Your Weekly Juxtaposition: Fallows and Beale

Last week I started reading James Fallows article “The Age of Murdoch” in the September 2003 Atlantic Monthly. I put the article down for a time to see what was on television and found “Network” on Turner Classic Movies. This was one of the craziest juxtapositions I’ve experienced recently. So for your edification here are some quotes to compare.

James Fallows:

In the world beyond the FCC’s purview the idea that the news business differed from other businesses had started to erode as early as the 1970s. The process involved “infotainment,” corporate mergers, pressure for greater profits, and other well-known phenomena. The change within the FCC has been more distinct, though less publicized, and it is the background to this summer’s drama….

Sooner or later Murdoch’s outlets, especially Fox News, will be more straightforward about their political identity—and they are likely to bring the rest of the press with them. There will be liberal papers, radio shows, TV programs, and Web sites for liberals, and conservative ones for conservatives. This result will hardly be new. Frankly partisan media have never ceased to be the rule in modern Europe. Our journalistic culture may soon enough resemble that of early nineteenth-century America, in which party-owned newspapers presented selective versions of the truth. News addressed to a particular niche—not simply in its content but also in its politics—may be the natural match to an era with hundreds of satellite and cable channels and limitless numbers of Internet sites.

An age of more purely commercial, more openly partisan media leaves out some of the functions that news was until recently expected to perform: giving a broad public some common source of information for making political decisions, and telling people about trends and events they didn’t already know they were interested in. One way or another, self-governing societies must figure out the suitable commercial channels through which the information necessary for democratic decisions can be spread.

That’s not exactly Rupert Murdoch’s problem, though he helped make it the world’s. If the pure-market approach doesn’t do the job of informing the country, then eventually another sort of market process might kick in. Citizens who think they’ve landed in a vast information wasteland could ask their representatives to set new rules for the media: rules that recognize an obligation of the media beyond maximum profit, rules clear enough to survive interpretation by regulators or appeals courts with clear ideological agendas. In the long run the press does give the public what it wants. We’re about to see just what that is.

Howard Beale (crazy anchorperson, and central character of Network):

You people and sixty-two million other Americans are listening to me right now. Because less than three percent of you people read books. Because less than fifteen percent of you read newspapers. Because the only truth you know is what you get over this tube. Right now, there is a whole, an entire generation that never knew anything that didn’t come out of this tube. This tube is the gospel, the ultimate revelation. This tube can make or break Presidents, Popes, Prime Ministers. This tube is the most awesome, god-damned force in the whole godless world. And woe is us if it ever falls into the hands of the wrong people and that’s why woe is us that Edward George Ruddy died. Because this company is now in the hands of CCA, the Communication Corporation of America. There’s a new chairman of the board, a man called Frank Hackett sitting in Mr. Ruddy’s office on the 20th floor. And when the twelfth largest company in the world controls the most awesome, god-damned propaganda force in the whole godless world, who knows what s-t will be peddled for truth on this network.

So, you listen to me! Listen to me! Television is not the truth. Television is a god-damned amusement park. Television is a circus, a carnival, a traveling troupe of acrobats, story tellers, dancers, singers, jugglers, sideshow freaks, lion tamers and football players. We’re in the boredom-killing business. So if you want the truth, go to your God, go to your gurus, go to yourselves because that’s the only place you’re ever gonna find any real truth. But man, you’re never gonna get any truth from us. We’ll tell you anything you want to hear. We like like hell! We’ll tell you that Kojack always gets the killer, and nobody ever gets cancer in Archie Bunker’s house. And no matter how much trouble the hero is in, don’t worry. Just look at your watch - at the end of the hour, he’s gonna win. We’ll tell you any s-t you want to hear. We deal in illusions, man. None of it is true! But you people sit there day after day, night after night, all ages, colors, creeds - we’re all you know. You’re beginning to believe the illusions we’re spinning here. You’re beginning to think that the tube is reality and that your own lives are unreal. You do whatever the tube tells you. You dress like the tube, you eat like the tube, you raise your children like the tube. You even think like the tube.

This is mass madness. You maniacs. In God’s name, you people are the real thing. We are the illusion. So turn off your television sets. Turn them off now. Turn them off right now. Turn them off and leave them off. Turn them off right in the middle of this sentence I am speaking to you now. Turn them off!

When Peter Finch started into this diatribe I nearly fell over. I’ve seen the movie before and been amazed by Paddy Chayefsky’s brilliant script, Sidney Lumet’s directing and the acting of Dunaway, Finch, Holden and Duvall. The whole thing is an incredible work of cinema. Twenty seven years later and James Fallows is telling us that the transition that Beale was beginning to describe has come to its natural conclusion. Business has won. The news has lost. And never the twain shall meet again.