In penning the 1976 iconic film, Network, screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky anticipated Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes, the two founders of the Fox News network, personified in the film as Arthur Jensen—the “man behind the curtain” turning the news department over to programming (i.e., marketing). Chayefsky’s observations in broadcast newsrooms were sufficient to reveal the trajectory, then only in its infancy, that would eventually fuse tabloid “news” and political ideology together at 24/7 news networks. Astonishingly, Chayefsky anticipated even Glenn Beck and Pat O’Reilly of Fox News. In the mid-1970s in which the film takes place, the two media stars are prefigured or personified as Howard Beale, a news anchor who goes crazy. Thirty years later, Beck and O’Reilly (as well as Keith Oberman on MSNBC) would enjoy years proselytizing on air before the American public finally realized that the three men behind the curtain “had issues.” Glenn Beck self-destructed, having hanged himself by the verbal freedom he had given himself to spout his dire apocalyptic predictions, and Keith Oberman had “authority issues” with bosses. Meanwhile, the public allowed O’Reilly to go on as if he were the kooky uncle who raves after a few drinks yet is all too clever and calculating (i.e., self-serving) underneath.
Generally speaking, Chayefsky saw the future of broadcast “journalism” as something rather more baleful than a Glenn Beck self-remade as a bespectacled pseudo-intellectual in tweed. The screenwriter had an innate sense of just how news personalities would arouse the silent majority into living vicariously through the 24/7 news-cycle slanted gravitationally by the sheer mass of corporate and political capital.
Similar to how Neal is a threat to the machines who operate the matrix, Beale becomes a threat to the vested powerful interests in business and government as soon as his preachments turn against them. Beale the prophet tells his viewers that they have fallen into a stupefied daze as “programmed humanoids,” creatures who are unknowingly manipulated even as they think they have free-will and are individuals whose lives are not scripted or pre-programmed. Democracy is a fraud perpetuated by corporate interests that really pull the strings, both in terms of what the viewers see on television and what is put into the empty real lives. In other words, we are ensconced in a matrix built and maintained by the real entities—corporations—that manipulate and prostitute us even while telling us that we like it.
No one is to say publically what Wall Street and K Street are doing to America, not to mention the medium by which the citizenry are informed. Beale’s mad vision of restoring true democracy and the intellectual freedom of individualism reveals the “man behind the curtain” (Arthur Jensen, the chairman of the board) to be something less than a wizard. Rather than squeezing the attention-getting “oracle” as if Beale were a distended or bloated melon to be held in a tight vice until he either capitulates or bursts, Jensen coöpts the prophet himself—not by money though; rather, Jensen feeds Beale’s lunacy. Unfortunately for Beale, his new direction loses viewers; he thus becomes a threat to Jensen’s own network. Through all these twists and turns, the news is quietly absent—presumably truncated by the “media circus.”
The core message in Network is not merely that journalistic integrity and quality lose out all-too-easily to sensationalism (i.e., an expansive profit-motive), the business interest, and political advocacy. Rather, the true insight is paradoxical in nature, prefiguring the solipsism (i.e., your brain is really in a vat even as you think you are eating or running) that is illustrated so well in The Matrix trilogy. What we think is real life—the “drama” and edited “news” on television (even “reality television” shows)—is anything but, while absorption in this fake world saps viewers of any real emotive investment in their actual lives. In other words, what t.v. addicts take as the real world is anything but, while what they assume is dull and meaningless is actually real life. One problem with this metaphysical inversion is that commercial and governmental powers can have their way all too easily in the false world of “reality television” primped up as news. The first step out of the closed system of manipulation is to wake up (as in the Buddhist sense, I suppose) and fall from the matrix as if a sludge of entrails going down the tube. Such “waste” is of course premised on the vested interests (and related values) in the Matrix only. Hence, the individuals awakened are not really discarded waste products; rather, the unprogrammed human beings are of infinite value, according to Kant, in exercising reason to assign values to things rather than be assigned a (conditional) value by them (i.e., the machines).