Network: When Satire Becomes Reality

I just watched Network, the classic 1976 film. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: our reality today resembles the satire of the past to an alarming degree.

Network predicts the blurring of entertainment, opinion and news on television almost perfectly. It’s as though screenplay author Paddy Chayefsky traveled to our time, watched a couple of hours of cable news and, upon returning to the 70’s, started work on his screenplay.

Already in the 70’s, ratings determined the editorial direction of each news broadcast. Telling the truth is one value; getting as many people as possible to watch your show is another.

If a journalistic institution is doing well, truth has a chance. When times get rough, it’s time to focus on ratings regardless of truth.

Network takes this truth to its logical conclusion. Howard Beale, a respected newsman about to be fired because of bad ratings, calmly states he intends to kill himself on air. The resulting publicity makes him a sensation, and his follow-up rants only accelerate this.

Beale’s rants are perfectly out of sync with the cool headed TV journalism of the 70’s, but wouldn’t seem out of place on Fox News today. At all.

This is what makes watching Network in 2011 so compelling: the shift away from reason and towards a shallow populism is predicted as the inevitable result of the quest for ratings.

The media landscape is radically different today than it was in the 70’s. There are hundreds of TV channels competing for time, and then you have the Internet.

Do we ever have Internet. It’s gotten to the point where a two hour story is considered old, and as such not worth digging into more.

The quest for attention, for ratings, is triumphing over truth. Write the most sensational headline possible and you’ll get high ratings. Throw in some search engine friendly terms, because we’ve got to get traffic up. Avoid overly depressing topics; they won’t play well on Twitter or Facebook.

Throw a cat picture in there; that will attract some attention.

The Internet is a social medium lacking central control. It’s still evolving, and it’s not too late for us to make it productive. It’s not going to be easy, but let’s see what’s possible. Who’s with me?

‘Idiot America’ shows how truth became a product

You might not guess it from the title, but Idiot America is perhaps the most loving tribute to the United States on book shelves right now. In many ways an extension of his famous October 2005 Esquire article Greetings From Idiot America, Charles P. Pierce’s latest book covers everything from the Terri Schiavo circus to climate change denial to Sarah Palin to the story that started it all: The Creation Museum. All of this is done with love and wit, aimed to both amuse and highlight the absurdity of our present national dialog.

For example, here’s how Pierce introduces the Creation Museum:

“Outside, several [people] stop to be interviewed by a video crew. They have come from Indiana, one woman says, two toddlers toddling at her feet, because they have been home-schooling their children and they have given them this adventure as a kind of field trip. The whole group then bustles into the lobby of the building, where they are greeted by the long neck of a huge, herbivorous dinosaur. The kids run past that and around a corner, where stands another, smaller dinosaur.

“Which is wearing a saddle.

“It is an English saddle, hornless and battered. Apparently, this was a dinosaur used for dressage competitions and stakes races. Any working dinosaur accustomed to the rigors of ranch work and herding other dinosaurs along the dusty trail almost certainly would wear a sturdy western saddle.

“This is very much a show dinosaur.”

Excerpts like these are combined with a wide variety of stories from America’s past and present to promote Pierce’s central thesis, which is simple to grasp: America, once the mindchild of Enlightenment ideals, is becoming a place where truth doesn’t matter so much as marketability. Calling the place America is becoming “Idiot America,” Pierce claims we live in a society where expertise is regarded with at best suspicion and at worst hostility. Idiot America is based on three main premises:

  1. Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings, or otherwise moves units.
  2. Anything can be true if someone says it loudly enough.
  3. Fact is that which enough people believe. Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it.

Throughout the book Pierce does a great deal to defend what he calls The Great American Crank. He devotes quite a lot of ink to Ignatius Donnelly, a 19th-century congressman and amateur scientist whose book Atlantis : the Antediluvian World (Barnes and Noble, Project Gutenburg) made the concept of Atlantis a phenomenon at the time. Pierce calls Donnelly the quintessential American Crank, a person outside the mainstream of the day who pushed the nation’s imagination to places it otherwise wouldn’t go.

The problem, to Pierce, isn’t the cranks. Cranks are an essential part of our national fabric, part of what makes America great.

No, the problem is that we’ve made our cranks into commodities. They have TV shows and book deals, and if they sell enough books or yell loudly enough what they say is just as valid as the opinion of a scientist or any other expert.

Or moreso.

Essentially, Pierce states that we live in a nation where everything is in the wrong place. Religion is mixed with science, entertainment with journalism and politics with faith. All of these things are weaker for being mixed together.

Particularly vivid, to me, is Pierce’s discussion of one of the most surreal election in America’s history:n 2008. McCain, previously a moderate, campaigned against legislation he wrote in order to garner votes in Idiot America. The nomination of Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential candidate was perhaps the epoch of the craziness:

“The more people pointed out Palin’s obvious shortcomings, the more the people who loved her loved her even more. She was taken seriously not merely because she had been selected to run, but also because of the fervor she had stirred among people in whose view her primary virtue as a candidate was the fact that she made the right people crazy. Their faith in Idiot America and its Three Great Premises was inviolate. Because the precincts of Idiot America were the only places where his party had a viable constituency, John McCain became the first presidential candidate in American history to run as a parody of himself.”

The book is worth reading if only because it’s the first thing I’ve read that made sense of the 2008 election, but there’s a lot about this book that makes it worth picking up.

Not that it’s without shortcomings. Pierce doesn’t mock the premises of Idiot America in action on the left nearly as much as he does on the right (he claims this is primarily because the right was in power as he wrote the book.) As someone who lives in Boulder, Colorado, I have to say that these three premises are alive and thriving on the left. It also seems, to me, that there is something iconic about Pierce criticizing the way truth has become a marketplace via a book with an extremely marketable title.

But perhaps I’m nitpicking. What Pierce does best here is contrast the crazy notions of the past with the crazy notions of today. For example, his conclusion regarding the Creation Museum:

“Counternarratives are designed to subvert conventional ideas, but there is nothing at all subversive about the Creation Museum. The ideas in it are not interesting. They’re just wrong. It’s a place without imagination, a place where we break our dragons like plow horses and ride them.”

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