Paddy Chayefsky’s prophetic “Network” was a movie almost forty years ahead of its time, a film highlighting the “comicization’ of the news business.
New York Times cultural reporter Dave Itzkoff's just-published book “Mad as Hell: The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies” does the movie proud. It’s a joy to read and should be on the list of students of media and PR.
Itzkoff chronicles Chayefsky’s personal battles against Big Media suits in Hollywood and New York. He gives an insider look at the making of the 1976 film and the heated response it drew from established network TV journalists like NBC’s Edwin Newman, who said: “I didn’t understand it to be a black satire -- I couldn’t tell which parts were supposed to be taken literally and which parts were supposedly exaggerated. There are valid things to be said about TV news, but this movie didn’t say them.”
CBS’ Walter Cronkite weighed in with: “Since the birth of television, all of us have known how we could hype our ratings almost instantly through the methods of the penny press, but you don’t see any hint of things like that.”
What would Uncle Walter say today of what’s left of his one-time “Tiffany Channel?”
Itzkoff correctly traces the downfall of mighty CBS as the beginning of Big Media’s race to the bottom. That descent started in 1986 with the financial move of Loews Corp., tobacco/hotel/insurance conglomerate then headed by Larry and Preston Tisch, to acquire a big chunk of CBS. The transaction saddled CBS with $1B in debt and put Larry in charge.
Presto, CBS fired 215 news staffers the next year in a cost-cutting move. At that time, the cutbacks were considered sacrilege. More importantly, the Tisch brothers fathered the shift of news divisions from servants of the public trust to profit centers.
The Reagan Administration’s Federal Communications Commission joined the fun, chucking the Fairness Doctrine, which had required broadcasters to cover public interests in a balanced banner, and rules relaxing media ownership, which triggered a consolidation wave. Hello, Rupert Murdoch.
Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly told Itzkoff broadcast titans of yesterday such as Eric Sevareid, Davie Brinkley and John Chancellor wouldn’t be able to get airtime today. “It’s a different society -- you have to raise the level of urgency and the level of presentation so people would watch,” he said. O’Reilly said he’s in the entertainment business. Though he thinks Syria is an important story, he can’t cover it. “Nobody’s going to watch, and I know that. That’s the limitations of my job,” explained O’Reilly.
People get the news media they deserve. We’re all living in Paddy’s world. Things won’t change until we get as “mad as hell” as Network’s crazed visionary Howard Beale.