THE PURSUIT OF WORLDLINESS
by Barry Edelson



 

Bad News

 

From "Network" to "The Newsroom"

 

It was a fortunate coincidence that some cable station decided to air the movie Network right in the middle of the second season of HBO's The Newsroom this summer. Or perhaps it was not a coincidence: perhaps someone thought it would be a good idea to take a break from Aaron Sorkin's serial morality play about the deterioration of American broadcast journalism, and take a look back at Paddy Chayesky's satirical morality play from the 1970s about the deterioration of American broadcast journalism. Perhaps someone noticed that many of the journalistic evils that Chayefsky prophesied all those decades ago — reducing the news to mere entertainment, predicting events instead of reporting them, turning TV journalists into stars for celebrity's sake — have actually, and sadly, come to pass. And perhaps someone also understood that The Newsroom is an attempt, in retrospect, to fight back against these evils by imagining the practice of journalism as it might have been today, had these many years of excess not wreaked such havoc upon the practice of reporting the news.

What most of us remember about Network are the jeremiads delivered by the news anchor Howard Beale, played by Peter Finch in an Academy-award winning performance, which features the iconic rant, "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more". With the benefit of hindsight, Beale's on-air crack-up is no longer as shocking or as bizarre as it first appeared. It is impossible to watch Finch's character go steadily over the edge without thinking of the latter-day purveyors of outrage with which broadcast "news" has come to be identified. What is Glenn Beck if not the incarnation of Howard Beale? And just as Beale's masters at the Network exploited his derangement in the pursuit of ratings, the present-day networks are only too happy to hand the airwaves over to certifiable lunatics as long as the viewers keep tuning in. And just as Fox News ultimately ended its relationship with Beck — not over ideological differences but purely contractual headaches — Beale is undone by nothing more significant than his slippage in the nightly ratings.

The Newsroom is in many respects the anti-Network. It is conceivable that Sorkin, upon watching Network at some time in his life, was inspired to create The Newsroom when he realized that the mid-1970s was precisely the point in history when journalism started to go downhill.
Edward R. Murrow
The way we like to think it was
It was then that the news division, long considered a priceless entity that gave each network its distinct identity, became prey to the profit margin. It was in the 1970s that the corporations that owned the networks began to see the news not as a jewel in the network's crown, or even a loss-leader for its garish line-up of hollow entertainment programs, but merely a drag on the bottom line. If entertainment could earn the networks enormous profits, why must they tolerate news operations that could not even remotely sustain themselves financially? The news had always been a business — ask any newspaper publisher — and broadcast news divisions always had a budget to live on. But it is very expensive to have correspondents crawling over the globe looking for stories, and very difficult to quantify just how much benefit the pursuit of any particular story is worth to the network's economic health.

Moreover, investigative stories very frequently caused embarrassment to the very government officials at home and in allied countries who rubbed elbows with the network's corporate overseers.
Will McAvoy
If only
Of course, it is the very nature of investigative journalism to speak truth to power, or at least it used to be, before the overseers decided that they did not have to put up with it, either for the sake of their own business interests or on behalf of their friends in high places. When Network hit the theaters in 1976, memories of Vietnam and Watergate were recent and raw. Even without the benefit of Nixon's secret tapes (the last of which were just released this month) it was no secret that many in the military and government believed those debacles would have gone much better had all those unpatriotic and probably Communist-sympathizing reporters not insisted on making the public aware of what was going on. At the very least, we wouldn't have known just how badly the war was going, or how deeply involved the White House was in criminal activities, and no general or president would have had to take the fall for them.

It is probably not an accident that the clampdown on those who had elevated the news to the highest esteem it had ever enjoyed (or deserved) followed closely on the heels of the resignation of the President and the fall of Saigon. Ever since, the independence of the people who present the news has been increasingly reined in by the people who bankroll the networks. It is precisely this tension between the executives in the board room and the producers in the newsroom that has been a recurring theme through The Newsroom's first two seasons. The confrontations between the head of The Newsroom's fictional network, played by Jane Fonda, and the head of the news division, played by Sam Waterston, are strikingly similar to those between executives and reporters in Network. In particular, the scene in which Chayefsky's network head (Ned Beatty) takes Howard Beale into a darkened corporate board room and showers upon him a seething rebuke for Beale's on-air criticism of corporate greed, which is threatening the health of the golden egg-laying goose upon which they had all unwittingly stumbled, is just a more satirical version of the same dynamic. This has been a constant rule-of-thumb in the world of TV news: it's okay to stoke the people's rage, just don't upset the sponsors. Given Sorkin's transparently leftish political leanings, it should come as no surprise that the executives generally come off looking rather sinister (particularly the network owner's smarmy son and heir apparent), while the reporters and producers, though entirely too self-congratulatory, are undeniably the heroes of their own story. But given the depths to which most of broadcast journalism has descended in the last 40 years, Sorkin can be forgiven for some excesses in trying to ennoble a profession that is sorely in need of restored credibility.

 

Point of No Return

While one can easily suppose that the creator of The Newsroom had a kind of epiphany while watching Network, it is likewise easy to imagine that Roger Ailes, the unapologetically partisan founder of Fox News, also had an epiphany of a very different sort while watching the same movie. Instead of muttering, "This is where it all went wrong," Ailes was more likely inspired to dream: "This is the network I want to create." Where others saw the circus that Beale's evening news became, with its fortune tellers and raving madmen, as a symbol of the news industry spiralling out of control, Ailes might very well have seen it as the germ of a great new idea. Beale's unleashing of his audience's inchoate rage led to nothing tangible but the swelling of the network's balance sheet. To Ailes, this would not have been a shortcoming, but a stroke of genius. What could be easier than tapping into the general sense of discontent that simmers beneath the surface of society? Since Ailes is at the opposite end of the political spectrum from Sorkin, his bias is to the right, but political results are almost secondary to earnings. It is absolutely impossible that Ailes, a brilliant political operative and former advisor to presidents, does not see the hypocrisy, inanity and insanity of much of his on-air talent. But these faults are beside the point. Much like Faye Dunaway's character in Network, for whom the news is just another commodity, Ailes clearly does not care to what depths the practice of news reporting sinks as long as Fox remains the leading cable news network. We imagine it is all about ideology, but it is mostly about market share. (Should Fox ever sink in the ratings, and begin to jettison its more extreme on-air personalities in order to appeal to more moderate viewers, remember you heard it here first.)

The question, then, is whether it is more troubling that much of the outrage expressed on the air is as fake as a carnival show, or worse that the business today is ruled by the most profound cynicism? Is it worse to know that the blond on the screen truly harbors a venomous hatred for President Obama, or that she is pretending to be an ignoramus but is actually a former Rhodes Scholar? Which is more detrimental to the body politic, make-believe vitriol or genuinely principled disgust? The Newsroom is as much an attack on the go-along-to-get-along passivity of news reporters generally — as much about the boring mediocrity of CNN and the big three broadcast networks — as the phony, rabid-dog tactics of Fox or its pale opposite number, MSNBC. What he appears to hanker for is a return to the glory days of TV news, when anchormen were among the most trusted men in America. (The opening credits during the first season, with its worshipful images of the great newsmen of that period, made this yearning rather too obvious; perhaps this is why they were dropped for the second season.) In other words, he dreams of a return to that golden age from World War II to the early 1970s when the news was serious business, with serious standards that did not slip to suit the circumstances.

This is The Newsroom's quest, but also where it goes off the rails. Sorkin's characteristic preachiness is challenging enough to overcome, but far worse is the way he clings to the illusion that journalism once made the world a better place by holding government accountable. This is an error of the chicken-and-egg variety: was the world really better because journalists were more serious, or were journalists more serious because they were the products of a more serious time, in which people were more inclined to take politics and world events more seriously? No one could have been better at typifying the old-style TV newsman in Network than William Holden, who plays Howard Beale's friend and protector, but is turfed out of his job by the new advocates of news-as-entertainment. It was a brilliant bit of casting, to have the gritty newsman from a by-gone era played by a gritty actor from a by-gone era. It was even a bit of a shock to see him in the movie, all the more so for the generations that have come and gone since Network first came out.



The cynic is always a step
ahead of the idealist.


In The Newsroom, Jeff Daniels gives a stunning performance as Will McAvoy, Sorkin's version of the modern-day savior of the evening news. But McAvoy's genius for spontaneously gutting the arguments of his interview subjects belies the reality that the evening news shows of yesteryear were entirely scripted. Huntley and Brinkley and Reasoner and Cronkite were very smart men and very experienced in front of the camera, but they could never have skewered a guest as neatly as Daniels' fictitious anchorman can. There were certainly great interviewers from the halcyon days of TV news, from Edward R. Murrow to Mike Wallace, who didn't let their subjects off the hook. But Daniels' character is a former prosecutor who seems always more interested in winning his case than in reporting the news, which makes him rather too much like the cable news squawking heads of whom Sorkin seems to disapprove. And like all of Sorkin's most precocious characters, from The West Wing through his various screenplays, no actual human is that quick-witted or that loquacious. In one particularly painful scene from this season, McAvoy humiliates a young woman from the Occupy Wall Street movement on the air, vicariously expressing Sorkin's frustration with the movement's indistinct purpose and failure to coalesce, like the Tea Party, into a meaningful political movement. Thus he betrays his own purpose: on the one hand, he suggests that the country needs journalists not to take sides in political arguments, but to be impartial arbiters of the questionable claims made by candidates and elected officials. On the other hand, he constantly reveals his own political bias, making it plain that he would have no problem if the news was more favorable to those at his comfortable end of the political spectrum. That McAvoy is a Republican does absolutely nothing to obscure the ideological fingerprints that Sorkin leaves all over the place.

Network is a satire, the object of which is reform. The Newsroom is a fantasy, the object of which is beyond reach. Ironically, Sorkin ridicules the fuzzy-headed idealists of Occupy Wall Street, but his imaginary journalism is every bit as indistinct in its ideals and implausible in its aims. Art can be very good, even essential, at defining a problem, but seldom very useful at proposing solutions. Paddy Chayefsky knew better; the cynic is always a step ahead of the idealist.

 

August 24, 2013

 




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