I’ve refrained, by and large, from criticizing the media too harshly on these columns. We won’t end this without their help, after all, and their pushback against the excesses of the Trump administration have helped us hold the line thus far. But in the midst of that, we also need to remember their hand in creating this mess, and in enabling it when they decide it’s convenient to do so. Their craven adherence to ratings above all, their constant horse-race mentality, their eagerness to excuse the worst excesses of Trump while playing up the smallest flaws of his opponents… we all became depressingly familiar with its effects on the 2016 campaign.
It translated into hundreds of hours of free publicity for a man whose sole defining characteristic seems to be drawing attention to himself. Fox’s fawning over him was predictable, but they weren’t alone; NBC, in particular, puffed their Apprentice star up with appearances on Jimmy Fallon and a hosting gig on Saturday Night Live… both during the campaign itself. Indeed, that symbiosis had been going on for decades, with Trump making cameos as himself in everything from Zoolander to Home Alone 2 to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. He’s always been a creature of the media, and the media welcomed its prodigal son home during the campaign in ways it never would have with a more traditional politician.
No one expected him to win, of course – we all bear a share of that responsibility – and most outlets highlighted his vile performances for the same reason they cover freeway chases and celebrity meltdowns. It’s hard to look away from a shitshow, especially if you believe it won’t personally affect you. But the fact remains that they opened the door for his ascent to the highest office of the land, and while most of them now fight madly to contain his power, they helped put him there in the first place. Even now, they desperately return to the notion of a “pivot” and praise every minor act of basic adulthood as “presidential.” (The latest example took place this weekend, as Trump showboated over the response to Hurricane Harvey.) You can count on them dragging that narrative out every six weeks or so as a way of avoiding the elephant in the room: he’s mentally unhinged and unfit for office… but removing him would remove the ratings bonanza his ineptitude brings in.
A number of movies have brilliantly dealt with our corrosive relationship to the media, and the way we feed its worst instincts through the simple act of tuning into things we know we should switch off. Ironically, most of them have now been eclipsed by the reality we now find ourselves in – a reality too far-fetched to have ever passed muster as a fictional film. The likes of Wag the Dog and The Candidate do a good job of spelling out the political costs of media irresponsibility, but it falls to Network to really, truly understand what we’ve allowed ourselves to become.
It was the height of satire in 1976: dark as hell, but patently absurd and surely nowhere close to objective reality. Objective reality surpassed it somewhere in the Jerry Springer era, and 20 years later, it has conquered the world in most ways that matter. We sit in horrified thrall as a reality TV star threatens to start a nuclear war, sides with Nazis, publicly attacks any perceived sleight, and crushes the whole of the executive branch with each toddler-like Twitter tantrum unspooling before our eyes. He reportedly receives most of his information about the world from the television, forming a feedback loop that could really, truly destroy the world, and that won’t stop as long as he remains in office.
Network displays the seeds from whence that sprang, mostly in the madness emanating from disintegrating news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch), who implodes in real time in front of 50 million viewers. But his madness holds righteous anger too: the understanding that insanity may be the only reasonable reaction to a world so fundamentally unjust, and that dropping the façade of civility may be the only way to fight back. His ferocious energy proves infectious, a cathartic release of pent-up frustrations so potent that no one stops to consider that the man channeling them may be off his rocker.
His audience, at least, comes by their fascination honestly, and from a need to make things better. No so the callous executives who view the spectacle as guaranteed ratings. The notion that they have a greater responsibility to the public never occurs to them, especially not Diane Christensen (Faye Dunaway), who watches Beale’s meltdown like a kid on Christmas morning. “We’re gonna make so much money!” her look tells us, and the notion that it might not be okay simply never enters her head.
It makes for moments of grim humor – a late-inning discussion on murdering one of the network’s stars is disturbingly casual – but it leaves no doubt where the ultimate responsibility lies. Beale rants and raves about real problems affecting real people, but the vast challenges of solving those problems is more overwhelming than most of his audience can contemplate. So they rant and rave along with him, eating up the sheer spectacle of it and letting the cynics behind the scenes rake in the dough.
The bill comes due sooner or later, of course, and in our current timeline, Trump makes a fitting bit of karma for a culture that sold its soul to reality TV. We can rightfully decry how awful it is, but we could have tamed it ourselves simply by declining to tune in when the screen in the living room takes a turn for the puerile. Yes, the media saw no problem selling it to us, but we were all too happy to buy. The best any of us can do is cash out like William Holden’s Max does: helpless to prevent any of it, but at least no longer contributing to the problem.
Meanwhile, the situation devolves into the new normal, as public debate on important issues becomes a sideshow to the spectacle of a narcissist who thinks he’s the center of the universe placed at the actual center of the universe. Beneath Trump’s tenure lies the disturbing notion that he himself hates the job and would like to be rid of it, but can’t humble himself to resign. It leads him to lash out in random and disturbing ways, which is one of the reasons we need to get rid of him as quickly as possible.
Beale himself possesses more of a moral compass than Trump, but his sanity is just as much in doubt, and like Trump, he eventually becomes the helpless prisoner of the phenomenon he helped create: reduced to mental mush before literally being murdered by his employers because his ratings have topped. It’s farcical and absurd, and yet the reasons for it are spelled out in a chillingly calculated messianic rant from one of Beale’s senior enablers.
Therein lies Network’s terrible truth: Beale is a symptom of a much larger disease. This all comes back to commerce at the end of the day. Trump didn’t arise in a vacuum, and the hate and misogyny he evinces have flourished for years under the likes of Fox, Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones… who have weaponized it in the name of profit. They want people scared and angry to keep us tuning in, which means they can keep selling whatever garbage their sponsors are so desperate to unload. (Jones, in particular, possesses a seemingly bottomless array of dubious crap to hawk.) In Trump, they have the perfect fulcrum to keep their base ginned up… which, as Jensen intimated, is the only real point of this sick excuse for a presidency.
We’ve always been a nation of snake-oil salesmen, and that’s bad. But we often get high on our own supply and that’s much, much worse. It’s a fitting cherry to this hideous sundae – the fact that we might well and truly end the world in the name of selling more boner pills – but it’s one Howard Beale knows all about. We can’t say we weren’t warned.