Prophets of the Airwaves, Mad and Otherwise

Peter Finch as Howard BealeIn the 1976 movie Network, evening news anchor Howard Beale,  portrayed by Peter Finch, has a psychotic breakdown and declares that  he will blow his brains out on the air next Tuesday.  Beale had earlier been informed that because of poor ratings, he would be leaving the program in two weeks time.  After his televised breakdown, Beale is immediately fired, but his best friend, the President of the network news division (William Holden) intervenes and allows Beale to anchor the news one last time.  Beale, one of the most respected figures in the history of broadcast-journalism, will be allowed to end his career with honor and dignity, not madness.  They’re both old-school  broadcaster-journalists with their gray hair, their lined and weathered faces, and their trench coats.  They like hard drinking and talking about the good old days with Murrow, before news became a product  to be packaged and sold like soap flakes.  Unfortunately, and in spite of the deep affection the two men have for one another, Beale has truly gone off the deep end and the next night during the live broadcast,  launches into a tirade about how everything in life has turned into bullshit.

The ratings are spectacular and the network changes its mind about Beale’s retirement.  The evening news is handed over to a young ambitious programming executive from the entertainment division (Faye Dunaway), and Beale becomes “The Mad Prophet of the Airwaves.”  His rallying cry to his audience is, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.”  Millions of people across the nation open their windows and scream it out into the night.  Glenn Beck can only wish he had that kind of clout.

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Beale’s success leads to a primetime  show that becomes the foundation for a network lineup that plays on all the fears and paranoia of the time and the network rakes in the cash.  The offerings seemed a little over the top at the time, with one program following the activities of the “Ecumenical Liberation Army,” a sly take-off on Patty Hearst kidnappers, the “Symbionese Liberation Army.” In a preview of the current reality show fad, every week the episode featured actual footage of crimes being committed by the terrorists, shot by the terrorists themselves.  Viewed today, however, the offerings of the fiction UBS network, seem like a naive preview of what our culture is today.

Glenn Beck’s daily paranoid and hateful rants, which indicate that sanity is not his friend seem like Beale’s ravings taken to an absurd extreme.  In the parlance of pop culture, Beck jumped the shark long ago, probably before his first telecast.

Diana Christenson (Faye Dunaway) and Max Schumacher (William Holden)Beale, in spite of his mental breakdown, never completely broke with reality and seemed to genuinely care about the wellbeing of his audience.  The conspiracies that he warned of were real, and most of all, he urged his audience to think for themselves.  It is his truth telling about his network’s planned corporate merger and its plan to control what people see and think and believe that leads to his ultimate downfall.

Beck does no such thing.  It is he who must do all the thinking for his audience because only he can see all the evil around us, but in reality he is simply an agent of the corporate interests that control him.  If he were a true “Mad Prophet of  the Airwaves,’” attempting to reveal the truths that only a mad prophet can, he would expose the ugly truths of his own corporation and fellow travelers, such as Sean Hannity’s traitorous and obscene exploitation of service families to promote himself and line the pockets of his cronies.   Instead he takes to the blackboard and raves on and on about secret plots that make sense only to himself.  Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski’s manifesto makes more sense than Beck’s condescending lectures.  What he preaches may be nonsense and he may just be another clown, but taking a page from Beck’s own playbook in referencing Hitler, I’ll point out that no one thought Mein Kampf made much sense either, even before it became a blueprint for worldwide catastrophe.  He may be a clown, but the ignorance and hatred he is so proudly preaching is taking root.

 


Network (Two-Disc Special Edition) (DVD)


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