George Clooney's big-screen retelling of broadcast journalism's finest moment got me thinking. Sure, things were bad back in the 1950s. Joe McCarthy's anti-communist crusade spread fear across the land. Network bigwigs fretted about antagonizing both soap-peddling advertisers and McCarthy's red-meat-eating 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? And what about other heroes of journalism days past? What if they, too, had operated under the paradigms of the modern MSM?
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.
"We know all that, Ed," one 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.' "
Hazel Brannon Smith, co-publisher and editor of the Lexington (Mississippi) Advertiser, squinted over the page proofs. At the top of one sat her latest editorial, set in type and ready to go the press. She'd written the first lines in a rapture of righteous fury: "The shocking, hate-inspired murder of Medgar Evers, Mississippi field secretary of the NAACP, is not only a reprehensible crime against the laws of God and man. It was a vicious, dastardly act endangering the personal safety and well-being of every citizen, white and Negro, in Jackson and throughout the state."
She felt a presence over her shoulder. "Uh, Hazel . . . . " It was Barry Dibble, her circulation director and co-publisher.
"Yes, Barry, what is it?"
"Now, Hazel, when you agreed to bring in Time Warner/AOL/Disney/ Miller Brewing/Knight-Ridder-Nordstroms/O Magazine/Viacom as a 50-percent stakeholder in this paper, we agreed to tread lightly on editorial matters. But this piece, well - it would be unethical for me stand silently by and let you publish it."
"What do you mean?"
"Demographics, Hazel, demographics. You've read the same survey data I have. Our readership skews segregationist. Plus we did those focus groups, where we showed readers a white doll and a black doll and asked which was 'good' and which was 'bad.' And don't forget the self-selected customer inputs - you know, the death threats, the firebombings, that sort of thing."
"I know. I know," Smith said with a tone of weariness.
"What's worse," Dibble continued, "our readership trends Jim Crow most markedly in the 21-59 white male demographic that our advertisers want to reach. Let's face it, Hazel, lunch counters and other public accommodations made up 44 percent of our display advertising in the fourth quarter of last year."
"OK," Smith said, her voice barely a whisper. "I'll kill the editorial. But how am I going to fill that the hole?"
"Funny you should ask," Dibble said. "There's a kid over at Ole Miss, fraternity president, a savvy young man who understands how to connect with our target demographic. His name's Trent Lott. He's submitted a wonderful guest editorial praising the White Citizens Council."
"Mr. McClure, I don't understand what you've done here. I turned in a 10,000-word report on the campaign to clean up New York and vanquish the profiteering and boodle-skimming of the Tammany Hall machine once and for all. Now I see you've cut my piece down to a 200-word article that purports to be a "Q&A" with Boss Tweed - the late Boss Tweed I might add -- full of imbecilic wisecracks I would never make. And why does the text change size and typeface in the middle of words and sentences? It looks more like a ransom note than a magazine article."
S.S. McClure, owner and publisher of McClure's Magazine, looked over his desk at his editor, Lincoln Steffens, and nonchalantly cleaned his spectacles.
"Lincoln, don't you think you've taken this 'Shame of the Cities' thing a bit too far? Our customers don't care about slums and street urchins and Robber Barons. Muckraking. Schmuckraking. Readers want stuff that's upbeat, funny, a bit edgy and irreverent, tidbits about Sarah Bernhardt and other celebrities. We're competing against the Nickelodeons, vaudeville, the penny press. We've got to adapt if we're going to sustain market share. It's all about attitude, quick reads and cutting-edge graphics."
"But we can't abdicate our commitment to honest reform," Steffens said.
"Our first responsibility is to our shareholders," McClure said. "That's why were redesigning and repositioning our product. We're going after the youth audience and we're changing our name, based on our consultants' recommendations for branding our properties. Here's a prototype."
"You're changing the name of the magazine to McClure's Stuff! . . . ?" Steffens sputtered. "I'm dumbfounded."
"It's the 20th Century," McClure said. "Keep up with the times. You got my memo about trying to weave the young people's newfangled lingo into our copy?"
Steffens stiffened at this. He reached up and straightened his suitcoat collar. "I can assure you, sir, I have no idea what the word 'flava' means," he sputtered. "And I've always thought calling someone 'Dawg' was a scurrilous insult."
Izzy Stone plunged his spoon into a melon half, squinting though his thick glasses at the charts and graphs on his desk while typing one-finger-style with his free hand. Here was a newspaperman's newspaperman, a true iconoclast in a world of glad handers. He took on Wall Street at a time when the stock market beat was a haven for hacks and stuffed shirts. Now, as sole proprietor of I.F. Stone's Investors Weekly, he covered every deal that moved on The Street, boldly slapping his motto - "Better Dead Than In the Red" - on the cover of his swashbuckling periodical.
Not so long ago he'd been one of those pesky muckrakers, wasting his time putting out a rag with a $5-a-year subscription rate and a penchant for railing against "lies and propaganda" in Washington and even, for a time, caterwauling about nation-building efforts in Vietnam. But he'd seen the light - the war was good for business, and one man's propaganda was another man's PR. Now the money men fell over themselves to shell out $895 a year for his weekly touts and scoops.
Mary, his secretary, buzzed in. "Mr. Hersh on Line 6, sir."
Stone took the call. "Seymour! How's my Mutual Funds Columnist? What ya got for me? An expose of the CIA?" Stone snorted at his own joke.
"CI-Who?" Hersh shot back. "I got a real story, boss, not a spy yarn. Bunch of investment bankers down in Philly, old-money, Main Line types, wouldn't know a hostile takeover if it sold their kidneys for breakup value. Well, they've been bought by Chase, shut down after 101 years in business. The Street loves it. Chase is up 2 1/3. And the headline writes itself."
"Right," Stone broke in. "--'The Main Line Massacre.' You're a genius, Seymour! You keep these scoops coming, you're gonna make us so rich it'll be a conflict of interest for us to keep covering the market."
"A conflict of what?"
"Sorry, Seymour, I forgot myself. "
"Jesus Christ, Woodstein! When is somebody gonna go on the record with some dirt in this crazy story?" Ben Bradlee was in a mood. His two young investigative reporters were wincing under his penetrating gaze.
"What about the repercussions of the Dahlberg revelations?" Woodward said. "Deep Throat says we're on the right track: Follow the Money."
"You haven't got it," Bradlee said. "Nobody gives a damn about campaign checks in a Mexican bank. Readers want real, value-added investigative reporting. They want dirt. They want sex. What else you got?"
Woodward shifted uneasily and looked over at Bernstein.
"Well," Woodward began, "A couple of sources are saying the talk around the Senate cafeteria is that John Mitchell's playing around on Martha."
"Two sources," Bradlee said. "How high up?"
"Well, one of them is a senior guy at the White House, a real pro. The other's a reliable source over at the College Republicans. We've been calling him "Scooter" as sort of a code name. It's all very third-hand, but Mitchell was supposedly out shopping for shoes with a girl who could've been his niece."
"Young enough to be his niece?" Bradlee exclaimed.
"No, I mean it could've been his niece," Bernstein broke in. "Martha's sister's kid. Looked a lot like her. I think maybe someone over at the White House is trying to send a warning shot to Mitchell - you know, to get him to sit on Martha so she'll quit blabbing to reporters about Watergate."
"Yeah, yeah," Bradlee said, dismissively. "It's not our job to worry about every leaker's motivations. Remember our motto: 'You leak. We report.' The point is there's a rumor making the rounds that the Attorney General, the highest law enforcement officer in the country, is catting around with teeny boppers. Now the fact that there's a rumor, that's a fact. Did you ask Mitchell about it when you woke him up and asked him about the campaign-finance nonsense?"
"He refused to dignify the question with a response," Bernstein said.
"Another non-denial denial."
"Right. And then he said something really strange: 'I don't know what game you boys are playing, but Katie Graham's going to her tit caught in a ringer if she doesn't watch herself.' "
Bradlee's eyes twinkled with excitement. "Mitchell really said that about Mrs. Graham? Fantastic! That makes it a front-page story. If we don't run it, the New York Post will."
"You're absolutely right, boss."
"And Bernstein - "
"The Washington Post is a publicly owned newspaper. We've got quarterly profit benchmarks to meet. Make sure you get 'her tit' in the lead."