- The Racket
- YOU HAVE MEDDLED WITH THE PRIMAL FORCES OF NATURE
YOU HAVE MEDDLED WITH THE PRIMAL FORCES OF NATURE
Hello gang. Claire and I have been on a re-watching-old-movies kick lately. Last night it was Network, Paddy Chayefsky’s dark satire of the news business. I don’t know the last time I saw it but I’m pretty sure it was on a VHS cassette.
Time has only made the movie more disturbing and prescient. I don’t want to give away the plot, because if you haven’t seen it you should (it’s on Netflix). But in short it’s about a television network that boosts ratings by taking advantage of frustration and psychosis—individual and collective—to turn news into entertainment.
What’s stunning and revealing is that this movie came out in 1976. Ted Turner was still four years away from debuting CNN out of a former country club in Atlanta. A few years earlier, Richard Nixon’s chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman (later known as Lompoc (Calif.) Federal Penitentiary Inmate 01489463(B)), had passed a memo titled “A Plan For Putting the GOP on TV News” to a lecherous young media consultant named Roger Ailes. It would take Ailes another quarter century to turn that vision into the living embodiment of Chayefsky’s nightmare, Fox News.
There were lots of bits of the movie that my Clinton-era teenage brain either filtered out or didn’t understand. I’m positive the May-December affair subplot between Faye Dunaway and William Holden, and its implicit argument about the corrosive generational effects of television (and, as Claire pointed out, Chayefsky and director Sidney Lumet’s gross misgivings about the effects of women with careers) was totally lost on me that viewing.
But I think what most struck me from the vantage point of 2019 was the degree to which news-as-predatory-entertainment has proved far more destructive than the filmmakers could have guessed in 1976, or I could have supposed twenty years later. This post’s headline is a quote from Ned Beatty’s boardroom monologue, aimed at the haplessly suffering central pawn played by Peter Finch (pictured above). He’s talking about capital and corporations. But in the end, it turns out in the film—and life—that mass media is the true primal force of nature that will not be denied.
This is something to chew on as David H. Koch makes his long-anticipated journey to hell. The Kochs and their allies spread one stupid, profitable lie—denying the simple science that human activity is warming the planet—so effectively that climate denial is now a central part of millions of peoples’ identities. Actively destroying the habitable biome became a form of entertainment; a way to “own the libs” for sport. Even the oil companies know that this has gone too far. But they can’t put the genie back into the bottle.
Meanwhile the reality-star president put in power by Ailes’ “GOP on TV” can’t be controlled by the GOP, or TV. Online social networks are held hostage by the worst of their users. Everything becomes content and content becomes the world. If we keep going down that road, Chayefsky warned, someday it might get killed for lousy ratings.
Something to Read
Speaking of the Kochs, my friend Christopher Leonard has a new book out, Kochland, which looks phenomenal. It just dropped, and I haven’t had the chance yet, but I was watching as he exhaustively wrote and researched the thing and know it’ll be phenomenal. Jane Mayer called it an “deeply and authoritatively reported” work that solves “two enduring mysteries: how the Kochs got so rich, and how they used that fortune to buy off American action on climate change.”
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Jonathan M. Katz is a freelance journalist, author, and national fellow at New America. His next book, Gangsters of Capitalism, will trace the origins and contradictions of America’s empire. Follow him on Twitter @KatzOnEarth.