Good Night and Good Luck (It’s four stars from me)

I’ve just been to see the above film and recommend it. It seems to have a fair bit of verisimilitude. For those that don’t know, it’s about the role of CBS news and what we now call ‘current affairs’ in the downfall of Joe McCarthy. At a time when people are being deported from this country without even knowing what is being alleged against them, it’s a pretty apposite film for today.

What struck and shocked me however is the assertiveness of the CBS TV programs. I presume the representation of them is either adapted or word for word from transcripts since Joe McCarthy is played by himself from old footage. But at least as represented in the film, what CBS put to air was not so much documentary information about what a shonk McCarthy was for their viewers to decide what they thought. It was ‘crusading journalism’ (to use an expression in the film).

A good portion of the gravity of the programs came from the anchorman’s editorialising and telling the audience where he stood rather than simply giving him the facts, or perhaps listing a set of questions that should be answered, or that were not being answered.

Now I guess there’s nothing wrong with journos having views and values and defending them. But ultimately the media is on much stronger ground when it plays to its core function of choosing stories that are important to report, choosing what angles are important in the story, doing it’s best to get at the facts and reporting them .

In the case of this story it’s hard not to sympathise with the journos and they were courageous in what they did. But the form in which they chose to do it was not far from the style ultimately adopted by A Current Affair a few decades later Mike Willisee was a good man to have on ‘your side’.

Likewise, while Media Watch is a good program, the perverse pleasure it takes in subjecting the reptiles of the press to the same kind of heavy handed editorialising that they themselves dish out, the way in which Media Watch reduces everything to catchy entertainment detracts a great deal from the gravity and worth of the program.

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Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
2022 years ago

Similarly, the reviews for this have played up its contemporary resonances, making it hard to tell whether it is actually a good film, or just fits with the reviewer’s political agenda.

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
2022 years ago

Similarly, the reviews for this have played up its contemporary resonances, making it hard to tell whether it is actually a good film, or just fits with the reviewer’s political agenda.

blank
blank
2022 years ago

Apparently they use actual footage of McCarthy, since it was thought that a modern audience would have difficulty believing that the Senator from Wisconsin was as he was, if a modern actor played the part.

Rafe
2022 years ago

The two most unfortunate aspects of the McCarthyism episode were (a) the damage done to innocent people, and (b) the downgrading of the genuine problem of communist espionage and fellow-travelling. There was a major and ongoing problem which did not get the critical attention that it deserved, thanks to Joe.

Andrew Leigh
2022 years ago

Hey, congrats on getting Crikey blog of the year. Nice work there.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Yep, big congrats to Ken and all the Troppo gang from me too!

http://larvatusprodeo.net/2005/12/21/crikeys-best-blogger-of-the-year/

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Wow! That’s an unexpected piece of Christmas good news. Well done Nicholas, Rafe and assorted other occasional Tropodillian contributors. Thanks for pointing it out, Andrew and Mark. This award doesn’t seem to appear in the online version of Crikey yet. Still, it’s enough excuse for us to engage in a bit of tasteful self-congratulation!!!

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Actually I’ve just found it under Crikey’s annual media awards page at http://www.crikey.com.au/articles/2005/12/21-1447-5588.html . Now, that has to be worth a nice bottle of red or two this evening!!

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

Yes, well done Ken et al. Go Troppo!

(Momentarily back on topic – Rafe is right. Vasili Mitrokhin, the KGB defector, reckoned that McCarthy did the KGB the biggest favour ever by making it impossible for ‘respectable’ people to believe the Soviets had networks of agents in the US. Which they did, of course – vide the Venona decrypts)

Fyodor
2022 years ago

Rubbish, Rafe-Rob. US counter-intelligence didn’t collapse because McCarthy and his cronies were proven to be authoritarian and unaccountable witch-hunters. The US did not ignore the threat of Soviet espionage.

What changed was the recognition that sympathy towards socialism/communism didn’t automatically make one a dangerous traitor. It seems some people still haven’t gotten that message.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

You’re a tougher man than I, Ken, if you can drink two bottles of red in the height of summer! But when I finish work tonight, I’ll raise a glass of semillon in Troppo’s honour!

Cheers and have a happy Xmas.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Oh, and what Fyodor said. I’ve read some histories of US counter-espionage. To suggest that careful intelligence work was destroyed by the downfall of an alcoholic and unprincipled senator looking for an issue is just a standard right wing myth, which bears little examination under the cold light of historical fact.

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

Fyodor:

Mitrokhin wrote (with Christopher Andrew:

“President Truman claim in 1951 that ‘the greatest asset that the Kremlin has is Senartor McCarthy’ was, in the long run, to be proved right. McCarthy ultimately did more for the Soviet cause than any agent of influence the KGB ever had. His preposterous self-serving crusade against the ‘Red Menace’ made liberal opinion around the world sceptical of the reality of Moscow’s secret intelligence offensive against the Main Adversary…It took some years, however, for the Centre to grasp the enormous propaganda advantages of McCarthyism.”

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

Mark, I hope not to give offence by saying this is one subject where you genuinely don’t know what you’re talking about.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

I’m not claiming any particular expertise, Rob, just pointing out that what you wrote doesn’t square with what I’ve read. Perhaps you’d like to explain precisely how things panned out as you say they did?

Fyodor
2022 years ago

Did he quantify the impact in his OPINION, Rob, or is this just another one of those “vibe” things?

It’s funny, because a lot of McCarthy’s supporters had a different opinion. Ronald Reagan, the ostensible “winner” of the Cold War was a fervent supporter of McCarthy. I doubt he felt his efforts at sniffing out witches – sorry, communists – was counter-productive.

Finally, I fail to see how Mark is supposed to be out of his depth on this issue. His bona fides are AT LEAST as good as yours. Or does the Rafean Inquisition decide who testifies at this auto da fe?

Feck, this is just like old times. Look, Rob, over there! It’s Mme. Masson! Just kidding.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Fyodor – perhaps Rob is relying on the archives of the KGB for an “objective” story about the Soviet spy network? I won’t spell out the irony…

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

Having great difficulty posting this……trying again.

Fyodor: ‘just like old times’. I thought that too. Happy days, long since past.

Mark, it’s not the actual archives I’m relying on here. The archives were opened very briefly to US historians after the fall of the evil empire, and then closed again. Old Mitrokhin smuggled out preces (is that the correct plural of precis?) of the archives in his socks.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Well, Rob, would you be so kind as to explain how exactly McCarthy’s downfall led to those consequences for those of us who haven’t read what you’ve read?

The plural of precis I think is precis – it’s a French word not Latin? Not sure!

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

I think Mitrokhin’s quote puts it pretty well.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

A quote does not an argument make, Rob. And there’s also the issue of the well known self interest among defectors in telling their handlers what they want to hear, and in inflating the importance of the information they bring with them.

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

I’m happy to take the brief excerpt above as an argument.

Mitrokhin co-wrote his book with Christopher Andrew, a professor at Cambridge and one of the leading contemporary scholars on intelligence matters. It was based on thousands of scraps of paper smuggled out of the KGB archives by Mitrokhin over a period of decades.

I don’t know if that fits your defector profile or not. There’s no reason to doubt either his material or the force of the arguments derived from it – unless you live in strange parallel universe inhabited by the left. ;-<

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Well, Rob, what’s the key contribution this book makes? What does it add to existing evidence about espionage or McCarthy? How – given the reasonable warning signs about books written based on the evidence of defectors – would you characterise its accuracy? Deep digging in the archives? Compelling empirical evidence? I’d hate to be let down and find it’s just a right wing rant.

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

Mitrokhin was a KGB archivist. He had access to all the records of the KGB that only the most senior KGB officers were able to see. He spent a decade or more copying archival documents and smuggling them out to his dacha. He was lifted from Russia in 1992 by the UKSIS after the CIA decided it had no interest in a mere archivist (he approached them first). His book was based on the material he copied from the archives. Its contribution is a view of the Cold War from the perspective of the Soviet intelligence service, based on its own records. As such, it opens an indispensable window on the nature of the conflict between the Soviet Union and the west. It confirms much that was known (unmitigated horror, for those with eyes to see), and much that was not – for example, it outed the longest-serving Soviet agent in the UK – a smiling suburban granny, defiantly loyal to Stalin.

Worth a read. I recommend it.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Well, I haven’t read it – but surely it would be from his perspective not that of “the Soviet intelligence service” and dependant on what he could smuggle, and what he selected.

If it confirms that the Soviets did terrible things, that’s not news to anyone. Unless you’re running the usual “the Left should apologise for the crimes of Stalin” guff.

I’m still waiting for some explanation of how it demonstrates that McCarthy’s downfall aided and abetted Soviet spying. You’re talking around the point at issue, Rob.

Julian O'Dea
2022 years ago

A good book on this topic is “Joseph McCarthy: Reexamining the Life and Legacy of America’s Most Hated Senator” by Arthur Herman, The Free Press, 2000. Quote from the dust jacket: “McCarthy often overreached himself. But McCarthy was often right”.

Nabakov
Nabakov
2022 years ago

Frankly Rob, I’m rather baffled by your post of 2.46, 21 Decemeber.

If McCarthy was such a help to the Sovs, then surely bringing him down would caused them damage. Is this really the point you are trying to make?

Also, how many commies did Tailgunner Joe actually indict for doing harm to the Western world? Zero. Nada. Zilch. So regardless of the merits of his crusade, the guy did a lousy job anyway.

Also Rob, I know more about this subject than you do, so there.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

I’m still waiting for Rob or Julian to explain how McCarthy’s demise materially aided the Soviets. Surely it’s not too hard to summarise these books – rather than just recommend them for reading. Personally, I have other reading priorities for the Xmas period!

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

Nabakov, the point that Truman, Mirokhin/Andrew and (much more modestly) I are trying to make is that McCarthy’s fatuous grandstanding made it impossible for the public – or large swathes of it – to believe that the US was host to networks of Soviet spies made up principally though not exclusively of members of the CPUSA and its sympathisers. When McCarthy was discredited, so was the idea of systematic Soviet espionage (in the public’s mind, at least), and ‘McCarthyism’ entered folklore as the latest version of witch-hunting, synonymous with unfair and unjustified public accusation. Thus, McCarthy unwittingly did the KGB an enormous service by leading the western public to believe that Soviet cultivation of western communists for the purpose of ideologically motivated espionage was a paranoid fantasy.

That such espionage did in fact exist was publicly revealed with the declassification of the Venona archives in the mid-90’s, and the flurry of books based on them. The Australia-related messages were well analysed by Des Ball and David Horner in ‘Breaking the Codes’, and confirmed the existence – already revealed by the Petrov defection and subsequent Royal Commission, but widely disbelieved – of a significant network of spies in Australia, many of whom worked out of the (then) Department of External Affairs in Canberra..

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

I’m not being obtuse, but again I fail to see the point of these “revelations”. What does it matter what the public believed providing the US counter-intelligence people were doing their job? This adds to my suspicion that this is all just part of the Rob/Rafe – “people underestimated the evil Soviets” thing.

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

An incredulous public would be much less inclined to co-operate with the counter-intelligence agencies, thereby making their job more difficult, and that of the KGB more easy.

Besides, it’s a matter of setting the historical record straight. It’s amazing how many people in Australia still believe the Petrov defection was part of a conspiracy to get Menzies re-elected. The Venona decrypts confirm the story he told to ASIO, and back up the documents that he brought across.

And ‘people’ didn’t underestimate the Soviets. The left did.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

And ‘people’ didn’t underestimate the Soviets. The left did.

The neocons argued that Ford and Kissinger and Nixon did.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

And while I can see that the public can play a role in intelligence about terrorism (in this case it’s similar to the role they play with regard to crime), Soviet agents were not formenting terrorism, but trying to steal military and technological secrets. What role would the public play in assisting counter-intelligence to detect KGB agents in the Department of Defence?

And I’m still bemused by the apparent causal link. There was lots of anti-Soviet and anti-communist hysteria apart from McCarthy.

It’d be nice if the argument was logical. Perhaps the book has one. The summaries presented don’t seem to.

Don Wigan
Don Wigan
2022 years ago

“The Venona decrypts confirm the story…”

I’m not sure that they’re the most reliable evidence on such matters, interesting as they were. Or perhaps it was just the selective way they were released or quoted.

At one point they were celebrated as ‘proof’ that the Rosenbergs and Morton Sobels were actually spies and not victims of an outrageous frameup. This was helped by the concession of Walter and Miriam Schreirs (authors of ‘Invitation to an Inquest’ establishing the flaws in the Atom Spies Trial) that the Rosenbergs were probably spies.

However, if Venona can be relied on, at most it suggests that the Rosenbergs could have been involved in industrial espionage, which is a very long way from obtaining the ‘secrets’ of the atom bomb. And in Sobels’ case, the person claimed to be identified as him was one-legged. 50 years after the event Sobels still had his original two legs.

Evil Pundit
2022 years ago

I wonder if this mnovie is an attempt to rehabilitate CBS after the Dan Rather debacle of 2004. It all smacks a little too much of media/movie self-congratulation, and of course stars a famous left-wing actor.

The media and the film industry may not have been the enemies of the American people in the 1950s, but to a large extent they are now.

Don Wigan
Don Wigan
2022 years ago

“I wonder if this mnovie is an attempt to rehabilitate CBS after the Dan Rather debacle of 2004.”

I don’t think so, Evil. I have yet to see the movie – so must refrain from praise or criticism. However, it is important that Ed Murrow not be forgotten.

During World War II, he, along with very few others ( such as journo and later novelist Paul Gallico) publicly sided with Britain in its lonely fight against the might of Hitler. At the time, America was still strongly isolationist. Their broadcasts and reports helped eventually to turn the tide of opinion.

Ditto with McCarthyism. The aggressive and intimidatory attacks from Joe meant that it took a brave person to take a stand.

Evil Pundit
2022 years ago

Perhaps in those days some journalists really were the good guys. However, since we rely on their own accounts, we can’t be too sure of that.

These days, Ed Murrow’s successors are overwhelmingly among the bad guys. I can’t help but suspect the motives behind this movie, coming as it does in the midst of a massive loss of public confidence in the media.

I won’t be going to see it.