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Howard Beale’s Crystal Ball: The Extreme Limitations and Dangers of Broadcast News

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Wow! I‘ve seen a lot of theater in my life but rarely a performance as powerful as that of Bryan Cranston as Howard Beale in the now-running Broadway production of Network. The show is a remake of the 1976 film starring Peter Finch (as Howard Beale), William Holden (Max Schumacher) and Faye Dunaway (Diana Christensen) in which Beale “goes crazy” after he is fired for poor ratings and becomes a zealot for exposing the dirty underbelly of the broadcast industry.

The show’s messages of the destructive power of television over society and the self-serving nature of the media business are as relevant today as they were nearly 40 years ago when the film was released. Perhaps even more so in today’s digital age of sound bites and “virtual life.” Truly frightening.

Midway through the show, Beale rants about the power of the “tube”…

“Less than 3% of you people read books…less than 15% of you read newspapers…The only truth you know is what you get over this tube…There is…an entire generation that never knew anything that didn’t come out of this tube…This tube can make or break presidents, popes, prime ministers.”

And this was before cell phones…before the Internet…and before social media. Amazing, right?

We talk now about the dangerous influences of the Internet and social media and the loss of attention span in the digital age. People get their news by scrolling through BuzzFeed and from push notifications that typically are between five and 15 words long. We are in a land of headlines and sound bites. Little or no knowledge of the truth behind or beyond those 15 words. With everything being spoon-fed to us, people have lost the patience and desire to understand the what and the why of things—they just want the “bottom line.” Short and sweet.

Since the days of JFK, we have watched television make and break presidents. From Nixon’s sweat-filled performance during the 1960 presidential debates…to Reagan’s smooth mastery of communication…Obama’s rousing oratory of “hope and change”…and the vilification of President Trump. There is no question that the directors and producers choose what they want to show us in terms of both content and camera angles. For any given 30- or 60-minute news cast, there is a multitude of possible stories to cover. The news director decides what’s in and what’s out…how long each segment is…and what the angle on the piece is. CNN presents a very different version of the immigrants at the southern border than Fox News does. Neither version is entirely right or wrong, but they are different and the viewer is being manipulated by the producers.

Worse yet, while the media is filtering messages for us, we are complicit in not only accepting the messages without question but also in selecting our own filters. In general, people have their points of view, and they want to hear from others who think similarly, aka, “support” them. So we select who we follow on Twitter, the podcasts we download, the websites we visit, the news broadcasts we watch,and the sources of our news feeds. Filtration. One-sided. As Beale says, “You’ll do whatever the tube tells you.”

Then what? Howard Beale tells people to “turn off your television sets!” in order to protect themselves from the mind-numbing impact of the manipulation and the heartlessness that goes along with it. The impact of viewing the world through the filters of a screen are placed in high focus in a secondary story line in Network, as we see how one-dimensional and soulless the young shark programming director, Diana Christensen, is. Late in the show, the former president of the news division, Max Schumacher, makes an emotional plea to Diana, his mistress, yet she can focus only on the network’s ratings tumble.

“Well, what exactly is it you want me to do?” she asks. He responds, “I just want you to love me, primal doubts and all. You understand that, don’t you?” And her response is, “I don’t know how to do that.” Diana is a shell of a human who, as Max puts it, experiences murders and rapes and financial crises with the same emotion as a bottle of beer—they are all mere images on a tube.

Cut to modern day, when we, too, experience life in an increasingly graphic and indulgent way, not just through the news organizations’ filters but on Twitter, YouTube and anywhere else that people can share both the sweetest photos of babies and puppies and the most graphic and grotesque videos of human suffering. We are transfixed by the horrors and not able to separate the ones created for movies and TV from the ones where people actually suffer and die. Studies have shown that viewing the world through screens reduces empathy and human connection. Aren’t we seeing that in the increasing number of violent and public acts of aggression? Get noticed. Get famous. Make a public statement. When you are raised playing violent video games and seeing programs that celebrate debauchery of all kinds, is it a surprise that the ability to actually connect to the pain and suffering on a deep emotional level would be impacted?

How prescient the scriptwriters for Network were when they placed the warnings of television’s dangers into Howard Beale’s mouth. Powerful then, life or death now. We are in a death spiral of biased messaging in virtually every information channel. Watch MSNBC and get an entirely different world view from that of Fox. There are items reported on each station that never see the light of day on the other. Facebook, Google and Twitter have all been called to task for their biased filtering—dare I say suppression—of information. The public is at their whim, which means that our society is increasingly run by giant propaganda machines and we are all the unwitting participants in the social exercise.

The way out? Get off the sound-bite train…or at least understand that you’re on it and open your mind to input from all places and angles. The pattern of my way or the highway is dangerous. Our country was founded on diversity of thought and beliefs. That diversity made us stronger and provided checks and balances to ensure that no single faction gained too much power. A single message…a single voice…a single point of view…with opposing views being shouted down— is frightening, to say the least, and destructive, to say the most.

Beale tells the audience that if they want the truth, they should look inside themselves. Use their own compass. Trust their eyes and their ears and their hearts. Understand that things happen in real life, not through filters or on screens.

Our future depends upon it. Thank you, Bryan…thank you, Howard. Your message has been heard.

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