Sunday, June 25, 2006

Post No. 73: Afterthoughts On "Good Night, And Good Luck"

I recently watched the movie “Good Night, And Good Luck” and, though I was mildly disappointed with it not being as good a movie as I expected, it nonetheless provoked much thought in me. The afterthoughts that the movie provoked in me are, I believe, worth serious consideration and thus, I would like to use this opportunity, if you all do not mind, to share them for your consideration.

For the benefit of those who did not watch the movie, it is set in America in the 1950s and mainly focuses on the confrontation between America’s veteran broadcast journalist & current affairs show host Edward R. Murrow, whose catchphrase inspired the title of this movie, and Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose name & tactics inspired the infamous term of “McCarthyism”. During the 1950s, most of America was gripped in a state of anti-Communist paranoia and McCarthy, using his position as Chairman of an investigative committee that looked into suspected Communist infiltration in the American government, exploited & manipulated this climate of fear for his own political capital. He would falsely accuse many, including his political opponents, of being Communist sympathisers and/or being under the influence of the Communists. In fact, at one point, McCarthy even claimed that he had namelists of officials within the American State Department who were under Communist influence, namelists which he never produced. Murrow, recognising the dark insidious nature of McCarthy’s methods, together with a team of likeminded colleagues at CBS (Columbia Broadcasting System) News, courageously took on McCarthy, despite much pressure on them not to do so, and exposed his methods to the American public. In the end, political & public support for McCarthy disappeared and though he continued to serve in the Senate, his influence & reputation was greatly diminished.

Well, for those who, after watching the movie or after reading the brief synopsis above, started to have a rosy picture of American journalists, or journalists in general, being crusading & staunch defenders/seekers of truth, I’m afraid I have to burst your bubble. Yes, Murrow was highly respected & admired for his strong commitment towards journalistic integrity & standards and he was, in fact given the epithet of being the “doyen saint of journalistic integrity”. And no, I would not deny Murrow of his many achievements or the tenacity he displayed during his confrontation with McCarthy. However, we should note that the reason why Murrow was seen by many as an exemplar for all those working in the news industry to emulate is that he was an exception and the norm in the news industry. I mean, if all who worked in the news industry were like Murrow, he would not be as widely respected as he is now, would he? Indeed, as it was highlighted by Edward S. Herman & Noam Chomsky in “Manufacturing Consent” (an illuminating book which I just laboured through), those working in the news industry are subjected to various types of pressure e.g. political pressure, ownership pressure & corporate/sponsorship pressure which greatly impede their ability to report the news in the complete, impartial and objective manner that we, the public, expect of them. And, sad to say, in face of such immense pressure, it is more often than not that the news industry has no other choice but to succumb to such pressure. To use the phrase used by Herman & Chomsky, the news industry is a “subservient” one. In fact, there are those in the news industry who choose to consciously align themselves with the agenda & interests of the government and/or the corporate world (think Fox News in the U.S.).

However, it would be, in my opinion, a grave mistake if in our desire for a non-subservient news industry, we encourage it to swing to the other extreme of adopting too adversarial a stance when dealing the government. Just try to imagine what could happen if this really occurs. Urgent & critical governmental policies which are beneficial to the public interest may be disrupted by cantankerous questioning by the media. Or the legitimacy of a government may be questioned or criticised to the extent where its ability to govern properly is greatly reduced. It may even come to the point in which a government has to divert considerable resources away from other more critical areas to handle an adversarial media. Thus, in my viewpoint, a news industry which is too adversarial in nature is perhaps just as detrimental to public interest as a subservient news industry is.

Hence, to me, it would be best if the news industry, with benefiting the public interest as its main objective, is able to develop a relationship with the government which is cooperative in nature, albeit within reasonable limits. In other words, the news industry should be able to differentiate between when (and over what issues) it should be cooperative with the government and when it should be more adversarial. Of course, it would not be easy to do so. Instead, it would most likely be a most delicate and difficult balance to maintain. Yet, this should not deter the news industry in every country to strive towards such a goal. It is like climbing Mount Everest, it may be an arduous task to reach the peak and some of us may even never reach the peak but that does not stop us from trying to do so, does it? If we do not even try, how can we ever succeed?

Another theme of the movie which provoked thought in me was that of the politics of fear. As I have described earlier on, McCarthy exploited and manipulated the state of anti-Communist paranoia present in the U.S. during the 1950s and used it to his political advantage. And, though it was never explicitly expressed in the movie, it was quite obvious that the creators of the movie were implicitly suggesting that a similar situation is happening in the U.S. of today. Do not be mistaken, I am in no way trying to imply that the threat of terrorism is somewhat not real. On the contrary, I see it as a most serious threat which we should be vigilant against. However, my concern, and I suppose it is the same concern the movie’s creators have, is whether this fear of terrorism is being exploited (or maybe even exaggerated somewhat) to advance a political agenda. Also, there exists the danger that we may sacrifice too much of our freedom & civil rights in exchange for security against the threat of terrorism (“Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security, deserves neither and will lose both” – Benjamin Franklin, attributed). Hence, it is my opinion that while we remain vigilant against the serious threat of terrorism, we should also at the same time guard against the possible exploitation of this fear of terrorism for ulterior motives.

Okay now, I am going to be slightly provocative here (and perhaps some would say that I am stepping “out-of-bounds”) and suggest that this phenomenon of the politics of fear may perhaps also be present in our own country. Just think about it. How many times have we been reminded that if we do not abide by the tried-and-tested methods of the current governing party, Singapore will plunge into instability, chaos, communal conflicts, economic decline, international obscurity and retrograde back to the “bad old days”? Of course, I am not trying to say that these are not real nor am I suggesting that our political leaders have other interests besides the interests of our nation at heart. However, I cannot help but wonder, especially since some of our political leaders have recently, in their efforts to defend the upgrading policy, remarked to the effect that though the PAP is the governing party, it is nonetheless still a political party with partisan interests, whether our political leaders have perhaps unconsciously utilised these fears to validate and maintain their continued dominance in the local political arena. Also, I wonder if we are allowing these fears to hold us back from progressing even further? In other words, are we letting these fears prevent us from trying out policies which may be beneficial to our country but are different from the current tried-and-tested policies advocated by the governing party? Or perhaps we may find ourselves keeping policies that are no longer relevant due to these fears? In the end, what we must recognise is that if we do not let go of our fears, they will forever haunt us and that though these fears cannot be entirely eliminated, they can be overcome.

In addition, parts of the movie that depicted Murrow making a speech that lamented and warned about the declining standards of the news industry and the mass media in general (specifically, he referred to the medium of TV) triggered much thought in me. Murrow’s point about how the mass media was providing the public with entertainment but not enough of information & education struck me as particularly true. Yet, whose fault is it that this is happening? The media industry which being profit-driven and considering how shows which are intellectual in content would most likely not be popular with the public and thus decides to “dumb down” their shows? Or are we, the audience, at fault for preferring shows which are highly entertaining but lacking in content over shows which are less entertaining but have more content? Well, to me, this is a classic “chicken and egg” question. From my viewpoint, the cycle roughly goes like this: the media industry produces shows which are entertaining but lacking in content and slowly, we, the audience, become “conditioned” to such shows. Thus, when a show which is less entertaining but have more content is shown, we become unable to accept it and may start to complain about the show being too “high-brow” and too “profound” for our liking. Then, the media industry, recognising the unpopularity of such kind of shows, decides to “dumb down” their shows and the cycle goes on. So whose fault is it? To me, both sides are equally at fault yet also equally not at fault. In the end, only when one or both sides start to change their pattern of behaviour (i.e. we, the audience, have to be more discerning about what kind of shows we watch while the media industry needs to fin the courage to not to always bend to “populist” trends) can such a cycle be broken.

However, while I, like Murrow, may deplore the tendency of the media industry to produce shows which are high in entertainment but low in content, I do not agree with the stance that “popular” culture (which is at times derogatory termed by “cultural critics” as “low” culture) is inherently inferior to what most people would see as “high” culture. In my opinion, while “popular” culture may perhaps lack in content, in comparison with “high” culture, it nonetheless still serves the important purpose of providing entertainment to the public and allows the public to temporarily escape from the worries & stress of daily life. I mean, it is impossible to expect all of us to only consume “high” culture all the time and not go near “popular” culture at all. This is akin to how a healthy diet is one that includes food from all the main food groups and not which only includes food from a particular group. Thus, with this in mind, while I may enjoy “high” culture fare like “Julius Caesar”, “Napola” & “Documentary of The Week”, I have no qualms with consuming “popular” fare such as “The Da Vinci Code”, “Mission Impossible I” and “Lost”. As it is always said, all things in moderation.

On top of that, I am of the opinion that “popular” culture need not necessarily be low in content. In other words, popularity and content are not mutually exclusive. An example of a work which is both popular and high in content would be J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of The Rings” series of books. Furthermore, sometimes, “high” culture productions may be too highbrow and too profound for people to understand the themes they are trying to portray while “popular” culture productions can, on the other hand, portray profound themes in a more accessible manner. An example of the former would be Kelvin Tong’s recent “Love Story” (to me, anyway) while an excellent example of the latter would be Neil Gaiman’s “The Sandman” series. Anyway, what in the short-term may be perceived as “popular” culture may, in the long-run attain the status of being classics and/or recognised as “high” culture. Just look at the various plays written by William Shakespeare. Hence, it can be clearly observed that the stance that “popular” culture is inherently inferior to “high” culture is one that cannot stand.

Okay now, there’s all about the afterthoughts I have about “Good Night, And Good Luck”. And, regardless of what time of day you all are reading this, I would just like to wish all of you: “Goodnight, and good luck”.

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