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Good night, Murrow

ON A WASHED-OUT, nicotine-stained kinescope, the hallowed talking head of Edward R. Murrow delivers a terse commentary that, over a half century later, still packs a wallop.

The show is CBS's ''See It Now," telecast on March 9, 1954, and the episode is ''A Report on Senator Joseph R. McCarthy," the first unflinching critique of the man and his ism on television. ''The actions of the junior senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad and considerable comfort to our enemies," Murrow intones, before turning his lens on a target closer to home. ''The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves."

After that incantation -- so goes the legend -- the demonic Joe McCarthy vanished in a puff of smoke. Indeed, the epic joust between Murrow and McCarthy has congealed into a kind of journalistic creation myth. The artist Ben Shahn printed a still life version of the legend entitled ''Edward R. Murrow slaying the dragon of Joseph McCarthy," an illustration showing the newsman, astride a horse, skewering the senator with a lance.

George Clooney's ''Good Night, and Good Luck" is the latest tribute to the white knight of broadcast journalism, an earnest docu-drama from a Hollywood liberal that predictably credits Murrow with the kill.

Yet director Clooney and his co-writer Grant Herslov defy expectations by making the true villain of the tale not the senator but a menace more lethal to the ethos Murrow embodied: commercial television. The chilly corporate malevolence of CBS President William S. Paley (played by a vampirish Frank Langella) upstages the heated bombast of McCarthy (played, in archival clips, by himself).

Clooney's film is bookended by Murrow's bitter 1958 speech before the Radio and Television News Directors Association in Chicago, a forum Murrow used to denounce a prime time line-up designed to ''distract, delude, amuse, and insulate." Without a commitment to teach and illuminate the audience, lamented Murrow, television was ''merely wires and lights in a box."

Murrow was spending capital accrued during a lifetime of eyewitness reporting. For the first generation of Americans to experience the emotional intimacy of a media bond forged by shared history, Murrow was the object of the most intense and enduring of airwave relationships.

The bond would only deepen after 1951 when the voice of ''Hear It Now" came into focus as the face of ''See It Now." He moved from the microphone to the camera without missing a beat.

Over both airwaves, Murrow was a mainstream, consensus figure, sometimes an advocate but never instinctively adversarial.

Fortified by two wars and two media, the bond between the broadcaster and his audience was sturdy enough to test in an ongoing domestic battle. In 1953, with McCarthy newly empowered by the chairmanship of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Murrow and his producer and collaborator Fred W. Friendly launched a campaign against the senator.

In rewinding the oft told tale, Clooney follows a tight time line. The morality play opens in October 1953, when Murrow (a pitch-perfect David Strathairn) and Friendly (Clooney) first struck out at McCarthyism via the airwaves, without ever using the word or mentioning the name. The arc closes in 1954, when the Senate voted to condemn McCarthy, a more devastating, if self-inflicted, death blow by video than any ''See It Now" episode.

Yet after the dragon is slain, ''Good Night, and Good Luck" refuses to partake of the self righteous triumphalism that has marked so many of Hollywood's videocentric forays into Cold War America. Murrow's subsequent defeat by television filters and tempers the defeat of McCarthy.

It seems more than happenstance that Clooney's elegiac portrait of the Murrow-McCarthy duel arrives at a humbling moment for the brand of broadcast journalism to which Murrow dedicated his life. The passing of the classical epoch of the network anchor has left broadcast news without its center of gravity. It isn't that Murrow now has no heir apparent; it's that there's no place to claim the inheritance.

No wonder Murrow now emerges less as a gold standard for the profession than as a media anachronism -- and why his signature benediction of ''Good Night, and Good Luck" echoes like a rueful curtain line.

Thomas Doherty is professor of film studies at Brandeis University and the author of ''Cold War, Cool Medium: Television, McCarthyism, and American Culture."

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