” presents a See It Now timeline identical to the one found in Good Night, and Good Luck. Edwards writes that See It Now sponsor Alcoa dumped the show and CBS removed it from its weekly slot in 1954, promptly after the McCarthy broadcasts. He writes:
The thanks See It Now received for doing the most significant program in broadcast journalism was to lose both its sponsor and its slot in prime time. …ALCOA announced the dropping of its sponsorship less than two months after the McCarthy broadcast and just days after a program about a small newspaper’s story of a land scandal in Texas where ALCOA was expanding operations. Coincidence?
Every Murrow biography and every broadcast history I’ve consulted agree that the show survived in weekly prime time until 1955 with Alcoa as the sponsor. A.M. Sperber’s biography Murrow: His Life and Times (1986) reports that “ALCOA, despite McCarthy rumblings about IRS audits and spending tax dollars to finance the reds, wasn’t canceling, keeping up an impassive public stance in the face of a campaign geared to embarrass.”
See It Now didn’t avoid controversial material in the season after its McCarthy broadcasts, either. In January 1955, Murrow interviewed J. Robert Oppenheimer, “the father of the atomic bomb,” about government secrecy. Oppenheimer had recently lost his federal security clearance because of his Communist associations. Sally Bedell Smith succinctly describes Paley’s continued support of Murrow in her 1990 biography of the CBS founder, In All His Glory:
Sensing another possible confrontation, Murrow asked Paley to screen the [Oppenheimer] interview. Paley, who normally avoided involvement in news programs before the fact, took a look and agreed to let the program appear intact. Afterwards, right-wing critics once again attacked the network for being too liberal.
Sperber writes that the Alcoa-See It Now “breakup” began in the spring of 1955, when See It Now aired programs about book-banning and a Texas land scandal (May 3, 1955).
There was just too much money to be made with an entertainment program in Murrow’s weekly, prime-time slot for Paley to resist moving it, Sperber writes. The number of homes with a TV set had tripled since See It Now first went on the air and the number of affiliates more than doubled. The CEO detailed his plans for See It Now to Murrow in a July 1955 meeting. Sperber writes:
Paley offered instead an all-film series—specials, essentially—one hour apiece or even longer, bigger budgets, more time for preparation, full-length documentaries. CBS would schedule eight or ten a season, in prime time. Murrow asked about the weekly time slot, said [Murrow producer Fred] Friendly, but it was evidently no longer a topic for discussion.
I discovered Edwards’ error while researching my Good Night, and Good Luck pieces and brought it to the attention of his publisher, John Wiley & Sons. They’ve conceded the error and have promised to correct the next edition. Edwards’ editor e-mailed to say that Edwards was “not available for interview,” but that she’d be happy to forward to him any questions I had. Compare this moat-drawing with the enthusiastic Wiley press release that accompanies review copies of Edward R. Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism: “For additional information, or to schedule an interview with Bob Edwards, please contact. …”
I browbeat, hector, and bully about the Edwards goof for several reasons: 1) it’s a monumental error, indicating that he is less familiar with the Murrow story than he pretends to be; 2) it’s reflective of what Murrow hagiographers and Hollywood liberals want to believe happened in the McCarthy era, i.e., that broadcasting’s Gary Cooper shot the villain dead in High Noon fashion all by himself and then had to leave town; 3) it illustrates the lax standards of modern book publishing.
Edward R. Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism is one of those undersized, brief biographies you find displayed at the front of book stores these days. My Slate colleague Blake Wilson calls this genre of midget-bios written by famous authors “half-lives.” Nearly every publisher competes in this niche. Henry Holt & Co. has its “American Presidents Series,” edited by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and its author list includes James MacGregor Burns, Garry Wills, Kevin Phillips, and Gary Hart. Other half-lives publishers include HarperCollins, with its “Eminent Lives” series (Michael Korda, Robert Gottlieb, Paul Johnson), Oxford University Press’ “Lives and Legacies” (Paul Addison), Penguin’s “Penguin Lives” (Peter Gay, Tom Wicker), and the Modern Library “Chronicles” (Frank Kermode).
In theory, Edmund White on Marcel Proust, Larry McMurtry on Crazy Horse, Jane Smiley on Charles Dickens, or even Bob Edwards on Edward R. Murrow should produce authoritative copy. Again, in theory, shorter biographies could be a worthy countertrend to the obese, 900-page biography. But as the Edwards book indicates, shorter isn’t always better.
When the Washington Post’s Philip L. Grahamdescribed newspapers as a “first rough draft of history,” the implication was that the last draft would be found in books, and that version would be more accurate because it would be completed on a longer deadline. Anybody can make a mistake. I’ve made at least a couple hundred in print (that I know of) in the course of my career, and by writing in such a snotty fashion about somebody else’s error I’m asking fate to strike me dead-wrong somewhere on this page. The scale of Edwards’ blunder demands that his publishers give the book’s next edition a brisk fact-checking before publication.
Another reason to browbeat and hector is that Good Night, and Good Luck received good reviews and six Academy Award nominations, which means audiences will be viewing it for decades to come. The unsuspecting among them will accept its account as fact, and one major distortion will be confirmed as fact in a major publisher’s hardcover. A dust-jacket sticker on my copy of Edward R. Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism encourages viewers of the Clooney movie to read it for the “real-life story behind Good Night, and Good Luck.”
I’m really asking for it. E-mail my errors to firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)