Good Night and Good Luck – A look at Mass Society Theory then, and now

Cover of "Good Night, and Good Luck (Wide...

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In the early 1950’s, the recent collapse of the German empire gave rise to two major ideologies. In the West, there was democratic capitalism with the USA as its ambassador, and communism in the East, promoted worldwide by the Soviet Union. This dichotomy of ideologies would eventually set the stage for the two superpowers to become arch enemies.

Taking place during that period, the movie Good Night and Good Luck, written and directed by George Clooney in 2005, tells the story of iconic journalist Edward R. Murrow’s successful attempt to discredit Joseph McCarthy, a shady Senator from Wisconsin who had the country believing in a communist invasion within the US government. His methods were seen by Murrow and his peers as deceitful and manipulative. The feature will also describe the dynamics at work within the media industry; in particular the pressures applied on journalists to filter (even shape) their content according to what was deemed acceptable by advertisers and government officials.

Senator Joseph McCarthy was the post WWII personification of the Mass Society Theory. He saw the media to be subversive and dangerous. In a climate where fear of communism and fascism was already peaking because of the events of the first half of the century, McCarthy cultivated further hatred and paranoia by claiming the widespread infiltration of the government by communists. He would hold panels that would judge the suspects with no regards to the validity of the accusations or the first amendment which provides the American people the right to free speech and association. The media which was so fiercely criticized by McCarthy and his followers was put under particular pressure to minimize the potential for public dissent. Journalists were arbitrarily black-listed and fired from their jobs and no new employer would dare to associate with these suspected communists for fear of losing audience share and advertising money. Furthermore, any voice that would speak out against the injustices of this gray propaganda would face accusations of being unpatriotic or a sympathizer of the communist cause. The oppressive forces of Mass Society Theory were fully at work.

Senator McCarthy, by his opinions and actions, perfectly expressed the different principles of Mass Society Theory. His adherence to this theory is demonstrated in Good Night and Good Luck through at least three of the four main assumptions of Mass Society Theory which state that (a) “the media are a powerful force within society that can subvert essential norms and values and thus undermine social order”, (b) “media are able to directly influence the minds of average people” and that (c) “once people’s thinking is transformed by media, all sorts of bad long-term consequences are likely to result” (Baran and Davis 55). McCarthy’s belief in the Direct Effects Assumption, which states that “the media, in and of themselves, can produce direct effects”, notably through left-wing propaganda, made it his first priority to “cleanse” America from this potentially devastating content (56).

The atmosphere was ripe for “anti-propaganda propaganda”. Modern industrialized society was uprooted from traditional, rural communities and moving towards gesellschaft, a social order in which traditional values were given the back seat to weaker, more ephemeral rules and relationships often bottom lining with the pursuit of money. The disoriented masses turned to the media to find guidance towards this new social order and McCarthy was there to make sure it went his way.

But Edward R. Murrow would have none of this. Teaming up with producer Fred Friendly, he took on the task of showing America the inconsistencies and injustices of McCarthy through footage of his own speeches. As shown in Good Night and Good Luck, CBS news executive Sig Mickelson said he “threw stones at giants”, and indeed he did. As the muckraker he was, he forced the Senator into accountability by reminding the American people of the highest and most important value their country was founded on: Freedom. In Good Night and Good Luck, Murrow rightfully reminded his listeners to distinguish between dissent and disloyalty. McCarthy would be quick to point a finger and accuse of disloyalty or lack of patriotism any who would oppose his methods. It became very difficult to publicly disagree with him without being labelled a pinko or commie. The effectiveness of this method is well depicted in Good Night and Good Luck, when top management members at CBS expressed their fears of the repercussions of airing Murrow’s first piece about McCarthy. This fear was so deeply instilled that they wouldn’t even attempt to have Alcoa pay for their advertisement during the show, as they new Alcoa would fiercely disapprove of being associated with such controversial content.

Edward R. Murrow, pioneer in broadcast journalism

Edward R. Murrow, pioneer in broadcast journalism (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Did McCarthy love America more than Murrow? Did Murrow sympathize with communist ideas? Murrow was a great patriot and viewed contemporary communism for the oppressive, destructive force it was. The dividing line between these two men was that one believed the end justified the means, and the other refused to compromise on his integrity and worked to inform, rather than manipulate. McCarthy’s fear of a mass society was so strong he was ready to disregard some of the fundamental rights his forefathers worked to establish. “One of the profound ironies of the efforts to oppose the rise of totalitarianism is that these efforts often threatened to produce the very form of government they were intended to prevent” (Baran and Davis 60)

Good Night and Good Luck also sets the stage for the interesting question of when, and if, fact-finding militant journalism becomes editorializing. Furthermore, where does the mission of the news end? Do they have a social responsibility that transcends the simple transmission of information? Can they be lead by profits and ratings, or should they be principal-driven?

Given the time at which the film was produced (2005, following the build-up to the war in Iraq), the issues it raises and the profile of the writer (George Clooney was an outspoken opposer of the war in Iraq), a clear, and quite possibly intentional, parallel can be made between Senator McCarthy and President G. W. Bush.

Both would engage in widely speculative accusations and would use the media to (a) instil fear in the population (one of the most publicly pronounced words by Bush during his mandate was terror(ism)) and (b) engage in gray propaganda. President Bush would put himself forth as the “crusader” of the free world, but was quick to blame his intelligence agencies when confronted with the contradicting realities. If he was to go to war without the consent of the UN Security Council to serve his personal agenda, he needed public support at home. To get this support, he would need to display a well orchestrated campaign of fear and fiction only the media could lay down on the public.

It is unsettling how much the words of Nazi Germany’s second in command, Hermann Goering, can be related, a decade later, to McCarthy’s fear campaign but also half a century later to that of Bush, when he said: “It is always simple to drag people along whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. This is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country” (quoted in Baran and Davis 78).

Accodring to Tammy Rosso, head of the media department at Webster University Geneva, today’s news programs, as opposed to those of Murrow’s era, are required to be profit making. This has lead to radical downsizing of news organisations. Rosso explains that in many cases, the journalist is the writer, the editor, the copy editor, and even the photographer. In earlier times, non-profit-driven journalism would require any information to be corroborated by two independent sources. Today, the speed at which information is transmitted and the sensationalism sought by multi-billion-dollar conglomerates who’s leaders are far removed from the journalistic vocation, has forced the news professionals to cut corners and to serve as the government’s (and the corporations’) bulletin board.

During the run up to the Iraq war, the challenges of journalism were bloated by the extreme patriotism that would make many lose sight of objectivity. News organisations became fearful of unnerving the masses and losing their followers. The tragedy of such a synergy is that the news becomes just another commodity meant for consumption and loses its core values which are to find, understand, prove and relay facts.

In a war where news was defined by the footage you brought in, embedding journalists in combat units was the best and safest way to cover the event. One can easily understand that in order to have access to these troops, the network had to make sure they stayed in the government’s good books. So why bother questioning President Bush’s allegations? This would only result in more political pressure, less public acceptance and ultimately less profit.

Would a Murrow have made a difference? Alas, it is doubtful a Murrow would have made it to the top today. The many ambushes of today’s concentrated media ownership may deter modern day muckrakers from following in the footsteps of a man who would not be the slave of profit.

George Clooney, with Good Night and Good Luck, brought Mr. Murrow back from the dead to warn us about the dangers of the over-corporatization of media. He warns his viewers that unless journalists can practice, free of any pressures and manipulations, the people will be lied to with no one left to verify the validity of the information provided to the public.

This movie is a resonating whistle, blown to make us realize that absolute control over the media by just a few elites engaged in elaborate courtship displays with the government will eventually take a toll on the moral values of an entire nation.


Baran, Stanley J. and Dennis K. Davis. Mass Communication Theory. 6th edition. Cengage,

2012. Print

Good Night and Good Luck, Dir. George Clooney. Perf. David Strathairn, George Clooney

and Robert Downey Jr. Warner Bros. 2005. DVD

IMDB: Internet Movie Database. n.d. Web. April 5th 2012.

Tammy Rosso, Personal Interview, April 9th 2012

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