cinema, Column article, Film, Film Review, Magazine article, Mr. and Ms Magazine

Good Night and Good Luck – Reminder to Defend Freedom of the Press

Here in the Philippines, we have just finished a national election. There are allegations of massive fraud and cheating. Some 130 people have been killed in election-related violence. The Mass Media, or at least some of them, are trying to inform the people of all the cheating and violence going on in an effort to have a relatively fair election. The Mass Media, especially Broadcast Journalism, is again being tested. The Commission on Elections (COMELEC), even asked the TV stations to stop doing its own counting of the votes.

One TV station protested and made a lot of noise. But it was really all sound and fury signifying nothing because that station, and its rival station, had already stopped its own Media Counts the day before the COMELEC order.

In May 2006, I wrote a review of the film Good Night, andGood Luck in Mr. & Ms. magazine. At that time, the country was reeling from a State of Emergency proclaimed by the President. The just concluded election (the counting is only partially finished) is seen as a referendum on the President, widely perceived as having authoritarian tendencies.

Murrow, McCarthy, Clooney and Freedom

“We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty.”
– Edward Roscoe Murrow

Martial Law is long gone but we must never forget it. The McCarthy witch-hunt is a thing of the past, but as the movie Good Night and Good Luck (2005) showed, the world should constantly be reminded of it to prevent the same from happening again.

The timing of the movie is near-perfect. Americans have surrendered some of their freedoms in the name of President Bush’s War on Terror through the Patriot Act. In the Philippines, the proclamation of a State of Emergency (PP 1017) has shown to all and sundry that the freedoms the Filipinos regained in EDSA 1986 could easily be lost again.

Good Night and Good Luck is a beautifully crafted film that stuck to the basics of great filmmaking – a good, tight story, great mise-en-scène, marvelous performances by the actors and coherent direction. No frills, no state of the art computer graphics, no multi-million dollar superstars. But the genius of the director – George Clooney –lies in his use of TV film footage of Senator Joseph McCarthy in lieu of a live actor. And because the film is in Black and White (it was actually shot in color but converted to grey scale), the old McCarthy footage fell right in place.

Veteran actor David Strathairn played Edward Murrow with stoic intensity reminiscent of Gary Cooper. George Clooney’s nonchalant under-acting complemented Strathairn’s stark portrayal of the man who helped rid America of the junior senator from Wisconsin, who fanned the anti-communist hysteria and led the witch-hunt that destroyed the lives of many intelligent, freedom-loving Americans.

The film is not about the life of the popular and pioneering broadcast journalist Edward Murrow but rather on broadcast journalism itself. In the speech that bookends the film, Murrow emphasized that television, used strictly for entertainment rather than education, is nothing more than wires and lights in a box. The movie showed how free and responsible journalism can fight the enemies of Freedom just as Murrow and company fought the Terror known as McCarthyism or the Red Scare that gripped America in the early 1950s.

Although the film did not mention it, Senator McCarthy did not do it all alone. The road had been paved for him by Truman, Nixon, etc. He also had help from the country’s foremost anti-Communist, J. Edgar Hoover, who was America’s lifetime FBI director. Ironically, one of McCarthy’s allies was Jack Anderson, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1972 and is now considered as one of the fathers of modern investigative journalism. McCarthy certainly was not alone. He was simply the eager spokesman / henchman.

Media’s functions

Mass media perform four functions: to entertain, to inform, to influence and to earn money. Most films nowadays limit themselves to the first and the last. But the nominees in this year’s OSCARs seem to indicate that the Hollywood artists themselves prefer films that inform and influence.

Good Night and Good Luck is almost a documentary. It is based on true events and verifiable facts. It is a great film on Journalism, especially Broadcast Journalism as well as on the Bill of Rights, its supporters and opponents.

The magic of cinema can influence more people than say, a novel. In this case, it will do the world a great service if this film can influence people, especially in places where the people need to be reminded of the precious concept called Freedom, particularly freedom from fear. Writer/Actor/Director George Clooney expressed the hope that the film might give some kids “some understanding of what and how dangerous a democracy can be if fear is used as a weapon.”

Media’s Role in Democracies

In a representative democracy, the government is supposed to be “of the people, by the people and for the people.” The leaders are elected by the people. If the leaders do their job well, they get re-elected and if not, they lose. The only way for the people to know if the leaders are doing their job well or not is through the mass media.

Mass media’s role, therefore, is very crucial in representative democracies. Thus, the US Constitution’s First Amendment prohibits any laws “abridging the freedom of the press.” The Philippine Constitution of 1986 has a similar provision. Article III of the Constitution presents the Bill of Rights, namely:

Section 1. No person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, nor shall any person be denied the equal protection of the laws.

Section 2. The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures of whatever nature and for any purpose shall be inviolable, and no search warrant or warrant of arrest shall issue except upon probable cause to be determined personally by the judge after examination under oath or affirmation of the complainant and the witnesses he may produce, and particularly describing the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized.

Section 3. (1) The privacy of communication and correspondence shall be inviolable except upon lawful order of the court, or when public safety or order requires otherwise, as prescribed by law…

Section 4. No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances.

The framers of the Constitution made sure that the English construction is very simple so there would be no mis-interpretations. Yet it seems that the country’s government and/or police force do not understand these simple words.

The freedom to peaceably assemble is practically gone now through the implementation of the “no permit no rally” rule. The right to assemble and the right to express one’s grievances are basic in any democratic society.

The government, since PP 1017, continues to warn media to follow government guidelines or else risk takeover. The office of one newspaper was raided and was about to be taken over if not for the resistance put up by its feisty publisher and the howls of protests from media people.

The acclaimed Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) was threatened with arrests because of its web log (blog). The Philippine government now wants to extend its claws even into Cyberspace.

The freedom from unlawful (warrant-less) searches and arrests is now gone. The arrests without warrant of Prof. Randy David, a respected media personality and activist Congresswoman Rissa Hontiveros-Baraquel – on nationwide TV – are unconstitutional.

Prof. David and his companions were arrested for marching in the streets on their way to a rally that would commemorate the 20th anniversary of the EDSA “revolution”. Rep. Hontiveros-Baraquel was arrested for the same offense but this time, for commemorating International Women’s Day.

Anybody can be arrested for rebellion because, as the government officials say, rebellion is a continuing crime and therefore needs no warrant. Five party-list representatives holed themselves up in the halls of Congress for fear of being arrested by the police.

Situations of Fear

In the 1950s, McCarthy instilled fear among Americans by claiming he had a list that contained the names of American communists.

In the Philippines in March 2006, presidential troubleshooter Michael Defensor announced that there is a list of all people who will be charged with rebellion or sedition or inciting to sedition. And just as it was in America of the 50s, everybody is suspect. Anybody can be “invited” by the police for investigation.

Murrow argued that the line between investigation and persecution is a fine one and McCarthy crossed that line. Murrow and his fellow journalists decided to fight, whatever the consequences, the “situations of fear” that confronted America then.

In today’s Philippines, the media has repeatedly warned about the “chilling effect” of the government’s actions. Perhaps the film Good Night and Good Luck can inform and influence the Filipinos of all persuasions so they can pause and ponder at what they
are doing to the country.

Plato envisioned the ideal Republic to be ruled by philosopher-kings. But in a political arena filled with demagogues, military and police generals, actors, basketball players and newscasters, the Philippine Republic would be hard put to find a philosopher – king/queen.

However, a Scandinavian proverb says: ”In each of us there is a king. Speak to him and he will come forth.” Murrow and his colleagues sought out the kings/queens in themselves and helped bring back the ideals of the American Republic as envisioned by Thomas Jefferson et al.

New Age writer Marilyn Ferguson in The Aquarian Conspiracy notes: “Politics of spirit, mind, body, society…The new political awareness has little to do with parties or ideologies. Its constituents don’t come in blocs. Power that is never surrendered by the individual cannot be brokered…Power to the People. One by one by one.”

EDSA 1986 taught us People Power. One plus one plus one can add up to millions.

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