Tag Archives: Edward R. Murrow

Are We Still Persuadable?

                            Twelve Angry Men

Nearly every kind of organization—from art museums to local school boards—must face stakeholders who are too easily baited into the rhetoric of political outrage. This rhetorical bomb-throwing has taken some of the fun out of studying these cases.

As a young scholar I wrote a book with the subtitle, Case Studies in Constructive Confrontation.  It included a series of vignettes in which a righteous advocate pitted him or herself against someone equally righteous in their enthusiasm to rebuff the attempt.  It well may be that only my mother ended up reading Persuasive Encounters (Praeger, 1990), but it was a good exercise in testing the proposition that we are—at some levels—changeable.  My cases in this 1990 study ranged from John Lennon to former New York Mayor Ed Koch, from Phil Donahue to psychiatrist Thomas Szasz. Even abolitionist Wendell Phillips shows up to take on the defenders of slavery.  In every instance I focused on an advocate in a specific moment facing a mostly “hostile” audience: perhaps the ultimate trial-by-fire for any public person. With all of these cases and more, no one can say I didn’t cast my net widely.

In every instance I was doing what trained rhetoricians are prone to do: looking for how advocates uses the resources of language to clear a pathway to  the common ground of audience beliefs, values and familiar idioms.  The payoff was to see if any could achieve the rhetorical equivalent of a bases-loaded home run.

This professional fantasy easily comes to students of persuasion: can an advocate win over a skeptical audience? It sometimes happens in the movies and our dreams; why not in real life? As a faithful adherent to the idea that we respond to reason, I felt that there are instances when a very compelling advocate could turn the room around. After all, Mary Richards sometimes succeeded in softening up Lou Grant.  And who can forget Henry Fonda silencing the suspicions of eleven other jurors in the classic Twelve Angry Men (1957)?

My book examples came with a standard set-up: describing the context of a person’s appearance to a group, including some samples of their appeals, then looking for evidence of how an audience reacted. Could we see persuasion magic in a meeting between Mayor Ed Koch and a vocal group of citizens in a public meeting of District 6, in a meeting room near the East River (1988)? Could he convince them that he was working on the prevention of crime, do better on garbage collection, and spare the neighborhood of development that would partly cut off access to the waterfront? He was fun to watch because he was the rare politician who was comfortable telling a room full of constituents that they were wrong. Once, when enemies followed him around town with bullhorns shouting their abuse, he easily rose to the challenge by shouting back with his own bullhorn—and in one case—delivering insults to the ears of protesters standing in front of Bloomingdales.  Only in New York can you move from an elegant fragrance department in a department store to rhetorical slugfests just a few steps away. “I never feared speaking to any group,” Koch once noted. “I love the combat of the street in politics.”

If I once looked forward to finding encounters that would pit an advocate against a hostile audience, the fun has faded.  It seems like too many of our leaders and their stakeholders have too often gone from being “outspoken” to blatantly toxic. Nearly every kind of organization—from world-class art museums to local school boards—must be prepared to face true believers who now routinely overuse the bloated rhetoric of outrage and vituperation. This crudeness has even crept into the pathetic public rhetoric or our former president. Before Donald Trump, presidential rhetoric used to be routinely understood as a tool of verbal unification rather than division. But if everyone is shouting insults, very few are interested in finding agreement.

We are perfectly content to be consistently wrong.

Additional encounters I looked included Phil Donahue in a Moscow studio trying to get Soviet youths to admit to the authoritarian nature of their government; Senator Ted Kennedy facing a mob of Bostonians who were furious at his support of school busing; and the legendary Edward R. Murrow (recreated below by actor David Strathairn) confronting television news directors about their “insulation from the real world.”

I have gotten a little smarter since the book. A theoretical problem with examining change as a result of public rhetoric is that rapid attitude shifts rarely happen. In The process of persuasion is better understood as incremental: usually occurring over an extended period of time and made easier if one’s initial stance has not been witnessed by many others. So, it follows that I did not find much evidence of immediate attitude shifts within the audiences to these exchanges. As current levels of contemporary political discourse remind us, we are amazingly content to be consistently wrong.

The one clear exception was the artificial one of Brian Clark’s play, Whose Life is It Anyway? (1981). On film, it’s a tour de force performance by actor Richard Dreyfuss, who plays the role of a paralyzed accident victim demanding that the plug be pulled on his life support. His doctors resist even when they are taken to court. In this case, he does eventually get his way by persuading a sympathetic judge. Theater can make clear what real life obscures. But the point stands: persuasion happens over time, and attitude shifts are not easily observed. As with Mr. Clark, perhaps only in our heads or in fictional narratives are we are allowed to imagine how dramatic confrontations might yield a stunning result.

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Films of Journalistic Discovery

Hollywood offers valuable reminders of the stake we all have in The Fourth Estate. More than ever, we need the Daily Planet’s Clark Kent more than Superman.

One of the durable genres of television is the police procedural.  From its inception, the medium has put a spotlight on dramas about crimes, and the efforts of various law enforcement figures to solve them.  This durable form is seen in feature films as well.  But I would argue that the best kinds of “procedurals” on film have focused on investigative journalists rather than cops. Within the vast library of motion pictures that are still worthy of our attention there are at least six riveting narratives about official misconduct—actual or plausible– uncovered by working journalists.  These dramas piecing together discovered evidence tell us how journalism in civil society should work.  While entertaining, they are also valuable reminders of the stake all Americans have in The Fourth Estate;  It’s good for  our national soul to have these circulating in the culture. Alarmingly, a recent example, Steven Spielberg’s The Post, is six years old.  At some point we need to refocus our interest in journalistic sleuths rather than superheroes that are not of us.  We need Clark Kent more than Superman.

All my selections here focus on national media, but there are also cases where local media outlets flexed their own investigative muscles to shine a light on a dark corner in a community. Unfortunately, with the decline of good local newspapers, local investigative reporting seems to happen less often.

Consider seven features that represent the best of this canon.

All The President’s Men

This is well-known Woodward and Bernstein print account of press exposure of Richard Nixon’s coverup of his party’s break-in at the Watergate residential complex is riveting.   Their reporting set up the resignation of the President and remains one of the best examples of official malfeasance exposed. The 1976 film adapted from the book is directed by Alan J. Pakula, and shows what can be done when an editor gives reporters time to piece together the backstory of a political crime.  It helps, too, to have Dustin Hoffman. Robert Redford and Jason Robards in the cast.  Robards plays Ben Bradlee, the kind of editor the nation and an investigative journalist needs.

The Post 

One of the most interesting press figures in the last century was surely Katherine Graham, who took over as publisher of the Washington Post after the suicide of her husband, Phil Graham.  The film 2017 film directed by Stephen Spielberg is a fascinating study of a woman finding her feet in the turbulent world of a news outlet in the nation’s capitol.  The film focuses on her decision to publish a government report the government sought to keep secret. Publishing the Pentagon Papers helped to expose the leadership nightmare that led the quagmire of the Vietnam War. Over its 116 minutes, Meryl Streep shows us the emerging courage of Kay Graham, this time, with Tom Hanks in the role of Ben Bradlee.


This is  a 2015 account of efforts at the Boston Globe to expose the abuse of children by clergy in this traditionally Catholic city.  It’s a text book procedural study: what it takes to build an ironclad story that others had not bothered to document. The reporters for an investigative unit within the paper are relentless in following up leads to coax adults still traumatized by sexual encounters to tell their stories. Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law is the untouchable leader who abetted the concealment of abuse committed by 90 priests within the Boston Archdiocese. The investigation chronicled in the film opened up national awareness about the problem. Tom McCarthy directs a perfect cast from a script by himself and Josh Singer. The actual print coverage that is the subject of the film won a Pulitzer for the paper, and the film won the Oscar for Best Picture.

Good Night and Good Luck and Broadcast News

In the past, no news network has come under more deserved scrutiny than CBS.  Both of these films owe a lot to books and accounts produced by former CBS staffers, who watched their news division whither in the 1980s.  Good Night and Good Luck is a reasonably accurate account of earlier battles between journalist Edward R. Murrow and his producer, Fred Friendly, and the nervous head and founder of the network, William Paley. In the 50s and 60s the “Tiffany network” kept a well-staffed and independent news division, with Murrow (played perfectly by David Strathairn) as its conscience. Murrow wanted the network to cover the excesses of Senator Joseph McCarthy, who was then terrorizing Americans with an extended hunt for alleged subversives in government and the arts. Friendly, Murrow and their team confronted McCarthy in a prime-time broadcast, threatening Paley’s determination to not upset his lucrative money machine of prime time. George Clooney directs this classic tale of journalistic integrity seen with a lot of cigarette smoke and extreme close ups.  It also highlights the conundrum of how to deliver the kinds of news Americans should know in the face of competition from the likes of The Beverly Hillbillies. This 2005 film is still relevant as a reminder of how media outlets must balance their coverage against the wishes of advertisers, who would generally prefer that coverage of darker American events not clutter their sponsored programs.

Broadcast News offers a semi-fictionalized account of editorial pressures within the news business, all informed by the experiences of former CBS news producer, Susan Zirinsky. Director James Brooks has always made wonderful dramadies, and Broadcast News from 1987 matches his sensibilities perfectly. Beyond its modest love story is a troubling look at how the entertainment values of mainstream television do not meld easily with the need to keep television news visual and interesting. William Hurt gets the challenging role of Tom, who looks like a news anchor but can’t think like one. Jane is Susan’s avatar here, played by Holly Hunter, and signed on to the film just before shooting began. Hunter’s Jane owns the film by becoming its Edward R. Murrow. Even while she is attracted to Tom, she’s truly appalled at what he does not know about how to do first-rate television journalism.  As with CBS, they ride out a long winnowing out of the news division in favor of profits and the prime time schedule.

The Paper 

Against a narrative of Henry and Martha negotiating their marriage together, Henry finds it hard to get away from the obligations of accurately reporting crime news for a New York tabloid. As a general assignment reporter Henry is up against the inclination of his paper to run a stories that rile up readers, even two African American teens are wrongly linked to a crime. Henry is sure of their innocence, but has less than 24 hours to prove it before the presses roll.  Michael Keaton is fully believable as a journalist with standards, but he is up against cynical editors that are ready a public appetite for easy scapegoats. Ron Howard’s 1994 melodrama plays like a great race.  Will he get enough proof in 24 hours to kill a story that will destroy the lives of the teens?  Along the way, he manages to include one of the oldest and greatest tropes in all of print journalism: reporters in the building suddenly feeling the vibrations of the floor, as the massive letterpress machinery downstairs begin to roll. Call me old fashioned, but the sounds of a city paper turning out another “one-day miracle” will always be music to a free society.  Keaton deserves at least an honorary press pass for appearing in two of these films.

She Said

Since first posting this piece I’ve screened a worthy addition to the list: She Said (2022), directed by Maria Schrader. Much like Spotlight, the film shows two New York Times Journalists working to piece together a story on the criminal abuse of women by Harvey Weinstein. Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey worked for months to get women to open up about the abuse the encountered working for the iconic Hollywood produced. Some had signed no-disclosure agreements, making their work in documenting cases all the more difficult.

It may seem “old school” to focus on narratives based mostly on print journalists.  Folks at Vice, ProPublica, and Vox are partly picking up t he slack. But Twitter and Instagram are obviously not going to cut it. There’s too much noise if everyone pretends to be a journalist. We are in trouble as a democracy if we don’t find ways to give our attention to real journalists–digital or print–who need time and support to expose institutional and governmental lapses.

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