Clooney, Small Give Real Knowledge to Reel Journalism

Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)

January 26, 2009

Guests: George Clooney and Bill Small

Clooney, Small Give Real Knowledge to Reel Journalism

By Sharon Shahid, senior Web editor

WASHINGTON — Let’s cut to the chase. George Clooney, actor, director, producer and screenwriter, charmed a sold-out audience at the Newseum Jan. 26 with his wit, grace and — thanks to his father, veteran journalist Nick Clooney — firsthand knowledge of journalism and the news profession.

Quite a few women swooned, and the Academy Award-winning actor was swarmed by autograph seekers at the end of the program. At one point in the program, Clooney jokingly asked co-panelist Bill Small to adopt him.

"I’m very wealthy. I can take care of you," Clooney said.

Clooney and Small, a former news executive at CBS News and NBC News, were guests at the second installment of "Reel Journalism," a film series hosted by Nick Clooney and sponsored by the Newseum and the American University School of Communication. The four-part series showcases classic and contemporary films depicting the integral role of journalism in American life and provides a forum to discuss the role of the press in a democratic society.

The program examined the film "Good Night, and Good Luck," written and directed by George Clooney, which tells the story of the real-life battle between legendary CBS journalist Edward R. Murrow and Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

Small, who is currently chairman of news and documentary Emmys at the National Television Academy and knew Murrow professionally, said he "loved" the movie, calling it "98 percent accurate."

"The smoking was very accurate. In the ’50s, everyone smoked, and Murrow was addicted," Small said. "The fingers that he held his cigarettes with were permanently stained yellow."

The 2 percent of the film that wasn’t accurate, according to Small, was the opening scene at a Radio-Television News Directors Association banquet in Chicago in 1958.

"The guy who introduced Murrow was me," Small said. "The average age of news directors that year was about 32. They didn’t own a tuxedo. There were only a handful of women — none of them news directors."

Small also gave insight into the giants who ran CBS during that time. William S. Paley, patriarch of CBS for nearly half a century, said "you give me a stomachache" when he was angry at someone. Fred Friendly, the producer portrayed by Clooney in the film, was "a giant of a man with a bellowing voice." When asked if Murrow changed television, Small replied "no," but he acknowledged that Murrow’s popular "See It Now" news show paved the way for the long-running CBS newsmagazine "60 Minutes."

Clooney said that his decision to use archival news footage of Sen. McCarthy was the reason he shot "Good Night, and Good Luck" in black and white.

"When you see footage of McCarthy, you can’t cast an actor to play the guy, because if you cast an actor to do it and he did it perfectly, everyone would say, ‘that guy is overacting,’" he explained. "We thought we’d use the real footage, and in order to use the real footage, you had to shoot it in black and white."

Clooney, who said he grew up "literally sleeping on the set" of his father’s live talk show in Ohio, wanted to have that experience with "Good Night, and Good Luck." Accuracy, he said, was key.

"I realized that if I was going to do a story like this, I was going to have to get everything right enough that the people who would have an ax to grind would have a very tough time," he said.

Clooney said information today is more specific and that "we’ve become more of a magazine world." He added that people should never be underestimated, explaining that network heads initially thought his long-running TV hospital drama "ER" would be a flop.

"Every time people underestimate the audience, or decide that we know best, we’re doing a disservice, and we’re also wrong," he said.

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