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"Good Night, And Good Luck": PE Interviews George Clooney And Grant Heslov

At a time when broadcast journalism continues to be criticized as a medium for news that is overwhelmed by the influence of entertainment, it seems ironic that the most prolific promotion of old-school journalism comes from one of the most high-profile entertainers in Hollywood – George Clooney. Clooney's new film, "Good Night, and Good Luck," examines the period in the 1950s when CBS's Edward R. Murrow took on Sen. Joseph McCarthy during a series of programs on Murrow's broadcast, "See It Now." The film takes on all kinds of themes applicable to today's media, not least of all the growing influence of entertainment news and the restrictions that the interests of business place on journalism.
Clooney, and Grant Heslov, a co-writer, producer and actor in the film, participated in a panel Friday evening with ABC's "Primetime Live" anchor Cynthia McFadden and Victor Navasky, publisher of The Nation, following a screening of the film at Columbia University School of Journalism. Brian Montopoli and I, along with CJR Daily's Bryan Keefer – who offers a full transcript of the interview -- got a chance to speak with Clooney and Heslov following the panel to find out what they intended the film to say about journalism, what Clooney thinks about his friend Les Moonves' "tough spot," and who he's currently dating. Just kidding about the dating part.
Clooney announced recently that he will be re-making 1976's "Network" for CBS -- a film that examines the worst possible consequences of the influences of entertainment and business interests on news. President and CEO of CBS, Leslie Moonves, whom Clooney counts as a good friend, is at the helm of the network at a time when these concerns appear increasingly relevant. Moonves' plans for the network have been the subject of much speculation amid the aftermath of Memogate, the impending redesign of the CBS "Evening News" and recent published reports that Moonves is considering replacing the president of the news division with an MTV executive.

"Well, today Les and I had a long talk about it. He said, 'I'm getting killed out there!' because he made some 'naked news' jokes, or something," said Clooney, referring to the stir following Moonves' comments in a recent New York Times Magazine profile, in which he described how the new broadcast might look:

" 'On the one hand, we could have a newscast like 'The Big Breakfast' in England, where women give the news in lingerie. Or there's 'Naked News,' which is on cable in England. I saw a clip of it. It's a woman giving the news as she's getting undressed. And then, on the other hand, you could have two boring people behind a desk. Our newscast has to be somewhere in between.'"

"[Moonves] has an interesting take on" the predicament, says Clooney, "which is, it will go away if I don't make it somehow more palatable. And that's a dangerous place to go. Les is a dear friend, and I hope that making it more palatable doesn't mean making it more entertaining and less informative. I don't think so. He's a smart guy, and he's a pretty honorable guy, so I don't think he will. But those are always questions, and it's good that he sort of gets his feet held to the fire."

"He's in a tough spot," said Heslov. Clooney agreed, "because the news audience is diminishing, so what are you going to do?" At the same time, Clooney indicated that networks have an obligation to the public to provide news related to public policy. "There is also the FCC idea that you also owe information to the American people if you're going to use the public airwaves," he said.

Clooney seems genuinely concerned about the abdication of that responsibility. He was shocked at how "Network," a dark satire, was received by some of the young people who screened it: "They didn't think it was a comedy," he told us. "Because all the things that Paddy Chayevsky wrote about came true. ... The idea of the anchorman being a bigger news story than the news story. The idea of a reality show following terrorist groups around is not far-fetched. Sybil the Soothsayer is not [far-fetched] -- the idea that you would dress up news to look like entertainment. Or dress up entertainment to look like news."

Clooney insists that "Good Night, and Good Luck" "isn't an indictment of how things are done" by the media today, but was instead "intended to reflect a great moment in journalism, and to remind people of how well it can be done." Heslov agreed, acknowledging that the fragmentation of the news is one of the primary differences between Murrow's time and the present. "There's actually a lot of great journalism going on. I think it's different now," he said, "Because no one has an audience like Ed Murrow had back then -- 40 million people -- nobody has it. So it's harder."

The film was not intended to change journalism, says Clooney, who suggests that too often some in today's media "take a pass" on asking tough questions. "I think we're evolving," he said. "We used to burn witches at the stake, and then we had the Senate investigating people, and now we just have pundits being sort of unkind."

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