Watching Network after Trump
Saw the movie Network tonight, a late 1970s picture that’s well-made. If you know the story, you’ll appreciate the timing. A broadcast anchor man, Howard Beele, is losing market share — and his mind. But when he announces on prime time that he plans to blow his brains out on air, in one week, stuff happens. First, the news team, the network, its corporate leaders, and the official press all weigh in, saying it’s sad and outrageous. Beele manages to get his news buddies to put him on once more, to make amends. He drops the suicide bit, but tells his live audience that he’s fed up with all the bullshit. They should open a window and scream “I’m made as hell, and won’t take it anymore.”
Millions do it. Suddenly the network has a hit on its hands, the previously money-losing news show. It’s worth remembering that once upon a time, news bureaus were expected to lose money. Not anymore. The better part of Network involves corporate machinery digesting and capitalizing on Trump’s, I mean Beele’s, popularity. His news hour becomes entertainment. His ravings appeal to audiences used to getting everything normalized. He’s someone with power who appears to break the barrier separating elites and ordinary folk. Despite his craziness, his bouts of anti-capitalism, his popularity is profitable. The network processes this with accounting jargon and ratings metrics, neutral terms that reduce Beele to another product.
It’s what surely happened in newsrooms and networks around America, as Donald Trump campaigned for President. He was obnoxious, racist, and lied, but the ratings were off the chart. Howard Beele is a crazy fool, not a nasty charlatan. But his fictional impact on Americans is a lot like Trump’s. They gravitate to outlandishness coming from erstwhile respectability. As Beele announces his “visions” to cheering crowds, he extemporaneous statements, full of accusations and made-up facts, sound like Trump’s. The public knows he’s unreliable, but trust him anyway.
Let’s face it. Trump turned desultory Republican debates into prime-time special events. People tuned in to see him insult Cruz and Rubio, mock Fiorina and Bush. Big money, from corporate executives and wealthy families, usually controls the GOP’s nominee selection. In return, Republican candidates do the “dog whistle” thing, titillating “red-neck” audiences to get elected. Trump broke this mold, barging into the party by not speaking in code, but saying it straight. Like Howard Beele, he insulted the hand the fed him. Trump violated conventions and turned political debate into an entertainment show. The movie Network shows this happening in broadcast news.
Good artists, like Network’s writer, Paddy Chayevsky, director, Sidney Lumet, and actors like William Holden, Faye Dunaway, and Robert Duvall, tap into basic human behaviors. Chayevsky isn’t prophetic, although at moments it feels that way. He’s shows that in a world dominated by large institutions, some of them obvious, some not, individuals can feel lost and powerless. But it’s a trick. We haven’t lost individuality. We’ve lost social bonds, the human ties that bind us. We claim to need our great self back, but what we’ve lost is the group.
We’re only a 150 years away from when we most lived on farms, without electricity or radio. Most children died during infancy; we were lucky to survive, and banded together as families and clans. Humans are social creatures, not genuine individualists. That combination, individual and group, is what gets us out of whack.
Network is dated, to a time when people spent hours a day watching television. It fed a diet of social behaviors to isolated viewers. People felt alienated, and in the movie Howard Beele makes them join together to get angry at “the corrupt system”. Real network news didn’t have this explosive moment in reality. Instead its gradually drifted out of central focus. But Trump is such a moment for American national politics.
Had Trump lost, and he probably expected to, he intended to have a television show, maybe like Howard Beele’s. He’d pontificate, make up facts, pretend to do news, and entertain. But now he’s President.
Chayefsky has his finger on the pulse of American complexity. We’re dominated by corporations, but rage at government. We want privacy, but we love to hear the private lives of others. As the executives in Network say, loud complaints from publishers and pundits are good for ratings. Trump made television stations, internet sites, and newspapers money, because he increased audiences, which advertisers wanted, so they paid more. The more they showed him, the larger the audience, so why should’t they?
This audience effect, like in Network, is perverse. It’s predicated on someone in a traditional, formal role breaking rules and violating conventions. Eventually something happens. In Network, Beele goes off on Arabs who lent his station’s corporate owners billions. Telegrams flood the White House to stop it. So the corporate CEO explains to Beele how the world really works, in no uncertain terms. Money must flow, not stagnate. Americans have sent billions of dollars to Saudi Arabia, buying their gasoline. Now the Saudi’s must cycle the money back into America, to keep customers functioning. It’s an ecosystem, just like the rest of nature. Nations exist in one’s imagination, but money is real. Cut it’s flow, society withers.
I imagine Trump facing the same fate. He’s way in over his head. Sooner or later, a general or corporate leader is going to read him the riot act, explain how the world really works. Trade isn’t a product you can choose to ignore. It’s the flow of capital and assets that keeps the world functioning. Turn it off, and you’re turning off the dollar. Maybe an admiral will explain to Trump, as if he’s a petty officer, that they’re not doing charity. Pax Americana makes Trump’s hotels possible.
Trump could recognize that he’s a two-bit player, and follow their direction. It’s not like listening to a bunch of demonstrators or pundits in the news. These will be people above Trump in station, even if he is President, who control levers of wealth or military power. They’ll be able to bankrupt his assorted companies or turn Congress against him. So even though Trump is an arrogant brat, he may get their religion.
Network shows there’s no free lunch. The angry mob giveth, and the angry mob taketh away. Once Beele returns to the corporate fold, his ratings tumble. If Trump changes his policy plans, and decides not to tear up NAFTA, his voters won’t forget. Beele returns to his senses, sort of, and his audiences detect the change. He tells them they’re not individuals, but part of giant systems. They don’t want to hear it. His loses popularity, as Trump will.
Network ends sardonically. The company’s CEO is enamored with the new Howard Beele, who toes the corporate line. As Beele’s show loses advertisers, the station’s profit vanishes. Executives meet late at night, and decide the only solution is to have Beele assassinated. It happens live on TV. Chayevsky suggests the country consumes this in stride. Audiences pegged Beele as a rebel, an outsider, and only wanted him that way. But success, real success, doesn’t let someone remain outside. To Beele’s fans, once success changed him, he was doomed. His assassination puts a fine point on it.
I would not predict anything similar for Trump. But part of his campaign was to let loose the dogs of violence. He’ll find, as many populists before, that his own “best friends” can be his worst enemies.