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The 1976 film Network is meant to be satire, not a playbook for news hosts

It’s Howard Beale’s world. We’ve just been living in it. 

Peter Finch in Network
Mad as hell, and not going to take it anymore.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Every weekend, we pick a movie you can stream that dovetails with current events. Old, new, blockbuster, arthouse: They’re all fair game. What you can count on is a weekend watch that sheds new light on the week that was. The movie of the week for April 22 through 28 is Network, which is available to digitally rent on Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, YouTube, and Vudu.

In a remarkable confluence of events, this week has gone haywire for not just one, but two bombastic men who use versions of the news to create something more like entertainment.

Alex Jones, the conspiracy connoisseur and erstwhile Pizzagate enthusiast who’s the face of popular far-right website Infowars, landed in family court over a child custody battle with his ex-wife. Jones is known for his wild theories, among which, Vox’s Zach Beauchamp reported, include everything from a shadowy cabal controlling the US government to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton being literal demons (which you can tell because they smell like sulfur). Jones also has a fan in the president, whom he interviewed at length on his show in 2015.

Now that Jones is appearing in court, though, the tune is changing. Jones’s ex-wife, Kelly Jones, is seeking sole or joint custody of their three children, claiming that Jones’s rants and threats against public figures are part of a larger dangerous personality. But Jones’s lawyer, Randall Wilhite, told Texas District Judge Orlinda Naranjo that Jones is a “performance artist” who is “playing a character” on his show, which is a work of political satire — and thus that part of his persona shouldn’t be taken seriously.

(It hasn’t gone well: On the first day of the hearing, Jones recorded a video in the car on his way to court in which he rants and rips off his shirt; his defense for not remembering basic facts about his children in a deposition was that he “had a big bowl of chili for lunch”; and a series of Infowars videos containing rants were entered into evidence by Kelly Jones’s attorney.)

This week also saw Fox News drop Bill O’Reilly, host of ratings juggernaut The O’Reilly Factor, after weeks of criticism and lost ad revenue. Two weeks earlier, the New York Times reported that Fox paid out $13 million over years to settle sexual harassment claims against O’Reilly. And though many expected the powerful, popular personality to ride the whole thing out, a few combined factors finally toppled him.

William Holden and Peter Finch in Network
William Holden and Peter Finch in Network.

Unlike Jones, O’Reilly never claimed to be playing a character — and, in a sense, everyone is playing a character on TV — but that’s really the only way to make sense of it. Onscreen, O’Reilly pretended to defend “traditional” values and has, the week of his firing, two books on the New York Times bestseller list, including one titled Old School (about “traditional values versus “snowflakes”) that sits at No. 1. At the same time, he’d been sexually harassing women in his workplace for years — which you can twist to say is traditional, perhaps, but certainly not in line with “family values.”

And of course, O’Reilly’s signature style was so distinctive that Stephen Colbert was able to parody it by playing a character named Stephen Colbert on his Comedy Central show for years.

Characters are played by actors, and actors make entertainment. But as Jones’s attorney would have it, they aren’t to be taken seriously. (O’Reilly, for his part, maintains that the allegations against him are “unfounded claims.”)

I wonder, at times like these, if these and other TV news personalities who hawk entertainment more than actual news watched the 1976 classic Network and didn’t realize it was satirical. Scripted by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet, Network is the story of a longtime news anchor named Howard Beale (Peter Finch) whose ratings are dipping. He’s about to be let go, so angrily throwing caution to the wind, he announces that he’ll kill himself live and on air the following Tuesday.

The network fires him outright after this, but he’s allowed to come back to bid his loyal viewers farewell — instead he launches into a rant about how life is “bullshit.”

Faye Dunaway in Network
Faye Dunaway in Network.

It works. People love it. Beale keeps ranting, most famously inciting his viewers all over the country to stick their heads out of their living room windows and holler “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!”

Beale’s popularity sparks a huge shift at the network, where programming department head Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) convinces her boss to move the evening news show into the entertainment department, where she can develop it. Beale also gets his own show — The Howard Beale Show — on which he rants every week to a huge audience, which repeats his “mad as hell” line on cue. Beale effectively sheds his former sober news anchor persona for something larger than life: a character. Where the line between the character ends and the man begins gets blurry.

Beale eventually becomes a victim of the corporate media ratings monster, and — well, let’s just say it doesn’t end well for him. And admittedly, Beale is meant to be the most sympathetic character in the film, fed up and tired with all these corporate shenanigans. The movie is a masterful satire of what happens when journalism is sacrificed for ratings, as well as the instant appeal of angry rants to a wide audience, no matter the ideology behind them. (Sound familiar?)

Hosts like Jones and O’Reilly and others have been highly effective at capturing the same ratings magic pilloried in Network. And in O’Reilly’s case, at least, his own offscreen behavior — and the profit-driven corporate model — finally took him down. Where Jones will end up is an open question. But if Network was trying to be cautionary satire that steered us away from the dangers of conflating informing the public with entertaining it, it failed. Today, it just looks like prophecy.

Watch the trailer for Network:

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