Good Night, and Good Luck on your Website

Culture | Familiarity

The current movie Good Night and Good Luck, about Edward R. Murrow and directed by George Clooney, has been co-produced by a group called Participant Productions. They got a good head start with setting up companion websites (using the Drupal software, no less) for their films (which also include Syriana, Murderball, and North Country), but these are mere baby steps. If they want to have an activist mission, they must have an educational mission first. And it would also be best of them to avoid the scattershot "blog" approach and instead adopt a constructive media approach. Here’s my review that I also posted on their site.

I finally got to seeing Good Night and Good Luck on the big screen; it’s still playing at the Landmark Theater in Waltham, Mass. I gave my father a call the next day to discuss the film. We both agreed that the film was a solid production Strathairn’s portrayal was superb.

What worried him, as a historian, and as someone who watched the Army-McCarthy hearings on television as a 9-year old, was whether the films viewers would ultimately commit the movie as history. To whit: the text introducing the film was shorter than the "crawl" which begins  "Star Wars" movie. The film made little reference to historical actors outside the immediate subjects. At the end, there was no explanation as to what happened to each person, as is common in historical docu-dramas.

So I told my Dad that one of the production companies behind the movie, Participant Productions, has set up a website to discuss the film. To which he said, "Ok, how many people are going to take the time to go this website? Or even find it?" I gave him an answer, to which he responded. "Yes, but besides you?"

As for this website, it’s a noble effort. But is unfortunately it’s too disorganized to amount for much. There’s almost eight hundred posts on this website, and perhaps a quarter of them devoted specifically to this movie. Relating to the film, there’s a hodgepodge of posts that are not categorized sufficiently: there’s PR from the production company, there’s tenuous connections drawn to today’s media, there’s agitprop about citizen’s media. Probably the most amazing thing are personal posts from some of the people depicted in the film– Shirley Wershba, Milo Radulovich. But in an ironic parting with the format, there’s been no way to set it up for Radulovich to answer questions from moviegoers (it appears like he answered some)– rather, he writes about press interviews he’s giving.

Standing out among the posts is an exemplary 973-word essay by Metta Spencer about the larger context of McCarthyism ("it was neither the beginning nor the end of anti-Communist hysteria"). She adds her personal experiences with it–  being confronted with having to sign a loyalty oath matriculating at Berkeley 56 years ago. I’d love to read more posts like that.

But aside from that, there’s little on the background. No timeline of the film’s events, or of other background events which carried the plot to the climactic Army-McCarthy hearings (I will make that my next post) The supplied reading list is that of books, but not of Internet resources which a reader might check first. And it’s not on the studio’s website for the film either. So you may end up with many viewers, not knowing much more about the history than what was in the film. That’s understandable with any historical film, but the promise of the web is that it can ultimately provide deepr information than a 93-minute film can communicate.

One can learn more about the background by watching the 50-minute video of the October 14th panel at the Columbia Journalism School, moderated by Dean Nicholas Lemann, with the filmmakers George Clooney and Grant Heslov, reporter Cynthia McFadden, and journalism professor Henry Navasky. It is instructional, no doubt (as have been the inteviews that Clooney et al have participated it on NPR and C-SPAN). But the dynamics of today’s media environment is that text-based media will always travel further than audio or video because of the inherent scannability of the written word– by search engines and human readers.

And it was only because of this Columbia panel, I heard about this website. I remember either receiving an email from, or tuning into the weblog of Robert Cox, with whom I have had constructive disagreements with at times. He wrote that he went to the panel at Columbia, and felt he had to make a stand for the blogging movement in front of the pillars of the media. But I feel he wasted his question accusing today’s media about more McCarthy than Murrow. It made for good theater, but you just can’t win if you’re going up against a man on a podium. Especially if that man is George Clooney. Maybe that was Bob’s point in a roundabout way

It comes down to what is this thing called citizen’s media. The common gripe is that the "mainstream media" doesn’t take citizen’s media seriously. But in reality, it’s the producers of citizen’s media who don’t take themselves seriously. With few exceptions like the talented reporter/editor, Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo, most bloggers are too scattershot on topic or quality to demand much regular attention from people who want to be informed.

Which leads up back to this website. To its credit, it uses the Drupal CMS software (as a developer I can recognize a Drupal site when I see it), but it doesn’t make any attempt on organizing the content into a coherent presentation, opting for the scattershot blogging approach (and for that I’ll readily blame the citizen’s media evangelists who take lofty positions, but don’t understand the mechanics of the software). And if this website fails educationally, it can’t seriously be used as an activist tool.