This year has taken so many bizarre and unpredictable turns that no one could feasibly claim that they saw them all coming … except for perhaps Paddy Chayefsky, the screenwriter of the seminal 1976 film Network, which seems to only ring truer with every passing year.
The film, which won Chayefsky an Oscar, focused on the rise of corporate news media, sensationalized TV, and tabloid journalism. Those trends were just beginning to take hold when Chayefsky wrote Network, and though he could not have foreseen the rise of cable TV and the internet, his satirical projection for the future of television now seems prescient given the role that corporate mass media played in enabling the rise of Donald Trump, now the president-elect.
In the film, actor Peter Finch plays Howard Beale, an old and tired TV news anchor who has a sudden on-air breakdown during his primetime news program on a fictional network called UBS. His wife has left him, he’s taken up drinking, his ratings have slowly declined, and the powers that be are dumping him from his long-held position. Instead of going quietly, Beale snaps, and delivers a series of diatribes in which he promises to commit suicide on the air within two weeks. “I don’t have anything going for me. I haven’t got any kids. And I was married for thirty-three years of shrill, shrieking fraud,” he says in one monologue. “So I don’t have any bullshit left. I just ran out of it, you see.”
Beale’s antics make him an unexpected hit with viewers. Though he’s unhinged, he comes off as a straight-talking, truth-to-power rebel, finally broken free of the restraints that his buttoned-up bosses placed on him for so many years. He galvanizes disaffected viewers, who flock to his program. His once-sagging ratings shoot through the roof, and the newly christened “Mad Prophet of the Airwaves” even has a convenient catchphrase that is adopted by the masses: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”
Though a dejected alcoholic journalist seems like the opposite of Trump, Beale is actually quite similar, raging against the machine (while using it to fuel his growing popularity). Beale is an angry old man screaming about the destructive forces conspiring to dissolve his idea of America, whether that version of the country ever actually existed. “What is finished is the idea that this great country is dedicated to the freedom and flourishing of every individual in it,” he says. Like Trump, Beale is a master showman whose followers spark to his flame-throwing, and line up behind a man who seems to finally get them (even if in reality, he’s as disconnected as possible).
The responsible thing for the network to do would be take this clearly mentally ill, riot-stoking man off of the air. But even back in 1976, TV networks were desperate to boost their ratings, which is where things go haywire.
“He’s tired of all the bullshit! He’s articulating the popular rage!” Faye Dunaway’s Diana Christensen, the shameless and opportunistic head of UBS’s programming department, screams to the network’s greedy executive (Robert Duvall). She makes him a deeply cynical promise: “l can turn that show into the biggest smash on TV.”
And so, in that moment, UBS decides to forgo its responsibility as a public interest broadcaster, and instead decides to cash in on a snake oil salesman. That is precisely the way the media handled Donald Trump throughout his campaign; Trump himself said he did not need to raise as much money as other political candidates because of the sheer amount of free air time he received. By June, it was $3 billion, and only climbed from there.
Christensen took news-as-entertainment to an unprecedented level, and one that presaged the 24/7 cable news infotainment that would begin a few years later and go next-level on the internet. She intentionally populates Beale’s “news” program with sensational personalities like Sybil the Soothsayer, Jim Webbing and his “It’s-the-Emmes-Truth Department,” someone called Miss Mata Hari, and a segment called Vox Populi, all of which typify the normalization of alt-right hate-mongers packaged for mainstream consumption under Trump.
But this scandalous behavior also signals the network’s downfall. Later, one of Beale’s once-celebrated tirades sabotages a lucrative deal between the corporation that owns UBS and a Saudi Arabian conglomerate, causing the corporation’s chairman, Arthur Jensen (played by Ned Beatty in an unforgettable cameo appearance), to accost the on-air prophet with another incredible Chayefsky monologue, because Beale has simply gone too far.
“There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM and ITT and AT&T and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today,” he declares (and this was way before Citizens United was ever even a right-wing pipe dream). “The world is a business, Mr. Beale! It has been since man crawled out of the slime, and our children will live, Mr. Beale, to see that perfect world in which there is no war or famine, oppression or brutality: one vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock, all necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused.”
Beale changes his tune, preaches the word of the almighty dollar, his ratings plummet, and he’s eventually assassinated on the air by the very network that propped him up.
Beale’s tragic story ends because he becomes part of what he was once railing against, which could very well happen to Trump. The president-elect delivered fiery sermons about draining the so-called swamp, but has since been putting in place a cabinet of Washington insiders that will only advocate an extreme agenda that will make the problems Trump railed against far worse. But Trump the businessman-turned-entertainer-turned-President thrives on the adoration of his image. Whereas Beale succumbed to the responsibility of his position because of lousy ratings, the hope is that Trump’s ego will be force him to be responsible to avoid the embarrassment of lousy ratings too.