For better or worse, we now live in a 24/7 news cycle. More importantly, the information you consume says everything about your moral fiber according to the woke intelligentsia. When the news that long awaited Mueller report was finally complete and submitted to the DOJ, you could predict how the findings would be received simply based on which side of the Trump ideological border wall you’ve located yourself. Even if you’re not full on MAGA, there is a significant contingent of independents, libertarians, classical liberals, dissident rightists, and even a couple of lone progressives who hold a skeptical view of the news media. Like clockwork, William Barr’s release of Mueller’s statement was perceived through completely different lenses by these two factions. For anyone in the media skeptic contingent, there was vindication. Of course Russiagate was a hoax. Of course it was initiated by the Obama administration and carried out by a cabal of deep state partisans intent on undermining Trump’s presidency. Of course the media were packed with neocons, DNC shills, and deep state assets who were far more invested in an ideological agenda than journalism. Anyone not gripped by Trump Derangement Syndrome could recognize this.
For everyone else, it was merely more evidence that the conspiracy to undermine #OurDemocracy was deeper than anyone could imagine. Maybe the Russians even got to Mueller himself! What should have been a moment of self-reflection and contrition became an opportunity to double down. There has always been an ideological divide, but it appears that it is more pronounced than it has been in recent years. Perhaps more importantly, the media have been unmasked as the partisan activists they are. The degree to which they actively foment this division is now glaringly obvious. To be sure, there are numerous examples of yellow journalism that predate the Trump administration, but what’s different now is that the once vaunted “fact checkers” are being fact checked in real time. The “fake news” meme that originated in Hillary Clinton’s campaign as a weapon against Trump has been hurled back in their faces. And nothing is more beautiful than dishing back the scorn that is so routinely heaped upon the average Americans whom the media elites hold in such abject disdain.
The funny part is that Hollywood has exposed the media aristocracy as the mendacious grifters they are on numerous occasions. Films function on multiple levels and there are a handful of films which pull back the curtain and reveal the machinery of power in all of its depravity. Sidney Lumet’s scorching satire of television news media, Network, is such a film. However, Network goes a step further. It is properly seen as a piece of predictive programming or revelation of the method. With the possible exception of its pitch black ending, every aspect of the film has played out in the real world in ways that match or surpass its wildest moments.
Released in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, Network captures the television news establishment at a crossroads. In William Holden’s aging news executive, Max Schumacher, we have an archetype of dying media integrity. Max is old school. He became president of the news division in a world where the idea of an independent, objective media free from the corrupting influence of the ratings rat race and advertising dollars was sacrosanct. The news division was a loss leader on the corporate balance sheet. News was a sober affair untainted by cheap sensationalism. But Max’s moral compass withers when tempted by the sexual charms of vapid ladder climber Diana Christensen and the opportunity to usher Howard Beale into the wide world of political commentary. Max’s affair with Diana is portrayed as consensual, but the recent exposes of Matt Lauer and Les Moonves suggest that the real world of network television is a little more predatory than Lumet and company represented. Today, media executives like CNN’S Jeff Zucker make no bones about their muckraking agenda nor do they hide their attempts to silence independent voices who have an opposing editorial POV.
In Faye Dunaway’s Diana Christensen, we have a feminist power fantasy, an emotionally stunted sociopath imprisoned by her pursuit of success, and an architect of the reality TV/social media celebrity. Not only does Diana champion Howard Beale’s transformation into a television prophet, she engineers the celebrity of a group of Marxist revolutionaries. When Diana sees footage of the Ecumenical Liberation Army, she sees a ratings bonanza. Diana’s legacy is felt in every corner of the mediasphere. Simply smooth out the Marxist militancy, add lipstick, Louboutins and a middle class Latina, and you’ve got AOC. Just look at the money and fanfare she’s gotten from the Hollywood establishment and one can reasonably conclude that Lumet was revealing the extent to which the Leftist “revolution” is a completely manufactured farce. In short, Diana Christensen would be the one who green lights Jussie Smollett’s “interview” with Robin Roberts.
Howard Beale unwittingly begins his career as a commentator simply for deviating from the antiseptic “reporting” he was required to do. Beale was conceived as a Cronkite-esque anchorman who imbues the broadcast with gravitas. Nowadays, Beale’s analogue is a robotic stuffed suit like ABC’s David Muir. A braindead automaton who is trained to read a teleprompter with the requisite dramatic inflections in his voice in order to convey an impression of Serious Reporting. In Beale, we also see the origins of the blurred lines between editorial and journalism. It’s not that Beale was dishonest, it’s that he gave a voice to disaffected Americans who knew they were being plowed under by the system. He simply put all of the impotent rage, frustration and sadness over the state of the world on loudspeakers.
Seen from a progressive perspective, Beale is nothing more than a proto Alex Jones or Sean Hannity. A more honest appraisal of Beale’s legacy would also include Bill Maher, Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert, Cenk Uygur and even Rachel Maddow. As much as CNN and MSNBC like to tout their fearless pursuit of #FACTS, the truth is that everyone filters reality through a set of moral and emotional receptors. Journalism is not just a clinical recitation of facts. Facts all by themselves don’t tell a story. Every journalist worth his salt is attempting to insert his investigations into a larger narrative mosaic. The types of questions you ask or don’t ask, the manner in which facts are framed or omitted, and the extent to which weaponized language is used all contribute to the audience’s ability to process the information. The story that’s being told emerges from a set of preconceived moral and ideological presumptions. And ethics can be bought and sold. UBS didn’t care what Beale said when they saw the ratings. They only cared when he encouraged his audience to thwart the deal between the parent company and the Saudis.
The true masterstroke of Network is the scene when Beale is called on to the carpet by CEO Arthur Jensen. After Beale’s “Mad as hell” diatribe, Jensen’s monologue is a close second. Chayefsky and Lumet pull back the curtain on the full agenda behind the entire mass media complex: global domination. It’s about total pacification and technocratic servitude. Jensen informs Beale that he hasn’t just scotched a business deal. He’s “meddled with the primal forces of nature”. Even after Jensen lays down the law, Beale continues to drop truth bombs.
Howard Beale: Right now, there is a whole, an entire generation that never knew anything that didn’t come out of this tube. This tube is the gospel, the ultimate revelation; this tube can make or break presidents, popes, prime ministers; this tube is the most awesome goddamn propaganda force in the whole godless world, and woe is us if it ever falls into the hands of the wrong people, and that’s why woe is us that Edward George Ruddy died. Because this company is now in the hands of CCA, the Communications Corporation of America; there’s a new chairman of the board, a man called Frank Hackett, sitting in Mr. Ruddy’s office on the twentieth floor. And when the 12th largest company in the world controls the most awesome goddamn propaganda force in the whole godless world, who knows what shit will be peddled for truth on this network?
But it’s just a movie, right?
Nope. Fast forward to the present day.
In the wake of the most exhaustive federal investigation of a POTUS in modern history, half of America still thinks Trump is guilty of colluding with Russians. Motherfucking half!
Bill Maher says he knows Trump is guilty because…wait for it…..he has a television!
Howard Beale was right.
Network may be regarded as a satire, but both Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky were deadly serious. Isn’t it ironic that we have to look to entertainment for truth and news for comedy?