Paddy Chayefsky's 1976 Film Network: Big Media’s How-To Guide for the Obama Era

network_poster_8-15-13-1 Network's theatrical release poster.

The recent corporate transfer of Alec Baldwin from permanent NBC Saturday Night Live guest host and star of the recently cancelled low-rated NBC series 30 Rock to his upcoming gig as a raving anchor at MSNBC sounds like something out of Paddy Chayefsky's 1976 film Network. Not the least of which because Baldwin’s in-house transfer was preceded by an outrageous homophobic slur, which old media -- and not just NBC -- worked very hard to bury. But then, there's very little about television news that Network didn't anticipate.

Because of the length of time needed for a movie to be both green-lighted, and then produced, few cinematic satires arrive at the apogee of their subject’s power. When Kubrick released Dr. Strangelove in 1964, the Air Force had begun to move away from nuclear-equipped B-52 bombers to a missile-based attack system. By the time Robert Altman had shot M*A*S*H in 1970, President Nixon was beginning to wind down American involvement in the Vietnam War. In the 1980s, films such as Red Dawn and 2010: The Year We Make Contact depicted America involved in future military conflicts with the Soviet Union, even as the latter was imploding. (Thank you, President Reagan.)

But when Network hit movie theaters in 1976, the original big three television networks were at the apex of their uncontested power; newspapers were losing readership, the World Wide Web was nearly 20 years off, and even CNN wouldn’t begin broadcasting until 1980. More importantly, talk radio, Fox News and the Blogosphere wouldn’t come into to play for another 15 to 25 years respectively. There was nothing to stop television’s untrammeled power, and seemingly no way for the individual to fight back.

“It’s Not Satire -- It’s Sheer Reportage”

In his 2005 interview with Robert Osborne on Turner Classic Movies, Sidney Lumet, Network’s director, told Osborne that when he and Chayefsky were making their initial rounds on the interview circuit to promote the movie, “Paddy and I, whenever we’d be asked something about ‘this brilliant satire,’ we’d keep saying, ‘It’s not a satire -- it’s sheer reportage!’ The only thing that hasn’t happened yet is nobody’s been shot on the air!”

But actually, it was just such an incident that inspired Chayefsky's script, according to the page on Network at Wikipedia-- which might even be right on this one:

Part of the inspiration for Chayefsky's script came from the on-air suicide of television news reporter Christine Chubbuck in Sarasota, Florida two years earlier. The anchorwoman was suffering from depression and battles with her editors, and unable to keep going, she shot herself on camera as stunned viewers watched on July 15, 1974. Chayefsky used the incident to set up his film's focal point. As he would say later in an interview, "Television will do anything for a rating... anything!"

While a horrific 1974 incident may have inspired the film’s most outrageous moments, perhaps the most dated scene in Network occurs when Ned Beatty’s charismatic CEO character, gives his “this is how the world works” rant after Peter Finch’s Howard Beale character had urged his audience to block the merger of UBS’s parent company with a Saudi Arabian corporation.

It’s a great speech (but then, everybody in Network has great speeches), but it has not stood the test of time for several reasons. Three years after Network left theaters, Alvin Toffler wrote the following in The Third Wave, his 1980 sequel to Future Shock:

No one today, from the experts in the White House or the Kremlin to the proverbial man in the street, can be sure how the new world system will shake out -- what new kinds of institutions will arise to provide regional or global order. But it is possible to dispel several popular myths.

The first of these is the myth propagated by such films as Rollerball and Network, in which a steely-eyed villain announces that the world is, or will be, divided up and run by a group of transnational corporations. In its most common form this myth pictures a single worldwide Energy Corporation, a single Food Corporation, a single Housing Corporation, a single Recreation Corporation, and so forth. In a variant, each of these is seen as a department of an even larger mega-corporation.

This simplistic image is based on straight-line extrapolations from Second Wave trends: specialization, maximization, and centralization.

Not only does this view fail to take into account the fantastic diversity of real life conditions, the clash of cultures, religions, and traditions in the world, the speed of change, and the historic thrust now carrying the high-technology nations toward de-massification; not only does it naively presuppose that such needs as energy, housing, or food can be neatly compartmentalized; it ignores the fundamental changes now revolutionizing the structure and purpose of the corporation itself. It is based, in short, on an obsolete, Second Wave image of what a corporation is and how it is structured.

Toffler was right, and small business and entrepreneurship would eventually lead the America out of the rut that it was trapped in by the Jimmy Carter “Malaise” era. On April 1st 1976, the US government assumed control over the giant Penn Central and a half dozen other equally bankrupt northeast railroads to form Conrail; but also on that date, two unknown northern California guys named Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak founded Apple in Jobs’ parents’ garage, and unleashed the personal computing revolution.

But governments hate small business; from their perspective, dealing with small business is even worse than herding cats. And as with all things “Progressive,” this isn’t a new development.

For his appearance in Network, Ned Beatty’s costume, makeup and hair styling causes him to resemble Teddy Roosevelt more than a little, which if not a coincidence, has a nice bit of synchronicity. In his 2008 book Liberal Fascism, Jonah Goldberg wrote that in the early 20th century, by the time T.R. ran again for the White House in 1912 (competing against another “Progressive,” racialist Woodrow Wilson), after Teddy’s initial run serving as America’s first "Progressive" president, he had a change of heart, and realized that trust-busting -- breaking up big corporations into smaller ones -- may not have been the best governing strategy for his worldview:

Roosevelt campaigned on the “New Nationalism,” which took a different view of corporations. Teddy, the famous trustbuster, had resigned himself to “bigness” and now believed the state should use the trusts for its own purposes rather than engage in an endless and fruitless battle to break them up. “The effort at prohibiting all combination has substantially failed,” he explained. “The way out lies, not in attempting to prevent such combinations, but in completely controlling them in the interest of the public welfare.” Teddy’s New Nationalism was equal parts nationalism and socialism. “The New Nationalism,” Roosevelt proclaimed, “rightly maintains that every man holds his property subject to the general right of the community to regulate its use to whatever degree the public welfare may require it.” This sort of rhetoric conjured fears among classical liberals (again, increasingly called conservatives) that Teddy would ride roughshod over American liberties. “Where will it all end?” asked the liberal editor of the New York World about the rush to centralize government power. “Despotism? Caesarism?”

Huey Long famously said -- or allegedly famously said -- that if fascism ever came to America it would be called “Americanism.” It’s interesting, then, that this is the name Teddy Roosevelt gave to his new ideology.

After battling against the evils of big corporations in films like Rollerball and Network, the American left, much like Teddy Roosevelt in 1912, eventually realized that a far better strategy was to first cozy up to these large corporations, then subvert them from within.

NBC Ushers In the New Dark Ages

The left subverting the corporate world from within eventually led to some wacky moments -- such as November of 2007, when NBC, then-owned by General Electric, which makes a considerable amount of money selling light bulbs and other devices powered by, you know, electricity, ordered viewers to quit using lightbulbs. This was suggested to home audiences watching a Sunday Night Football game taking place in a stadium flooded with approximately 17,342,622 volts of electric klieg lights, by Bob Costas in a very Howard Beale-esque moment, talking in a studio in which all of the light was supplied by (ironically high-carbon) candlelight -- except for the giant illuminated Toyota signs surrounding Costas, since they were sponsoring the show:

The following year, Barack Obama could not have won his presidential election bid without a deep interconnection between his campaign and the media. While a running leitmotif of Network is the corporate interference of the nightly TV news, this proved to be a blue herring. The real fear proved to be the merger between political parties and the TV news. While the left loves to point out the seeming coziness between Roger Ailes' Fox News and the GOP, they have no problem with ABC hiring former Clinton Aide George Stephanopoulos to host their shows, NBC hiring Obama aides David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs, and the revolving door in general between the MSM and the DNC, not to mention their growing private/public sector nepotism.

Turning Left at The Mao Tse-Tung Hour

As Chayefsky illustrated in Network, long before ex-Weatherman Bill Ayers launched Barack Obama’s political career in the mid-1990s, the media have had dalliances with far left socialist radical chic. In 1970, Barbara Walters, then with NBC, attended Leonard Bernstein’s infamous Park Avenue fundraising party for the Black Panthers. In Network, Faye Dunaway’s character Diana Christensen has no problem cozying up to a terrorist named Laureen Hobbs, played by actress Marlene Warfield, whose character’s appearance was obviously modeled after Angela Davis, and who serves as Dunaway’s entrance into a Symbionese Liberation Army-style terrorist cell:

CHRISTENSEN: Hi. I'm Diana Christensen, a racist lackey of the imperialist ruling circles.

HOBBS: I'm Laureen Hobbs, a badass commie n****r.

CHRISTENSEN: Sounds like the basis of a firm friendship.

Similarly, on what turned out to be the terrifyingly ironic date of September 11th 2001, the New York Times published an encomium and rehabilitation piece for Bill Ayers, the leader of the ‘60s Weathermen. Chayefsky’s Network’s fictional “Ecumenical Liberation Army” comes complete with their own kidnapped Patty Hearst-style media heiress, played by actress Kathy Cronkite, Walter’s daughter. In real life, NBC’s Brian Williams, after first being sold to the public by his then boss, Jeff Zucker (now head of CNN) with the words, “No one understands this NASCAR nation more than Brian,” went on to compare America’s Founding Fathers to terrorists during his news broadcast.

Dunaway’s network executive character proposed putting the “Ecumenical Liberation Army” on the air as part of a weekly docudrama she dubs The Mao Tse-Tung Hour. In 2011, Rachel Maddow of MSNBC would describe herself on the air as “someone who’s roughly to the left of Mao.” Her colleague Lawrence O’Donnell described his politics on the air the previous year by stating, “I am not a progressive. I am not a liberal who is so afraid of the word that I had to change my name to progressive. Liberals amuse me. I am a socialist. I live to the extreme left, the extreme left of you mere liberals, okay?”

Well OK, then -- thanks for clearing that up, Lawrence.

Walter Cronkite Goes Howard Beale

MSNBC’s anchors aren’t alone in being upfront with their wacky leftwing beliefs; Walter Cronkite’s last years were very much Howard Beale-esque, themselves. In the waning days of the 2004 presidential election, after his successor had been caught cooking the books on national TV, Cronkite himself appeared on CNN’s Larry King Live saying with a straight face that Karl Rove had Osama bin Laden on ice and was sending him out to make a campaign appearance. Though to be fair, whereas Howard Beale was railing against corporatism and totalitarianism, Cronkite himself was pretty cool with the latter concept; by the late 1990s, the former television newsreader was promoting the notion of one world government. What could go wrong?

I don’t know anything about Paddy Chayefsky’s politics, but I’m assuming they were somewhere on the left-liberal side of the aisle given his long career in television, theater, and Hollywood. But then, George Orwell wrote 1984 shortly after World War II, as a warning to what his own socialist ideology could eventually metastasize into. Today, the left sees it as a how-to guide. Similarly, I’m assuming everybody who worked on Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, another warning to the dangers of an out of control socialist bureaucracy, all supported Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.

In the mid-2000s, the Hollywood left released a spate of unsuccessful antiwar films, only to back President Obama’s reelection bid in 2012 after he led a sort of cargo cult version of President Bush’s War on Terror (resulting in, among other things, chaos in Iraq, and more deaths of American soldiers in Afghanistan under Obama than Bush). At some point it seems safe to assume that whatever big cause the left is railing against, whether it’s dehumanization, totalitarianism, world government, or corporatism, they’ll be for it eventually. Just give them time.

Earlier: Death Wish: Mr. Bronson’s Planet.