Friday, August 04, 2006

Good night, and good luck

The camera pans in on a shovel. A pair of hands, attached to an unseen body, digs a foxhole. A familiar voice interrupts the clanging of metal on dirt.

"This is Korea."

Ed Murrow was a legend. He got his start in radio, painting word pictures of the bombing of Britain, during World War II. Murrow knew what all reporters worth their salt know -- the best news is the story of people.

He chose an average soldier, some guy from Louisville, to represent the American G.I. experience in Korea. It was brilliant. Ahead of its time, in fact.

As were most things Ed Murrow did.

PBS' "American Masters" series devoted two hours to the legendary CBS reporter this week. Filmed in 1988, the program was peppered with interviews by the principals -- Sevareid. Friendly. Hewitt. Kuralt.

I hadn't heard Charles Kuralt's wonderful voice in at least a dozen years. It brought back memories. I used to spend my Sunday mornings before church with him. His "CBS Sunday Morning" show was by far the finest mainstream TV news program ever presented on television. (And his "On the Road" segments were even better.)

But I digress.

Murrow was good because he instinctively had a feel for a good story. More often than not, these stories involved the average American. He was there when they fought flooding in the Midwest. He was there to expose the wasteful poverty of sharecropping in the South. It wasn't pandering. Murrow felt a kinship with such people. They were, in many ways, just like him.

And Murrow was there when Joe McCarthy accused half of the country of being Communists. He, wisely, let McCarthy's own words hang himself. It was enough.

George Clooney made a fine picture last year about Murrow's battles with McCarthy. "Good Night, and Good Luck" is available on DVD. If you haven't seen it, do so.

Television news isn't worth much today. In-depth programs like "See It Now" couldn't get on the air. Nope, instead they need the time slot for the latest reality show. The thought that Katie Couric will be sitting in Murrow's old spot at CBS makes one question the future of civilization as we know it.

Say what you will about Dan Rather -- at least he was a professional reporter.

The news report has been replaced by the sound bite. Murrow is gone. Huntley and Brinkley are dead. Kuralt left us almost a decade ago, appropriately enough on July 4. Cronkite is enjoying retirement.

The world seems a little darker without them.

Take this, from Murrow's "See It Now" broadcast about McCarthy:

"We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deeply in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men -- not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular."

You won't get such lofty prose from Katie. She'll be too busy checking to make sure her hair is perfect.

Part of me likes to believe that Murrow is still broadcasting out there in the ether.

If he is, let the camera pause one delicious moment on the plume of smoke from his cigarette. Let him finish his broadcast, leaving us with both points to ponder, and that signature send-off:

"Good night, and good luck."

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