Higgins: Post-’Network’ politicsWritten by Tim Higgins | | firstname.lastname@example.org
In 1976, Peter Finch spoke to a generation as newscaster Howard Beale by telling us: “So I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out and yell, ‘I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!’”
Not many recall “Network” screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky’s cynical prescience regarding the degradation of television network news (cable news networks didn’t yet exist), or director Sidney Lumet’s portrayal of the general apathy and eager gullibility of the American viewing public. Few indeed remember anything of this film other than its iconic tagline.
The only thing that’s changed in the intervening years is the addition of cable channels dedicated, in theory, entirely to news yet with programs that have become in many ways far worse than Chayefsky anticipated, and perhaps more outrageous than Lumet was willing (or heroic enough) to portray.
We may not yet have astrology segments, but multiple (and mostly inaccurate) weather segments seem to serve well enough as a substitute. Revolutionary groups may not be on the air yet, but the proliferation of journalistic zealotry makes one often feel it is.
Not anticipated in 1976, however, was the proliferation of non-news stories (and reality shows) from Hollywood regarding those leading lives of unthinkable luxury and unthinking ignorance. While flouting moral precedent, society’s rules and the nation’s laws (with the permission of lenient courts), many find time (between rehab sessions) to support international tyranny under romantic notions of revolution.
Talk radio, for all its supposed sins, at least attempts to devote an entire 30-minute segment (including commercials, news and traffic) to a subject as important as whether we should get into or out of a war, or whether the laws and regulations pouring out of the pens of pampered politicians make a difference.
With television, we’ve come to accept a schizophrenic form of news. Most days, it’s force-fed to us in two- to four-minute segments (bipartisan commentary included). Eastern European politics or the science of hydraulic fracturing, we’re apparently only capable of digesting important national or world events in a Reader’s Digest condensed format, with segments only slightly longer (and often less intelligently written) than the commercials that separate them.
Occasionally however, the networks depart from their information shorthand to provide their viewers with nauseatingly repetitious offerings on what they don’t know on a story, supplemented by experts and pundits providing commentary so “inside baseball” that few if any can understand it.
As for their coverage of national politics, networks prefer an inflammatory sound bite to their job of covering the four W’s of the story (who, what, where and when). If they do get around to them, one can be certain of an Obi-Wan Kenobi interpretation of such facts “from a certain point of view.” And as for the fifth W (why), once more a panel of experts returns (fellow journalists and unemployed political minions) who can ignore questions in a bipartisan fashion, regurgitate party talking points ad nauseam and still find time to promote their current book.
Much of that unresolved “Network” anger still exists in this country, but remains largely unfocused. We’re angry with government for not doing the job it’s expected to do while doing far too many things it’s not needed for. We’re angry with politicians and political parties who’ve spent far too much time feathering their own nests instead of the nation’s work and have done so with our feathers. We’re angry with each other for the selective inattention we exhibit to the pain and suffering going on around us. Often however, we’re the most angry with a mainstream media that continues to assert special privilege as “The Fourth Estate,” ignoring their responsibilities and failing as badly as the American equivalents of the first three.
The right of a free press was included in the First Amendment for a reason by the founders, who understood that the republic would never survive without it. I wish Howard were still around, and this time “mad as hell” at those he worked with.
Tags: astrology, cable news, First Amendment, Founders, free press, inflammatory 'sound-bite', national politics, network news, Newscaster Howard Beale, Paddy Chayefsky, Peter Finch, Reader's Digest, Sidney Lumet, talk radio, Television, The Fourth Estate