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The Film “Good Night and Good Luck” and Theories of Propaganda

DISCLAIMER: The following is graduate student work. I’m uploading it after grading from the Professor but no corrections were made. I made a couple of minor formatting changes for online viewing, the printed version attempts to conform to MLA style. Comments on any of my blog posts are encouraged at any time and if you have critiques that would help me write better I especially would welcome those.


The Film “Good Night and Good Luck” and Theories of Propaganda

Propaganda is a communication strategy that aims to influence the ideas and behavior of people without the subjects being consciously aware they are being manipulated (Baran and Davis 43). 20th century theorists in the United States differentiated between different types of propaganda. White propaganda was defined as the suppression of some ideas in favor of other ideas favorable to the goals of the propagandist. Black propaganda was the deliberate spread of misinformation (Baran and Davis 43). Gray propaganda was defined as information that made no claims to being either true or false (Baran and Davis 44). White and Black in this context are old-fashioned terms that are not accepted today because they can give offense but at the time these theories were first promoted they were shortcuts for Good, Bad and ambiguous (Baran and Davis 44).

The effectiveness of propaganda had been demonstrated to the satisfaction of many elites and social theorists by the events of WWI and the rise of totalitarian governments in Europe by the 1930s. In the United States there was concern about whether democracy could survive when the world was full of enemies willing to use propaganda as a weapon (Baran and Davis 45-46).

New York Times columnist Walter Lippmann was one of those who advocated for the formation of an intelligence bureau that would disseminate information selected by scientific methods to be distributed to government decision makers and media (Baran and Davis 51). An example of opposition to Lippmann’s view was philosopher John Dewey who believed that education was the best defense against propaganda (Baran and Davis 51). The educational prophylactic approach as a guard against propaganda came to be known as media literacy (Baran and Davis 51).

World War II and the Cold War further encouraged mass society theorists who nurtured ambitions to control information for the public good, although a formal government intelligence agency for that purpose was not formed at that time (Baran and Davis 51). Limited-effects theory advocates conducted studies that gave them confidence that leaders and the public could mitigate the effects of Communist propaganda on average people. Senator Joseph McCarthy did not share that confidence. As an apparent mass society theory believer, in the 1950s he and his allies began a campaign to purge communists from the United States government and media which came to be known as the Red Scare (Baran and Davis 22).

The 2006 film “Good Night and Good Luck” is based on historic events and chronicles the public clash between journalist Edward R. Murrow and Senator McCarthy (Clooney). George Clooney is the director of the film, the co-writer of the script and also stars as Murrow’s producer Fred Friendly. As depicted in the film, Murrow is host of a television news segment on CBS. He and and his team decide to produce a story about an Air Force officer who becomes collateral damage as a result of the Senator McCarthy’s anti-Communist actions. They fear McCarthy and his power to bring ruin to people by accusing them of being a Communist or associating with Communists. Because of their concerns about civil liberties they decide airing the story is worth the risk to themselves (IMDb.com, Inc.). Murrow is depicted as someone who is conscientious about avoiding factual errors, reporting both sides of the story, preserving his reputation as a serious newsman and taking the role of the media in a democracy very seriously (Clooney). Both antagonists try to use their best weapons to take down the other after the fight gets personal toward Murrow and some of his associates (Clooney).

George Clooney stated in an interview that his father was a news anchorman who greatly admired Edward R. Murrow (George Clooney Talks…). In another interview, Clooney told of sitting in on his news director father’s meetings and learning how to do his own news reading (Lear). Clooney looked up to his father for writing his own copy and insisting on sufficient sources for stories (Lear), qualities in common with his film’s depiction of Murrow (Clooney). Clooney admits to being concerned about being labeled a traitor and suffering a career backlash for speaking out against the US invasion of Iraq and the Patriot Act. He made “Good Night and Good Luck” when he did in response to things he was observing in post 9/11 America that reminded him of the McCarthy era and the Red Scare (Lear). Later in the interview Clooney states that he thinks the American people as a whole can understand subtleties in programming and don’t have to have their content simplified as much as the establishment thinks is necessary (Lear).

What attitudes about programming and propaganda does “Good Night and Good Luck” try to promote? The film ends with an excerpt from a famous speech that Edward R. Murrow delivered on Oct. 25, 1958 at the Radio Television News Directors Association convention (On October 15…).

A comparison of the onscreen version of the speech with a transcript of Edward R. Murrow’s speech in real life shows that while the onscreen speech has been severely truncated and rearranged, the main message behind the speech is intact (On October 15…, Clooney). The onscreen Edward R. Murrow (Clooney), the real life Edward R. Murrow (On October 15…) and George Clooney (Lear) himself all appear to support the premise that democracy is best preserved if the people are given a chance to consume news and information without having it selected or filtered by decision makers that know better than they what is good for them to hear. The film becomes a powerful argument for a media theory similar to that of John Dewey who believed that media should not be used to manipulate but to facilitate the free exchange of ideas (Baran and Davis 52).

Did director and writer Clooney make his film in a way that shows that he really believes in Murrow’s preferred approach? Some critics did examine whether the film attempted to manipulate the depiction of historic events in “Good Night and Good Luck”. Phillip Lopate includes in his review some mild criticism for film-making flourishes that increase Murrow’s heroic stature (Lopate 32). Reviewer Terry Teachout criticized the film for leaving out information showing that while many accusations of Communism were in reality false, some were not (Teachout 71). Thomas Doherty points out that several historic incidents were shown out of order and attacks on McCarthy that did not originate with Murrow were omitted from the film to give Murrow more credit for his victory over McCarthy than was actually due (Doherty 55). Clooney is also credited for giving nuance to some of the characters (Doherty 55) and including amounts of information and detail in the film that elevates it in quality from many other comparable products of his industry (Doherty 55, Klawans 48).

Clooney may have intentionally blended a benignly intended message about the role of the mass media as a source of information in a free society while simultaneously attempting to protect the interests of himself and his industry associates from the ill fates suffered by some of their on-screen counterparts (Clooney). If that was his goal, “Good Night and Good Luck” is an example of a skillful use of “White” propaganda (Baran and Davis 43, 56).

Works Cited

Baran, Stanley J. and Dennis K. Davis. Mass Communication Theory: Foundations, Ferment, and Future. Seventh Edition. CENGAGE Learning, 2015.

Clooney, George, director. Good Night, and Good Luck. TVA Films, 2006.

Doherty, Thomas. “Good Night, and Good Luck.” Cineaste, vol. 31, no. 1, Winter 2005, pp. 53–56. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=fah&AN=19418527&site=ehost-live. Accessed 7 September 2019.

“George Clooney Talks About Edward R. Murrow in Good Night, and Good Luck.” Watchr Media, 2005, movieweb.com/george-clooney-talks-about-edward-r-murrow-in-good-night-and-good-luck/. Accessed 6 September 2019.

IMDb.com, Inc., 2019, www.imdb.com/title/tt0433383/plotsummary?ref_=tt_ql_stry_2. Accessed 6 September 2019.

Klawans, Stuart. “Lessons of Darkness.” Nation, vol. 281, no. 13, Oct. 2005, pp. 48–52. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=18506171&site=ehost-live. Accessed 7 September 2019.

Lear, Norman. “George Clooney.” Interview Magazine, 2012, www.interviewmagazine.com/film/george-clooney. Accessed 6 September 2019.

Lopate, Phillip. “The Medium and Its Conscience.” Film Comment, vol. 41, no. 3, Sept. 2005, pp. 30–37. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aft&AN=504082227&site=ehost-live. Accessed 7 September 2019.

“On October 15, 1958, veteran broadcaster Edward R. Murrow delivered his famous “wires and lights in a box” speech before attendees of the RTDNA (then RTNDA) convention.” Radio Television Digital News Association, 2019, www.rtdna.org/content/edward_r_murrow_s_1958_wires_lights_in_a_box_speech. Accessed 6 September 2019.

Teachout, Terry. “Journalism, Hollywood-Style.” Commentary, vol. 120, no. 5, Dec. 2005, pp. 69–72. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=afh&AN=18962558&site=ehost-live. Accessed 7 September 2019.


Unused interesting links: These are links that I found while researching the above that I did not use in my paper. They might be interesting reading for anyone who read my above paper and is interested in the topic(s).

“A Report on Senator Joseph R. McCarthy” – Transcript of the March 9, 1954 See it Now broadcast

Joseph R. McCarthy – Prosecution of E.R. Murrow on CBS’ “See It Now” – transcript and video of McCarthy’s response

Edward R. Murrow – Response to Senator Joe McCarthy on CBS’ See It Now – Transcript and video of Murrow responding to McCarthy on April 13, 1954.

Poll: 73 Percent of Republican Students Have Hidden Their Politics over Fears about Grades

Edward R. Movie. Good Night, and Good Luck and bad history.

George Clooney Biography

George Clooney (and his dad) vs. George W. Bush

George Clooney: Neocon

Hollywood and the Iraq War

“Good Night, And Good Luck”: PE Interviews George Clooney And Grant Heslov

Washington’s Hollow Men

‘Agent of influence’

Popular And Elite Culture

Elite Culture

Pity the Postmodern Cultural Elite