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Sorry, did you say something momentous?

New film 'Good Night, and Good Luck' spotlights a great moment from TV's early days. But the anchor of 'NBC Nightly News' wonders if such a moment might be lost in today's cacophony of broadcast choices.

October 10, 2005|Brian Williams | Special to The Times

En route to Atlanta — A diminutive New England attorney, hardly a national figure, rises up against a prominent United States senator at a hearing on Capitol Hill. His outburst, born of exasperation and anger, is broadcast across the country on radio and television and is written about in daily newspapers the next day. His words are so powerful, so soaring that some wonder -- and debate years later -- whether his outburst was rehearsed. Spontaneous or not, the televised display of anger changes the course of American history.

On the afternoon of June 9, 1954, Army counsel Joseph Welch uttered the words that marked the beginning of the end of an era in American politics and public life, when he said to Sen. Joseph McCarthy, "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?"

If you were an adult in America at the time, you knew about it. You saw it, heard it, read about it, debated it -- and kept talking about it for days.

Because Welch, in all his bald, black-and-white splendor, plays a significant supporting role in George Clooney's superb new film, "Good Night, and Good Luck," and because many younger filmgoers will learn of his role in history, maybe it's an appropriate time to ask if, in our current media climate, the words of any individual could have anything approaching the impact of Welch's words on that day.

After all, Clooney's work has many of us thinking about politics, our past and the power of words.

First, a nod to the conventional wisdom of our time: We live in the Information Age. There's no disputing it. We've never had access to so much, so easily. The contents of the great libraries of the world are mere keystrokes away. The underlying democratic thesis of the Web allows for unheard-of opportunities to celebrate one's self. A college student in Iowa may now blog about the intimate details of an average day -- while at the same time reading the innermost thoughts and political leanings of a sales executive in Glendale -- it's all there on the Web for the finding.

And television? Big change there too. Name your niche, desire, whim or hobby and there's a dedicated digital cable channel standing by to serve you. Those three channels that a lot of us grew up with? Although they might have forced us into a collective national viewing experience, looking back, they were so limiting.

When Jefferson penned the words "informed electorate," he didn't anticipate the iPod. Two dainty white earphones are all it takes to filter out the worrisome world and enter one of your own. "My news" computer applications mean there's no reason to ever again read about the places, people or events we find the least bit depressing. Talk radio removes the guesswork from the listening experience. Why not listen to someone who already agrees with you?

If each generation has its own Joseph Welch moment, there's a real danger that we might miss ours, because our attention is elsewhere. While we yearn for clarity and authenticity, we are awash in choices and distractions. Never before have there been so many tempting incentives not to pay attention to what's important. We have created staggering, historic amounts of noise, all the while yearning for more substance. There's never been more to watch -- and yet the odds are slim that any two people in any given community are watching the same thing at any given time. These days our shared experience is the fact that none of us shares an experience with anyone else.

No one wants to return to just three channels. And they'll have to pry my iPod from my cold, dead hands. But if there's a Joseph Welch out there, I hope he understands that he's going to have to bring his best game to get our attention above all the noise.

*

Brian Williams is anchor and managing editor of "NBC Nightly News." This dispatch was written late last week as he was making his way from Mississippi to Atlanta, his fifth trip to the region to cover the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

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