The latest screening in the “Reel Journalism with Nick Clooney” series, co-sponsored by the School of Communication and the Newseum, featured a screening of the satirical film “Network.” The film follows network television and its sacrifice of integrity in the name of sensationalism and profits.
While the subjects and trends discussed in “Network” seem all too familiar in this day and age, the film was released back in 1976. Even 34 years later, it’s eerie how relevant this satire is to the current state of the news media.
Distinguished Journalist in Residence Nick Clooney hosted the screening of the film Monday night and was joined by Gordon Peterson and Arch Campbell, both respected journalists working for ABC7/WLJA-TV. The two “deans of their field” shared their opinions on the state of today’s media and the continuing relevance of “Network” in the ever-changing media world. The three journalism veterans have seen its evolution from the reigning days of print and the emergence of broadcast to the convergence of media platforms. The juxtaposition of their careers with the film is striking. Their experience provided the audience with a better understanding of the function of today’s media and how it hasn’t changed all that much in recent years.
“Network” tells the story of Howard Beale, whose slow descent into madness resurrects his dying career and is exploited by network executives at UBS as his ranting and raving causes profits to skyrocket. Peter Finch and Faye Dunaway received Academy Awards for their turns as the notorious Beale and programming executive Diana Christensen, who uses Beale’s explosion on the nightly news to revise the news programming into a high-ratings spectacle.
Clooney asked Petersen and Campbell if characters such as Christensen and Max Schumacher (played by William Holden) still existed in the newsroom today. While Peterson and Campbell said they have never worked for someone like Christensen, they have worked with people similar to her becuase “she’s every person.”
Campbell said that her character represents the next generation of the media rather than the rising sensationalist network executives, and now, the bloggers of today. Although those like Schumacher who stood up for the integrity of the news and attempted to prevent the UBS madness from happening now seem few and far between, both Petersen and Campbell state that they are still around. “People still exist that want to play it straight,” Petersen said.
Despite the hope that Clooney, Petersen and Campbell hold for the next generation of our media, the criticisms of “Network” still ring true into the modern media world. In the film, Beale rants, “Television is not the truth. Television is a goddamn amusement park.”
Television today is even more spectacular and sensational than in the time of “Network,” with news networks featuring more commentary than news programs, and news programs focusing more on celebrity fluff than hard news as per the public’s demands.
“I saw the film again three months ago, and was surprised how well it holds up,” Campbell said. “As long as you don’t impact profits, you can do whatever. If it costs the network money, drastic steps will be taken.”
“Network” also discusses the future of the media generations. Dunaway’s Christensen embodies today’s television, constantly trying to fit life into dramatic plots and always looking for the next big hit. As Christensen was “television incarnate,” so are today’s bloggers and backpack journalists the “Internet incarnates” of our age, firing off stories instantly and more condensed than ever. Campbell believes that although they are faster, many of today’s journalists are “not as accurate, not as thoughtful,” sacrificing details in the interest of shorter length and quicker turnaround.
Though some feel this new world of reality television and celebrity inundation gives little hope for the future of our news media, Petersen and Campbell profess that, although it is very different, it is not all bad. The increase in competition and pace has created a new kind of journalism, one in which there are more voices and stories than ever before.
“This is an extraordinary time we live in,” Petersen said. “The young people we work with are spectacular.”
Despite its age, “Network” stands the test of time with its relevance to media then and now. Though hope still remains for the future of our news media, the discussion made it clear that the media will cater to the whims of the public no matter what, giving them the sensation they crave rather than the straight information they need. A “visionary movie” according to Clooney, “Network” exposes an essential truth of the media in one of Beale’s raving soliloquies — “We’ll tell you anything you want to hear.”