“Network” Revisited in the Age of FOX/CNN/MSNBC and Trump
Ever since Donald Trump took the oath of office as President of the United States, placed there because of strategically created news stories broadcast by FOX News, Breitbart, and a network of shady Russian-financed organizations on Twitter and Facebook, the film “Network” has been on my mind. For those who have not watched Paddy Chayefsky’s masterpiece but are reading this column, I have to ask “what the Hell is wrong with you? You’ve never seen Network and yet you are reading columns about media criticism? Go watch the movie!”
For those who have seen the film, let us gently remind you of the story, as its brilliance has become smothered by the “blockbuster” culture of producing mindless numbing films filled with explosions, breasts, and child-like plot resolutions that satiate the general public.
Network is about the corporate takeover of the news division of a national broadcaster. The new owners of the broadcaster have believe the news division no longer has a responsibility to provide factual daily reviews of important information but rather should be a form of entertainment. This narrative is mostly acted out through the love-hate relationship between the old-hardened news editor and the young, 30-something producer who values drama and laughter over objective truth. Their battle is fought out over the control of another news anchor — Howard Beale — who is clearly losing his mind. The traditional news folks believe he should be medicated and institutionalized, taken off the air forever, but the new bosses believe that his on-air rantings and unpredictable behavior is the news’ version of watching a car crash in slow motion. It brings great ratings and makes lots of money because it allows them to charge more for commercials.
At one point, the old editors are won over by the excitement and seemingly fresh ideas of the new entertainment division, and this is acted out through an affair that is brilliantly and beautifully acted out by William Holden and Faye Dunaway (and ends in one of the greatest break-up scenes in film history where Holden narrates their break-up as if it was part of a script for a television program).
Network was released in 1976, just two years after the Pulitzer Prize-winning publication of “All the President’s Men,” but three years before David Halberstam’s Pulitzer-prize winning book “The Powers that Be” and 12 years before Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman published their groundbreaking media criticism “Manufacturing Consent.” All three works are insights into the evolution of the news-decision process. All the President’s Men focuses on the development of one of the most important stories in American history — Watergate. Halberstam’s book looks at the inner-workings of the largest news companies in the U.S. (CBS, the Washington Post, and others) and details the conflicts between the “publishers” or corporations and the dedicated news folks who constantly fight to get “real” news in front of the public. Chomsky’s and Herman’s book specifically looks at how corporations are squashing news stories or changing facts to meet the profit-driven self-interests of the media’s owners.
“Network” honestly has elements of all three books within it and, though a work of fiction, presents a very honest analysis of how “news” was changing and the impact it was (and still is) having on how Americans have “news” framed for them.
Out of full disclosure, it should be noted that Network is not the first film to broach this topic. The idea of news being molded to meet special interests is a strong subplot of the film “Citizen Kane” with its not-so-subtle references to the influence that William Randolph Hearst had on early 20th century politics (it has long been speculated that the U.S. became involved in the so-called Spanish-American War because Hearst Publications exaggerated what was happening in Cuba in the hopes that U.S. intervention in Spanish colonies would ultimately benefit other corporate holdings by the Hearts Family). Citizen Kane, though, was more interested in the motivations of Charles Foster Kane and less interested in how the fabricated news impacted society in general.
“Ace in the Hole” is another great film the explores how journalism can sensationalize and change the perceptions of real events, but that film too focuses more on the motivations of the reporter who fictionalizes many of the facts around a mining accident because he knows that it will bring him higher ratings and therefore a bigger paycheck from the wire services that he is selling his stories to.
I also highly recommend the documentary “A Decade Under the Influence” , which documents the corporate takeover of Hollywood in the ’70s and changes the industry from one that produced many great but small-budget films such as “Harold and Maude” and “The Godfather” into the behemoth it is today that is solely interested in producing action-adventure films that can bring in 100s of millions of dollars in pure profit, movies that often are filled with terrible plots, even worse acting, and ridiculous CGI-animated actions scenes.
Today, there are many examples of how the shift of news into entertainment plays out daily. The news program “Nightline” was born out of the nightly “drama” of the Iranian Hostage Crisis, with the families of the hostage being paraded on camera to share heart-breaking stories about their “captive” family members, coupled with simplistic and often over-exaggerated narratives that over-simplified the Carter administration’s behind-the-scenes attempts to resolve the situation.
This program would oversimplify the complexities of what was happening in Iran, and cause so much misinformation about what really triggered the Iranian crisis that it would give greater weight to the ultra-conservative paradigm that this was a black-and-white “us against them” scenario that required the cowboy-esque John Wayne tactics of a Hollywood actor Ronald Reagan to solve. Missing from the narrative is that the U.S. had seriously screwed the Iranian people for nearly 30 years, causing tens of thousands of deaths by torture and starvation by a dictator originally propped up by the CIA. The narrative also conveniently ignored numerous reliable stories that pointed out that the Reagan campaign illegally negotiated a deal with the Iranian hostage-takers to hold on to the hostages until after the election, thus giving him something to campaign on. The Iranians were so angry at Carter for allowing the Shah to enter the United States for “humanitarian reasons,” that they not only complied with Reagan’s request, but they did not release the hostages until an hour after Reagan was sworn into office, thus giving the further appearance that Reagan’s “machoism” was a legitimate and effective diplomatic tactic. (And as history would later reveal, in actual fact, the Reagan Administration smuggled high-tech missiles into Iran as payment for holding the hostages for far longer than originally anticipated).
Nightline was television at its finest. As Marshall McLuhan both predicted and warned “the Medium is the message.” In other words, the context of the message was set by the way the message was delivered. Television is an entertainment medium and therefore anything that appears on television will be perceived as entertainment, not truth.
Other over dramatizations of news can be seen in programs such as “60 Minutes,” “20/20,” “This Life with Lisa Ling” and news analysis shows such as the Sunday “roundtable discussions” that neatly package policy debates in 10-minute segments. Today, tune in to any of the 24-hour “news” programs and you will likely see two or more people yelling and screaming at each other for a few minutes, contradicting each other while the news anchor or “journalist” does nothing to fact check or bring in context. This all ends when the “journalist” or “anchor” abruptly says “we have to leave it there” so that they can go to a commercial break, thus revealing the true purpose of this dramatic argument — to keep viewers glued to the set so that Pepsi can get you in your most agitated state and convince you to buy them over Coca Cola.
Which leads us right back to “Network.” This is a film that appears before The Iran-Contra hostage situation, before the birth of 20/20, before Halberstam’s “The Powers that Be” and even before the birth of FOX News.
One of the most popular scenes in the film is when Howard Beale truly does lose his mind on air, appears in his pajamas and interrupts a live newscast and starts yelling about how crime is out of control, how the air is polluted, how we have too many toasters, and how we should all open our windows and cathartically scream “I’m as Mad as Hell and I’m Not Going to Take it Anymore.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZwMVMbmQBug&feature=share).
Glenn Beck, who at one time was one of the highest-rated “news commentators” on FOX, once cited Howard Beale as his hero because of that scene.
Here’s the truth of that scene: Howard Beale only yells about problems that he has no control over but offers no solutions. He raises the fear of “out of control” crime without out pointing out that crime had been falling for many years. He blames several unrelated issues to this “loss of control” with no evidence that there is any correlation at all. And his only advice to the viewers is to scream out their windows, which is not a solution at all but rather a way to get people feeling even more helpless after the adrenaline rush of screaming out a window has worn off.
Sound familiar? We see this method used every night on FOX, CNN, MSNBC and on most talk-radio stations. No logic. No facts. No solutions. Just pure, raw emotions, or “pathos” as Aristotle identified as a method that captures the public’s attention during a debate.
Everyone remembers the “I’m as Mad as Hell” line, but they forget the true scene in the film that reveals what’s going on — it’s when Beale is locked in the board room with his corporate overlord who tells Beale the truth (the only person to reveal the truth in the film) — that the world is a complicated place where investments in oil in one corner of the world will affect grain prices in another part of the world, where bank investments have more to do with who gets a raise and who lives in poverty than the “crime rate.”
After he finally hears the unvarnished truth, Beale’s nightly narratives changes as he tries to spread the truth about how the world is being run by businesses. He no longer rants or screams, and attempts to give honest lessons of how complicated and interconnected the world is. There is no “us vs. them” in his weekly speeches. No longer exciting, his ratings fall, and the network makes less money selling advertising. So, the solution is simple — he is murdered on air by the main characters from a reality show about revolutionaries who rob banks (yes Network also predicted the rise of reality-programming).
The film ends with the line “This was the story of Howard Beale: The first known instance of a man who was killed because he had lousy ratings.” In fact, he was killed for trying to tell the truth as he saw it, the primary purpose of news programming in the first place.
The context in today’s environment is stunning. I urge you all to pull up the film and watch it with your friends and then truly discuss how prescient the film truly was.
It’s one of the great movies in film history. It’s also widely misunderstood. While it seems cathartic to yell and scream, the fact is, all Howard Beale does is get people even angrier without offering facts, options or solutions. Many people, such as Donald Trump, Rush Limbaugh, and everyone at FOX have used this movie as a model without truly getting what it was saying. This movie is a criticism of this type of newscasting. At the time, it also was a forecast as to where television was going. Besides predicting “hate talk shows,” this movie also shows the model for the first “reality tv show.” The movie rightly predicts this is all very bad for us as a society, but also admits it sure feels good to yell “I’m as Mad as Hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” without the responsibility of trying to fix the problems.
Patrick Giblin is recovering journalist with nearly 20 years at a daily newspaper who now works in academia and public relations. When he isn’t watching movies, he can be found walking his dog, taking photos, playing guitar or playing role-playing games with other Gen. X-ers.