Writer Neal Gabler discusses media and the Edward Murrow legacy.
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GUEST: Neal Gabler
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND … and last week I had the most satisfying experience of reading through transcripts of conversations I had here back in the 1990’s with today’s guest – writer, critic, public intellectual Neal Gabler – programs occasioned by his earlier books, “Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity” and “Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality”.
Well, I hadn’t discussed with my guest his quite extraordinary first book, “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood”. But he has promised to return here when his new biography of Walt Disney is published soon by Alfred A. Knopf.
Meanwhile, “Good Night and Good Luck”.
Well, that’s the way each week I end this program … simply, “As an old friend used to say, ‘Good Night and Good Luck”. And it is the title now of George Clooney’s acclaimed new film about Edward R. Murrow, the pioneering “patron saint” of all that’s good about broadcast news … whose heroic, historic 1954 television “attack upon” – or “report on” – Senator Joseph R. McCarthy is boldly told there, literally in black and white.
That’s the way Murrow ended his programs, of course. And the other week, the Sunday New York Times also titled my guest’s insightful Op Ed piece about the George Clooney movie and its hero, “Good Night and Good Luck”.
What Mr. Gabler’s piece didn’t refer to – nor does the movie – and thus far I haven’t noticed anyone else doing so – is the fact that when Ed Murrow did his own McCarthy “attack” or “report” (and you make the choice as to which it was) and then gave McCarthy a half hour of prime time to reply, noted arts critic Gilbert Seldes, Ed’s friend and admirer, wrote in the Saturday Review that he thought he saw “the ghost of Hitler”. And to set the famous broadcast in better perspective, I want to ask my guest what he thinks Seldes might have meant … “I thought I saw the ghost of Hitler” watching the reply …
HEFFNER: … and the original program.
GABLER: Yeah, I think Seldes was a little over-heated and in fact, the Saturday Review used the same word in describing that … in an editorial comment on that piece.
But what he was saying, I think, is that when an instrument, as powerful as television is used to attack an individual who, Seldes points out at some length, doesn’t have necessarily … oh, you know, even if he has the same time to respond, doesn’t have the same equipment, the same gifts in terms of using television as Murrow had in this case. It’s a one-sided battle.
And the television can be mis-used. Television can be abused. Even though we all think of Murrow, in this case, as being on the side of the angels, … that at least many people do … of course there are still defenders of McCarthy to this day …
GABLER: But, even though we like to think, most of us today, I think, like to think that Murrow was on the side of the angels and that he was leveling an appropriate attack against McCarthy … Seldes said, “Look at it, this isn’t a matter of, you know, whether you’re on the side of the angels or not, it’s how you use the instrument of television.”
And it was stacked heavily in Murrow’s favor, because Murrow was telegenic, Murrow had experience in how to use the medium of television; Murrow knew how to edit footage; Murrow had a crew of reporters and producers who were shaping the material.
Now McCarthy comes on in his rebuttal to Murrow, some, I think, two or three weeks later. McCarthy has none of those instruments; McCarthy has none of those talents. It’s just McCarthy and the television camera; and he’s sitting there trying to rebut or more appropriately attack, you know, Edward R. Murrow. And again, Seldes says it’s not an equal battle. The, the chits are all on the side of Edward R. Murrow because he knew how to use television.
HEFFNER: Now today I kind of gather many of our friends would say, “That’s great”. And I’m impressed with the fact that you picked up, in your piece “Good Night and Good Luck” in the Times recently … you picked up that theme and whether you or the Times wrote the subhead: “Edward R. Murrow put advocacy into the news. Are we the worse for it?”
HEFFNER: I’ll put it to you directly … are we the worse for it?
GABLER: Yes. I’ll put it bluntly … yes, I think we are. Again, we think of, of this battle between Murrow and McCarthy and that was not the only battle that Murrow fought. You know, as one that needed to be fought, and to George Clooney’s credit, in his film he discusses the ambivalence of Murrow; the ambivalence of Fred Friendly (Murrow’s producer); the ambivalence of the entire, you know, CBS staff about whether they … this was an appropriate thing to do.
Murrow himself, in real life, you know, had ambivalence about it. There a quote, I believe, in, in my piece of where he say, you know, “Is it appropriate to use this medium to attack one man?”
I’m not so sure. But, but the point I try to make in the piece is this, that though today Murrow is lionized and we like to think of his, his legacy as being a kind of truth telling, which is honored much more in the breach than it is in the actual practice because there’s not an awful lot of truth-telling on television.
In point of fact, by crossing that line, from reporting into advocacy, even though he seemed to be on the right side in this case, he opened the door, for anyone to advocate.
And today we’ve got an awful lot of advocacy in, in cable and even to a certain extent, a lesser extent, in, in mainstream television broadcast news … they’re not always on the side of Murrow. They’re not always ones who, to use a line that was used at the New York Film Festival promoting the film, “They don’t speak truth to power necessarily, they’re in the pocket of power.”
So, in opening that door, in saying “This is all right, this is a perfectly appropriate thing to do to advocate, to editorialize” Murrow is not only the, the progenitor of people like Tom Brokaw and Walter Cronkite and Peter Jennings, who generally did not editorialize, but he is also the progenitor of Bill O’Reilly and Shawn Hannity and Rush Limbaugh and one can go down the list.
HEFFNER: The trouble is one does go down the list.
GABLER: Well …
HEFFNER: And, you know, I’m interested that you say that … you make the point and I think it’s true, that the film … meaning Clooney …
HEFFNER: … understood that there was ambivalence …
HEFFNER: … at the time. But I’ve gone to two screenings now and I would say from the cheers and from the laughter and from the applause at the end, that there were very few people in the audience who came away with a sense of ambivalence …
HEFFNER: … or with the ambiguity related to the whole question of “Do you use this power (I thought I saw the ghost of Hitler) …
HEFFNER: … in this way.
GABLER: Well, you know, Richard, we’ve been conditioned by a whole host of things in our culture from literature to movies to television itself to think of things in black and white terms. We’ve been conditioned to think about heroes and villains, protagonists and antagonists, and Murrow, I think, exploited that when he was attacking McCarthy. He knew that he was going to be … or he had a pretty good sense … that he was going to be in the hero’s chair and that McCarthy, for a host of reasons was going to be the villain.
Ah, you know, unfortunately that’s how things generally get framed in this culture. But it’s not how life, you know, operates. And it’s one of the falsifications that I think news and media and impose on life. Now, in some ways, you know, one might say that Clooney was much more sophisticated than his audience, because having operated within this environment, Clooney has a pretty good sense of, of how it works and we’re, we’re … don’t have that sense, I think.
I mean we, we love to see things resolved in this fashion and framed in this fashion. And it’s very seldom that somebody blows the whistle and says, “You know, life is a lot more complicated that that.” It’s much more entertaining, and it’s much more satisfying to see things in, in black and white terms … even though, again, as you point out … and as I’ve pointed out … Clooney really doesn’t do that in the movie.
HEFFNER: You know, you made the point … and you talk about black and white … but in this article that you wrote for The Los Angeles Times, 2002, it’s a beautiful, beautiful piece …
GABLER: Thank you very much.
HEFFNER: It says what needed to be said. You do contrast the media today …
HEFFNER: … the real media war today with what it was, competitively …
HEFFNER: … before. You say, “The real media war today isn’t between Liberals and Conservatives, but between two entirely different journalistic mindsets; those who believe in advocacy and those who believe in objectivity, are at the very least in the appearance of objectivity.”
HEFFNER: Where do we place Neal Gabler?
GABLER: I like to think I’m objective, I really do. I mean this is very self-serving for me to say that … but I’ll tell you …
GABLER: … here, here is …
HEFFNER: Why? Is that the “good” word? Murrow presumably was the good guy, but there he was the attacker.
GABLER: Yes. But here’s the distinction one has to draw. And I think Murrow tried to draw it, and I think Murrow was, as I said earlier, distressed in that he sometimes felt he crossed the line.
The distinction is between truth-telling, which clearly is a form of objectivity and advocacy. Now there are some people who would say that you can be a truth teller and an advocate at the same time. But advocacy almost always posits that you hold a side, obviously. You’re advocating for a position.
I think one … if, if I might be a little convoluted here … I’d like to think of myself as an advocate for truth. And truth is, you know, and they say in a libel case truth is a defense.
But when it comes to journalism, truth is a cleansing agent. And it’s very, very difficult, it’s almost religious, spiritual in the way I’m, I’m discussing it now … the, the obligation of a journalist and very few people … I believe, very few people in journalism fulfill this obligation or even sense it.
But the obligation is to tell the truth. To tell the truth. Not a Liberal truth or a Conservative truth. Not a truth that supports Democrats or Republicans, but to bring that cleansing agent of truth to your reporting.
Now, we get very, very little of that. Very little. Even the objective model, that I discuss in, in that piece … and, and I should just back up a little bit and just give a little bit of background … because you know, the idea of objectivity in journalism is a relatively recent phenomenon …
GABLER: You know, for the longer period of journalistic history, journalism was not a matter of objectivity, it was a matter of partisanship. Most newspapers, in the 19th century, took a very strong partisan stand, in some cases, they were, even the, the house organ of a party.
So, we didn’t have a whole lot of objectivity in journalism in the 19th century. It came with the progressive era, when people said, “You know, journalism ought to be professionalized.” Do-gooders came into this business of journalism. We had journalism schools beginning in that period because the idea was that a journalist was a practitioner. He wasn’t an advocate, he was an objective practitioner.
And it was only really in the, in the teens, into twenties that you had this kind of sea change, among some newspapers, of course, in the whole notion of what a reporter ought to be and how a reporter ought to practice his craft, which was the sense of objectivity.
It’s interesting now, over the last ten to 15 years, that we’re reverting to an older tradition in journalism which is this partisan tradition. No one would call Fox News, for example, you know, objective. It calls itself “fair and balanced”, but it’s clearly … it’s a partisan organ for the Republican Party and more specifically for the Bush Administration.
And one can go down the line … I mean whether it’s O’Reilly on radio, or Rush Limbaugh on radio … and O’Reilly on television for that matter … I mean all of these, these people … all of these different agencies are advocates reverting back to this 19th century partisan model.
You know, objectivity, as I say is a relatively, you know, recently thing. But, but objectivity and truth telling are not synonymous. And this is one of the problems, it seems to me with, with modern journalists who purport to be objective. That is, they will balance one side with the other because they do not want to take a stand.
There was a very interesting and somewhat infamous note that was written by John Carroll who was then the Editor of the Los Angeles Times, he’s since resigned. And about a year and a half ago, maybe longer than that, he wrote a little note to one of his reporters, who had written a piece about an abortion law that we being proposed in the Texas legislature.
And the idea was … and I don’t recall the exact details, but it was something along the lines of that “Abortion causes cancer”. And that the Texas legislature wanted abortion counselors to be compelled to notify people who were seeking abortions that there was a cause and effect relationship between abortion and cancer.
Now the writer in writing this story gave relatively short shrift to the science behind this causal relationship because, in fact, there is no science behind this causal relationship. And she did so, wrote the piece … you know talked about the law, talked about the, the science there … gave it short shrift, and John Carroll wrote her a note saying, “You know this reflects the kind of cosmopolitan, elitist attitude that people accuse our newspaper of having. Because you haven’t given both sides.”
Now, what Carroll had was objectivity. But objectivity, in this case, was false. Because both sides were not equal in terms of the weight of their argument. So, if she were telling the truth, which in point of fact, she did … this reporter who got reprimanded for the article she wrote. Truth telling would have said, “There is no credible scientific evidence that links abortion to cancer. None.” And that would have been truth-telling. Would it have been objective?
Well, I leave that to you. John Carroll who’s a very high regarded … was a very highly regarded journalist said, “No, it’s not objective.” So this gets us into some, you know, convoluted areas.
What I like to hold a brief for is truth-telling. To tell the truth against anyone. I don’t care if it’s a Democrat or Republican, a Liberal or Conservative … whatever institution it is, and I think if we trained reporters, with this kind of religious mission … “My job is to tell the truth. To find the truth and to tell the truth.”
Will they be infallible? Absolutely not. There is no such thing as infallibility. But we have a vigorous and exciting, a robust American journalism if we had truth tellers rather than advocates, or so-called, you know, objective …
GABLER: … reporters.
HEFFNER: And you mean, I’m sure by that, Neal, the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
GABLER: Absolutely. Look, it’s difficult to do this. It’s difficult not only psychologically, which I’ve already discussed. I mean psychologically to go to something and say, “Look I’m not bringing any bias to this”. I’m going to, you know, I’m just looking at this with absolute, you know, what is the truth of the situation?
I hesitate to say with absolute objectivity, but you know, if you’re looking at it truthfully, it’s difficult psychologically, it’s also difficult, and this one of the reasons it’s not done, among many reasons, it’s also difficult, just practically to gather material, to, to, hit the pavement and to find out, you know, what the real facts are … is a very difficult and strenuous thing.
And American journalism and I’ve said this on my … on the program I do, of all places, on Fox News, you know, one of my mantras is, you know … lazy and stupid. Because American journalists, and they will, you know, hate me for saying this, but many of them are lazy and many of them are stupid. And if we had a more invigorated, more intelligent, more hard working press core, we might actually get closer to this ideal … at least my own ideal of truth-telling.
HEFFNER: Neal, what size ego is required for someone to claim to tell the truth? Quite seriously.
GABLER: A fairly big ego, but you want to know something, that’s not unhealthy. You know, it seems to me you need a pretty big ego to do an awful lot of things in life. And that’s not necessarily an unhealthy thing.
I mean the truth is its own form of modesty, frankly. So you go out and you say, “I’m going to tell the truth”. And in the process of investigating, if you do it well and if you do it correctly, you’ll find that truth has a way of, of bringing humility to you because it challenges your own hypothesis … you know, it brings you down, it shows you that you don’t know everything that you thought you knew. And anyone who engages in this kind of project and, and I think many of us have … realize that, you know, we’re always humbled when we seek the truth.
HEFFNER: Well, I always talk, in talking about the title of this program, The Open Mind, about Dean Gildersleeve at Barnard, who used to tell the girls there, “Young women … always keep an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out.”
HEFFNER: But what concerns me … I remember when my grandson, Alexander began a radio program last year up at Andover … and he asked me whether he could use the title, The Open Mind, and I said, “Sure …and I’ll sue you”. Jokingly.
HEFFNER: Because I wanted him to have his own. But he picked The Progressive Mind …
HEFFNER: … and someday he and I are going to have to talk about the difference between the progressive mind and the open mind, as we need to talk about the difference between truth … telling the truth …and an open mind.
I fear, from what I hear in what you’re saying the truth tellers …
HEFFNER: … will be so wrapped up in believing that they have finally seen the truth, that I relate them to your colleagues on Fox.
GABLER: And they’re not …
HEFFNER: They have …
GABLER: Then they’re not good truth-tellers. Because, you know …
HEFFNER: You believe their not good truth-tellers because you have another truth.
GABLER: Well, no, no, not necessarily. You see I think this is a way of … you know, this is an argument that avoids having reporters challenge the, the facts that they’re given, the situations that they’re given. The, the events on which they report. And I think, you know, one of the, the … the way to short-circuit that is for people to say, as you’ve just said, “Well, but everybody has their own truth.”
No. In point of fact, maybe in the Republican Administration we have … everybody has their own truth. But, in point of fact, no not everyone has their own truth. There are certain things that are verifiable. There are certain fact situations that are there for all to see.
Now, one of things we do … in science you do this … I mean you experiment. You say, “Look at, this is what I’ve got. This is, this is the material I have, this I what I’ve seen … you know, if someone wants to challenge it, fine.
But it’s not as if there are 10,000 different truths. I mean maybe there are 10,000 different psychological truths. I mean we do live in a Rashamon world.
But I think that’s a kind of an excuse. And I don’t think it’s a fair excuse. I think good reporters can honestly, if they’re honest, go out and fine facts, talk to people, you know, discern who’s telling the truth and who isn’t.
Because there is … certain things happened and certain things don’t happen.
HEFFNER: Well, I’m certainly not talking about faith-based as opposed to reason, or factual based.
GABLER: (Laughter) We live in a … you know, to, to play off of Ron Suskin’s piece … famous piece that he wrote for The New York Times … when, when the Bush Administration says, “You live in a …” one of the officials of the Bush Administration said to Suskin … “you live in a reality based community, you know, and we don’t.”
Well, you know, he was saying something interesting there. I mean he was saying many things that were interesting, some things that were frightening. But he was also acknowledging that there is a reality based community. People for whom there is a sense of fact, cause and effect. People who believe that you can discern “a truth”.
I’m not saying that there is the ultimate truth that we can ever find. There is an ultimate truth, I’m not saying we can ever find it. But you can approximate it. And to say that because you can’t find it, therefore you shouldn’t seek it. Again seems to me an excuse for not doing the kind of hard, tough minded journalism that we almost never get in this country anymore, ever.
HEFFNER: Neal, what would you do with the Gilbert Seldes argument about … what was really pushing the notion of fairness.
HEFFNER: And balance. Those …
GABLER: Those are not equivalent things, though, Richard. Fairness and balance …
HEFFNER: Absolutely, you’re right.
GABLER: … are absolutely … you know, they’re used because of Fox’s slogan and because of the way it all comes tripping off the tongue.
HEFFNER: No, no, no. They used because the FCC used …
HEFFNER: … require that we be fair and balanced.
GABLER: Fair and balanced. And balance is not necessarily fairness. Balance posits that we have a scale. The John Carroll argument. If you’re going to talk about the ways in which, you know, abortion is not related to cancer, then you’ve got to balance it by talking about the ways in which it is related to cancer.
That’s balance. However, in this argument … the John Carroll argument, balance is not fair because balance is not … balance is false.
And, and, and, you know, I’m all for fairness. Balance I’m not for because balance is mis-leading. Arguments do not all have the same weight. They do not all have the same credibility. So … and to pretend that they do, it …to me is just foolishness.
HEFFNER: Would you, would you advocate that we have a fairness Doctrine again for broadcasters?
GABLER: Yes, I do. I think that … losing that was a, was a great loss and one of the reasons why is, is simply because, as Clooney’s picture points out, the power, the people who own the networks … and I don’t want to sound like, you know, some socialist here, but let’s face it … the people who own the networks, whether it’s Sumner Redstone now at CBS; or Rupert Murdoch at Fox News or GE or NBC are generally … you know tilt to the conservative side. And they are, they are much more likely not to speak truth to power because its in their own interests, number one; and because they don’t want to offend audience members, number two. Which is one of the main reasons that broadcast networks do this. I think there are different mindsets for cable, which is looking for a niche market and broadcast networks which is looking for a larger market and looking not to offend anyone.
But because there is such enormous power in these hands and because that power can be abused, as Gilbert Seldes said, you know, I think losing the Fairness Doctrine was a loss and I think it ought to be re-instituted.
HEFFNER: You think there’s some chance that it might be?
GABLER: No. I think there’s no chance that it might be for the reasons that I just laid out. Because there are too many people who are advantaged by the lack of a Fairness Doctrine.
We’ve just gone though a period … how I will, you know, sound like an advocate, at least … but we are, we are in the process of going through a period in American journalism where, journalists, by their own admission … by their own admission … I mean when have you ever seen this? When has the New York Times ever taken out a, a, an apology saying, “We caved in to power.”
This is not Neal Gabler saying this. This is not critics of the New York Times saying this. This is the New York Times making an admission, “We did not scrutinize the facts of the weapons of mass destruction carefully enough. We failed our readership. They didn’t say it in those terms, but that is exactly what they did.
Now, when you go through a period where journalists are not speaking truth to power. And again I don’t care whether the power’s Republican or Democratic, Liberal or Conservative. I don’t care … I an equal opportunity … unless it’s antagonist. (Laughter) Because I believe that journalists ought to be antagonistic to power. That’s one of their jobs … to any power to whoever’s in power. That’s one of their jobs, because power is so powerful that it needs an antagonist and the politician system, frankly, doesn’t work well enough now …
HEFFNER: Neal you are a showman …
HEFFNER: Because you knew you would be able to hit the nail right on the head at the very end of our program.
HEFFNER: And thank you, Neal Gabler for joining me here on The Open Mind.
GABLER: Thank you so much, Richard.
HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.
Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”
N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.