Thursday, November 21, 2013

Ethical Issues in ‘Good Night, and Good Luck’

Ross Dickerhoof

When examining history for the purpose of academia, particularly when history is being filtered through the lens of fiction as in the case of “Good Night, and Good Luck,” it’s important to look at things with a critical eye rather than a romantic one.

With that in mind, I ask the following question: As his story is presented in “Good Night, and Good Luck,” did Edward R. Murrow make ethical decisions in his presentation of the cases of Milo Radulovich and Annie Lee Moss in order to speak out against McCarthyism?

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What Murrow Did Right

According to the SPJ code of Journalistic ethics, it is our journalistic duty to “give voice to the voiceless,” and one could certainly say that those who were accused of being Communist sympathizers in the McCarthy era were the voiceless. Milo Radulovich was discharged from the military without trial, and it would only seem right to give them a voice against a cruel authority. Murrow knew that this would be an unpopular opinion to hold in the public eye given the paranoia of the time period (“We’re gonna go with this story, because the terror is right here in this room”), especially on such a major network that prides itself on its image, but he went ahead with the story.

In addition, the SPJ code advocates the “open exchange of views,” even if the journalist in question finds those views repugnant. And Murrow did this as well, by promising that “if [McCarthy] feels that we have done violence to his words, he will have the chance to respond.” He made good on his promise, and allowed the senator to speak freely until the following week, when he responded to McCarthy’s criticisms. This shows Murrow’s willingness to allow a dialogue between the two (which was probably revolutionary for the time), even at the risk of having McCarthy make a fool of him.

Lastly, even though Murrow was repeatedly threatened with the possibility of having sponsorships pulled, he continued with the story and did not give into pressure. Even though this may seem reckless on his part, this is covered in the RTDNA code under the call for advertising to not restrict, censor or determine content.

Where Murrow Stumbled

For the most part, Murrow’s ethics seem pretty ironclad. However, there was one major area where Murrow can be found at fault: his accountability to listen to employees with objections or ethical dilemmas regarding the subject (as covered in the RTDNA code).

When Don Hollenbeck raised the reasonable matter of fearing for his career and livelihood (since he had prominent ties to communist organizations and had been called a “pinko” by the media for quite some time), Murrow refused to listen to his objections and continued to report on McCarthy-related cases anyway. This led to the tragedy that was Hollenbeck’s suicide, which may have been avoidable if Murrow had took the time to balance his journalistic calling with the fears of his associates.

In Summation

All in all, I think it can be said that Murrow did make ethical decisions in his reporting and criticism of the McCarthy era. While he did make some judgmental errors, and those errors should not be forgotten, it is safe to say that Murrow is a journalist well-worth imitating.

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