In the movie Nightcrawler, we meet Lou Bloom, a new breed of reporter. Bloom races around the nighttime streets of Los Angeles and isn’t beyond dragging a bloody corpse a few feet for a better story. Played by Jake Gyllenhaal, Bloom is a megalomaniac who fancies himself a media pioneer gathering video for stories nobody else can get. The movie is a cautionary tale for the new media desperate for clicks at any cost.
It wasn’t long ago when a small stable of sources were the news. Those of us old enough to spend evenings with Walter Cronkite remember an age when credibility, no matter how illusory, permeated the news. Those replacing the Cronkite age might contemplate the allure of excess, the excess we see in Lou Bloom.
It may seem difficult to separate the excessive new media pioneers from the rest. Perhaps a moral and self-reflective approach makes all the difference. While the left loathes Matt Drudge and what the Drudge Report represents, an observer of the editorial choices of the Drudge Report cannot miss the profound morality that guides his editorial choices.
For example, the Drudge Report is a chronicle of good and evil in the world. Drudge reports on chaos of the sort conveyed by the wolf in Lars von Trier’s Antichrist. Indeed, “chaos reigns” in the world, and the Drudge Report chronicles it.
But Drudge isn’t all about man’s drift toward mayhem. He isn’t all about capturing the gory stories of scandal and brutality. It is also about the dignity of life, and goodness, and so often about faith and Pope Francis’ message of mercy and love. One cannot read the Drudge Report and not see it through religious eyes.
Drudge may be a modern echo of C.S. Lewis, showing us daily in sparse black and white, that “there is no neutral ground in the universe. Every square inch, every split second is claimed by God, and counterclaimed by Satan.”
Others in the new media world I have come to know have been guided by a similar sense of measured humility. But not all have, which takes us back to Lou Bloom racing through Los Angeles to get to the story before anyone else can, even if he has to make things up along the way.
In Nightcrawler, Lou Bloom routinely invades the personal dignity and space of victims. In a central scene, Bloom wanders into a mansion where a mass killing has taken place, and videos the slain where they fell. A woman stares at the ceiling with her chest opened by a shotgun blast. Bloom delivers the close-up. Naturally, Bloom considers all of this newsworthy. It would be like a newspaper routinely publishing the names of sexual assault victims.
Gyllenhaal’s character is base and amoral. His “reporting” reflects this lack of character.
The love of money drives Bloom. He is a reporter with a videotape in one hand, while he holds out the other hand for cash.
At the core of Bloom’s reporting is exaggeration and embellishment. Upon arriving at a fatal head-on crash before the fire department, Bloom drags a bloody corpse ten yards to get a better shot. He teases stories as something bigger than they really are. He concocts myth and packages it as news.
Bloom’s shady reporting is accompanied by a megalomaniacal dose of self-importance, combined with a persistently loathsome self-promotion. He is openly sanctimonious about his work, because he is oh-so-important.
“The name of my company is Video Production News,” he lectures a news director. “A professional news gathering service. That’s how it should be read and that’s how it should be said. You will take me around and introduce me as President of Video Production News, and remind them of my many other stories.” (You Tube video here.)
His “many other stories.” You can almost hear Bloom complaining about other people stealing his work. His self-importance is matched by his lack of self-awareness.
Bloom also attacks others in his line of work. After first seeking advice from fellow video reporter Joe Loder (played by Bill Paxton), Bloom burns bridges. He tampers with Loder’s vehicle, resulting in a bloody accident where Loder is seriously injured. Naturally, Bloom makes his scalp part of the news — capturing video of Loder covered in blood being hauled into an ambulance.
Bloom is a self-important narcissist for whom the truth matters little. What matters is capturing a story of human lives in peril, of helping to create that peril and then pretending to be a neutral reporter reporting on the peril.
Bloom uses lies about his company to lure people toward his vision, such as his employee Rick (played by Riz Ahmed). Rick pays a heavy price for placing any faith in Bloom’s business model.
Bloom loudly rejects the old ways of the news industry.
But like some corners of the new media, Bloom can’t find a moral equilibrium to replace the old ways. Is rage and selling sludge any more appealing than three networks a night reporting news?
Bloom’s version of the news comes from a dark place. It is a dark place where people are destroyed, where Bloom puts himself in the center of the news story, and proclaims moral legitimacy like some arbiter of justice, deciding whose reputation shall live, and whose reputation shall die. With his hand out for cash, Bloom’s version of the news is all about delighting in lives destroyed where exaggeration becomes the headline and the body.
His is not a version of the future, thankfully, that very many in the new conservative media share.