August 22, 2023
I recently rewatched Sidney Lumet’s 1976 film Network. Then, it was satirical. Now, it is eerily prescient. (It’s been prescient since Howard Stern and Jerry Springer started their shows.)
The film’s famous line became my motto: “We’re as mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore.” Teenage years, you know.
The basic plot: Howard Beale, a longtime anchor of network news, learns he will be fired, and he rants during a broadcast, saying life is “bullshit,” and announces he would commit suicide on air. Ratings soar, and the head of programming decides to reimagine news as entertainment. See where I’m going yet?
Fox News will try to redeem itself tomorrow by holding the first debate for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. Fox was roiled with the Dominion Voting Systems lawsuit, settled out of court for $787 million, after Fox baselessly claimed Dominion’s voting machines were rigged against the former president. Tucker Carlson, Fox’s most popular host, was fired. Some restructuring and some repositioning attempted moving Fox closer to journalistic integrity. Such sheer mockery. Rupert Murdoch’s legacy beget the visual tabloid.
I’m not expecting intellectual rigor in Wednesday’s debate. I will watch because one of the eight may be the president. One not on stage has a good chance of regaining the presidency. He’s skipping the debate because he’s polling over 50% right now. He’s mad as hell, and I’m sure several candidates are mad as hell not only at the incumbent but also at his predecessor. I may just make some popcorn and sit, cross-legged in the recliner, munching away.
Walter Cronkite popped up on a friend’s Facebook post recently. The caption: “[he] would read the news on television every weeknight. He didn’t seem to have an agenda or try to make anybody look bad, or good. He would just read the news, and then, get this…WE WOULD ALL JUST MAKE UP OUR OWN MINDS ABOUT WHAT WE THOUGHT.” I recalled Joe Calarco’s play Walter Cronkite Is Dead. Margaret, a stranded air traveler from a “blue” state, is forced to share an airport bar table with Patty, another stranded traveler from a “red” state. Margaret talks about the current mood: “Traveling used to be an event. Something special. Now, well, everybody’s doing it. And everyone complains. About how inconvenient it all is. Snippy, snippy, snippy. Like terrifying little birds. Peck, peck, peck. The bickering. But. It’s a sign of the times I suppose. Walter Cronkite is dead after all.”
Maybe this is just another boomer longing for the good ol’ days. I was on a task force last year to develop a program on civil discourse and freedom of expression. I always thought those concepts mutually incompatible. Look at the world Network wrought. At the end of the film, Beale is assassinated. The voice-over at the end: “This was the story of Howard Beale: the first known instance of a man who was killed because he had lousy ratings.” It seems all we want are good ratings.