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Thursday, May 4, 2006

Media symposium remembers the good old days

Special to The Japan Times

The silvery black-and-white images, the smooth jazz standards, the plumes of cigarette smoke, the tasteful haberdashery, the straightforward language devoid of "y'knows" and "likes." George Clooney's "Good Night, and Good Luck" is positively drunk on premium 100-proof nostalgia. Though the actor-director wasn't around during the movie's time period, he certainly heard about it from his newscaster father and presents this era and the fledgling enterprise of broadcast journalism with a palpable sense of retrospective sentimentality.

News photo
Radio scripts written by Edward R. Murrow, along with with some newspaper clippings about him, from the Edward R. Murrow Center at Tufts University, New York. Top: An undated photo of Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
News photo

A similar longing for the good old days was in the air of Tokyo's Nissho Hall on April 22 following a public screening of the movie. Four of Japan's most distinguished journalists held a symposium on what CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow's example can teach us about the responsibility of television news. The theme was addressed resolutely, even if the overriding tone was as wistful as Clooney's movie. Asahi Shimbun editor Hiroshi Hoshi admitted to feeling envious of the men depicted in the film because "they look so cool," while TBS anchorman Tetsuya Chikushi was taken by the "innocence of that time."

"Good Night, and Good Luck" isn't a journalism detective story like, say, "All the President's Men," but it reinforces the romance of reporting, even if Murrow doesn't fit the image of the hard-charging muckraker. Village Voice film critic Michael Atkinson has described Murrow as a "humorless, hangdog icon," a man whose appeal, at least in hindsight, was his refusal to be appealing.

Murrow may have helped invent TV news with his "See It Now" series of in-depth reports, but by doing so he also inadvertently demonstrated that television wasn't a place for ideas that required more than a moment of thought. When he left the business he was considered unique and irreplaceable, which is another way of saying he was an experiment that didn't work.

Moderator Takaaki Hattori tried to strike a note of objectivity at the symposium by pointing out that even though the film focuses on Murrow's pillorying of the Red-baiting junior senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, it reveals at the outset that Murrow was one of the first CBS employees to sign a loyalty oath. This bit of bubble-bursting is mild compared to charges by others who say that Murrow was an opportunist and that he was every bit as cagey with the truth as McCarthy was. Clooney drops in a few concessions to this school of thought, the main one being that Murrow personally didn't object to McCarthy's aims -- only his methods -- but he mostly lets liberal-minded hero-worship hold sway. Murrow's political views are moot anyway, since what Clooney wants to say is that we no longer have a Fourth Estate where people like Murrow can demonstrate their moral courage and cultural authority. We may get the news, but we don't get "enlightenment," which is what Murrow said TV should provide.

But as Asahi Shimbun editor Hoshi pointed out, the kind of enlightenment that Murrow advocated is impossible on television due to the nature of the medium. Chikushi seconded this opinion by stating that TV is the worst means of conveying "arguments." He cited his own nightly "Taji Soron" editorials on "News 23," which are as close to Murrow's measured analyses as Japanese TV news gets, and said that regardless of how "revolutionary" they may seem on television, their "approach" is limited. In other words, he can't say everything he could in print.

According to Hoshi, even newspapers have succumbed to the demand for concision and "labels." There's less room to cover a topic in detail, and what gets cut first is "abstractions." TBS veteran Nobuhiko Shima added that technology has brought more eye candy (effects, graphics) into TV news instead of more depth. TV news is so sophisticated now, Shima said, that a network can run a report about a story minutes after it happens. But who has time to explain what it means?

The real impact of television's dominance of the news can be seen in the rise of the Koizumi administration. According to Chikushi, when Junichiro Koizumi became prime minister, the "frontline news media," meaning the major dailies and nightly news programs, didn't take him seriously. But the morning "wide shows," which normally didn't cover politics, found his folksy style intriguing. Everyone else was thus forced to cover Koizumi on his own terms. His supposedly impromptu comments in the halls of the Diet make the news every night, even if all he does is "talk about some figure skater." As the chief editor of "News 23," Chikushi doesn't want to cover this sort of trivial stuff, "but he's the leader of the country, so we have to." For Koizumi, content is less important than impact, which goes double for network news shows.

This policy is directly associated with another aspect of Murrow's career that went unremarked in the symposium. Though many assume his downfall at CBS was political in nature, the movie implies it was fundamentally economic. "See It Now" was eventually replaced by a quiz show.

The four journalists said nothing about the influence of sponsors on their activities, though Chikushi commented wryly that it was ironic that a movie with so much cigarette smoking was being shown in a hall managed by the Tokyo fire department. And how ironic is it that a lively, "enlightening" discussion of the meaning of television news would probably never work on TV?

For related story, please click the following link:
A broadcast from the past to the present

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